Five Big Questions for Rio de Janeiro as the Summer Olympics Approach

A lot has been promised. Will the city come through?

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Five Big Questions for Rio de Janeiro as the Summer Olympics Approach

It’s been an almost unimaginably tumultuous year in Brazil thus far. With two months to go before the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics, residents, politicians and planners are grappling with a political crisis, a looming public health threat, and a number of troubling questions around stalled and failed legacy construction projects. Residents wonder what will be left once the Games have come and gone.

How much will these different crises affect the Games? Here are five major questions being asked by visitors and residents alike two months before the Rio Olympics.  

How Much of a Threat is the Zika Virus?

Alarm bells began ringing around the world at the end of 2015 when an unprecedented number of Brazilian babies were born with microcephaly, which scientists soon linked to the mosquito-borne Zika virus. Zika has been proven to spread sexually, raising fears that tourists will bring the virus back to their home countries and that the Olympics will accelerate the virus’s spread across the world.

But a few facts may calm visitors’ worries. The Olympics are held during the temperate Brazilian winter; the virus-carrying aedes aegypti mosquitoes generally breed during the hot, humid, rainy summer.  The epicenter of the Zika outbreak is hundreds of miles away from Rio, in northeastern Brazil, although government data show that the recent outbreak in Rio has been more severe than previously expected. Most tourists and athletes—who will be staying in enclosed, air conditioned spaces— will be far from the typical aedes aegypti breeding grounds.

That said, there are a lot of unanswered questions about Zika. For example, the CDC says they “think” that Zika won’t affect future pregnancies, but they’re not sure. In late May, a group of scientists and researchers wrote an open letter pleading for the Rio Olympics to be moved elsewhere or delayed. 

For more on the Zika crisis, you can read Paste’s exclusive interview with the Chief Medical Officer of the Rio2016 Olympic organizing committee here.


How Will Brazil’s Complicated Political Situation Affect the Olympics?

On May 12, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was forced to step down and face an impeachment trial that could last up to six months, leaving the unpopular Vice President, Michel Temer, to assume the presidency.

While Rousseff’s party was largely credited in Brazil’s economic boom in the mid and late 2000s, Dilma has received widespread criticism in recent years, as the economy slipped into a recession and news broke of a massive corruption scandal in the state-run oil company. No evidence thus far has linked Rousseff directly to the scandal – instead, her political enemies opened impeachment proceedings on charges of budget manipulation. Rousseff claims that she was ousted in a “coup,” and corruption is rampant among the ranks of those in congress who orchestrated her removal.


So, Brazil is not exactly under normal political circumstances. But Olympic planners are scrambling to reassure the public that the political situation won’t affect the Games. The Sport Minister, Ricardo Leyser, has said that despite the political turmoil, when it comes to the Olympics, “the machine is in place.” In April, IOC President Thomas Bach said that Olympic preparations are in “a very operational phase”.

Traditionally, the head of state is very involved in the Olympics, but there are several reasons why having Interim President Temer play host and represent as the country’s leader would sit poorly with Brazilians. He’s extremely unpopular — polls show only 2% of Brazilians would vote for him—while many high-profile Brazilian artists have publicly deemed his government illegitimate.

Will Public Transportation Promises Be Fulfilled?

The Olympics Games tend to market itself to citizens with the promise of “legacy projects” — improved infrastructure, social programs, venues converted for public use. While the Games have delivered on a number of promises, like the canoe circuit turned giant public swimming pool, many Rio 2016 legacy projects have fallen short, like a program to train teenagers in foreign language programs to act as mediators, and a program to urbanize the city’s favelas. 

Public transportation upgrades are also suffering setbacks. Rio is a massive, sprawling city. The famous shores of Ipanema and Copacabana in the South Zone, (where most tourists stay and where most hotels are located) are miles away from the main Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca, and even farther from other venues like Deodoro. Making matters worse, these routes lie on infamously congested roads. Rio has some of the world’s worst traffic, and the promise to transport visitors seamlessly between the South Zone, the airport, and the four Olympic areas was a crucial part of Rio’s Olympic bid—not to mention arguably the most important legacy project. 

A plan to extend the city’s limited metro system is down to the wire —the extension is set to open only four days before the Olympics start, and instead of opening to the public, it will be open only to athletes, organizers, and ticket holders. (The city says it will open to the public in September, after the Paralympics.) The budget for the metro extension, a complicated engineering job due to Rio’s proximity to the ocean and granite rock formations, has nearly doubled in budget to $2.8 billion. 

Meanwhile, a rapid bus line was supposed to shuttle passengers between Barra de Tijuca and Deodoro, one of the least-accessible venues. In May, the city announced that only three stations (out of a planned 18) will be functioning by the Games.

In April, a bike path that runs along the cliffs over the ocean on Rio’s beautiful coastline—built as part of the city’s Olympic “legacy projects”—collapsed and killed two people, raising concerns about the quality of construction in Olympics construction.

What About Low Ticket Sales?

Rio 2016 may run the embarrassment of empty seats in the stadiums — as of April, only about 50 percent of tickets have been sold to the Olympics, and ticket sales for the Paralympics sit at just 15 percent. There are plenty of possible reasons why Cariocas (residents of Rio) aren’t getting into the Olympic spirit. With rising inflation and unemployment, many aren’t left with extra spending money, plus in soccer-centric Brazil, there’s not a strong tradition of Olympics culture. Many residents are downright frustrated — whether it be with the use of public funds for the Olympics, the lack of improvements that they were promised when the city won the bid, or with the turbulent state of affairs nation-wide.

Click here to hear from Rio de Janeiro residents on the upcoming Summer Olympics.

futuro_1.jpg Photo by Lucas Iberico Lozada

Have they cleaned up the water?

Another key improvement promised in Rio’s Olympic bid was the clean-up of Guanabara Bay, a large bay that cuts up towards northern Rio. The bay’s protected waters make it the ideal venue for sports like windsurfing and sailing, but it’s extremely contaminated due to trash and raw sewage that drain there from the city. The Olympic bid promised to clean up 80 percent of the Bay, but announced in January of 2015 that this simply wasn’t going to happen. Since then, an Associated Press investigation showed that the water contained harmful viruses at a rate 1.7 million times higher than what would be considered dangerous on the beaches of California.

About 30 percent of Rio residents are not connected to a formal sanitation system, and even in areas that are connected, only half of the sewage is actually treated before entering canals, creeks and eventually the ocean. Critics say that the government favors flashy projects in Rio’s favela neighborhoods, instead of the less glamorous, but absolutely necessary upgrades like sewage systems and clean water. 


Obviously, this is a huge concern for athletes, who train for years for the Olympics and would consider it a nightmare to have to sit out the Games due to a debilitating illness. There has been talk about moving events elsewhere and a wide range of strategies offered to athletes to avoid illness, but there isn’t a real short-term solution to this city-wide issue that’s been largely ignored for decades.

Anna Jean Kaiser is a freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @annajkaiser