It’s time to start the countdown — the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil will begin on August 5, only five and a half months from now. This year, it’s being reported that a record 206 countries and National Olympic Committees will compete for a record 306 sets of medals in 28 sports.
But as we begin to dream of magical Opening Ceremonies and gymnastics superheroes and track stars, it’s also time to check in with the host city. Rio was awarded the Games in 2009, thanks to a flashy bid that detailed a plan to build new venues and implement a modern sanitation system that would clean up the majority of the sewage in the waters.
Well, in the seven years since, Brazil has spiraled into a recession, the Rio de Janeiro Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games has seen massive overturn, the water pollution problem hasn’t been solved at all, key venues haven’t been completed, and the country is now experiencing an outbreak of the Zika virus.
In other words, there are legitimate reasons to question whether or not Rio will be prepared to host more than 10,500 athletes in the most prestigious sporting event in the world in 168 days. Here are the main concerns.
As mentioned, part of Rio’s proposal to host the Olympics was a vow to clean up 80 percent of the sewage in its waters and a “full regeneration” of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, which will host the sprint canoe/kayak and rowing events.
Well, none of that has actually happened. Bonnie Ford of ESPN’s Outside The Lines has a full report on the current state of the Rio waters, and it isn’t pretty.
Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada told OTL that the goals set out in the Olympic bid didn’t happen because “there was not enough commitment, funds, and energy.” But Andrada did see the bright side. “However, we finally got something that the bay has been missing for generations, which is public will for the cleaning.”
Since the proper water treatment facilities were not built in time to clean up the water for the Olympics, Rio has now drawn up a Plan B:
In August, barriers installed across more than a dozen of Rio’s dying rivers will hold back garbage that otherwise might drift into the paths of Olympic sailors. A fleet of boats will patrol to keep debris from snagging on a rudder or centerboard and costing someone a medal. Some of the untreated human waste that has long fouled Rio’s beaches and docks and picturesque lagoon will be diverted from competitive venues so the athletes who have to navigate them need not worry.
Last summer the Associated Press independently tested the water in Rio, and found that it was rife with “viruses that are known to cause respiratory and digestive illnesses, including explosive diarrhea and vomiting, but can also lead to more serious heart, brain and other diseases.” The U.S. Olympic Committee began to plan for ways to deal with the hazardous waters last fall.
“Athletes will get multiple vaccinations, douse themselves with hand sanitizer, shower as quickly as they can after racing and resort to home remedies from Listerine to Jagermeister, but no one can guarantee what precautions might be effective,” Ford wrote.
As Alex Zelenski of ThinkProgress explained, the Zika virus first appeared in the Western Hemisphere two years ago, shortly after Brazil hosted the World Cup. The virus is transmitted by a mosquito, and causes mild-like flu symptoms in some, and no symptoms at all in 80 percent of people infected.
However, it is incredibly harmful in unborn babies, and has been linked to microcephaly, a diseases that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. Brazil typically only sees 150 cases of this disease annually, but since the Zika outbreak, over 3,500 cases were reported in just one four-month span.
This is terrifying news for all females who want to go to Rio — as athletes, spectators, support systems, or media members. Hope Solo, U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper, has said that if the Olympics began tomorrow, she would not attend. Vocativ reported that AP gymnastics writer Will Graves will still attend the Games, but his wife is now having “major reservations” about accompanying him.
There is currently no vaccine for the virus, and studies are still being done on the effect that the disease has not only on women who are pregnant and their unborn children, but on women who are looking to become pregnant in the future. The Rio Olympics Committee is currently working hard to eliminate the mosquitoes from their Olympic venues, and it will be helped by the fact that August is winter in the southern hemisphere and should be a more inhospitable environment for the insects.
Protesting Workers, Unfinished Venues
Amidst the public health crisis and pollution concerns, there’s the underlying threat that venues won’t even be completed in time.
On Tuesday, 75 workers protested Rio’s Olympic Park because they are owed payments dating back to December for work on the completed tennis venue. Many venues are not complete, including those for track and field, swimming, cycling and the international media center. The transportation renovation that promised to help the city’s traffic problem is also incomplete.
Antonio Alfredo da Silva Laeber, coordinator of the Sintraconst-Rio workers union that conducted the protest, told USA TODAY Sports that if the organizing committee pays the construction workers, then the venues will all be completed on time. “But, if they don’t, these massive buildings, these monumental stadiums, will not be finished,” he said, calling the situation “shameful.”
“It is absurd. These people are hungry, they don’t have money to eat. Considering the size of this project, what is happening to us is not acceptable.”