Blame it on Rio? Olympics builders in frantic race

  • On June 17, host Rio de Janeiro declared a “state of public calamity“;
  • Thirty days out, the event is projected to lose $6 billion, and counting;
  • Epic health and safety risks still threaten events, participants, and attendees;
  • Key projects coming down to the wire, including a $2.3-billion attendee shuttle;
  • Construction to date already has resulted in 11 fatalities since 2013.
Divine intervention? That may well be the only way that Rio will be able to have all of its event venues ready in time.

Four weeks to go and not a moment to spare.

It’s typically track, gymnastics, diving, rowing, swimming, rugby and volleyball — that split-second finish, that near-perfect landing — that induce nail-biting moments at the Summer Olympics. This summer, the real suspense lies in whether Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, host to the 2016 Games, will cross the finish line in time for its 17-day global extravaganza, beginning Aug. 5 and expected to draw 500,000 tourists, and billions of viewers on TV.

The short answer is that, yes, by most accounts, all should go off as planned, albeit after one of the shakiest launches in Olympic history. Events of this magnitude have a knack for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and Rio de Janiero likely will prove no exception, despite a political and economic landscape in Brazil that has changed vastly — and not for the better — since Rio was selected to host the games in 2009. (Also-rans Madrid, Tokyo, and Chicago were sad then. Today? Not so much.)

As political corruption and economic instability gripped Brazil, the state and the city seemed to lose their collective grip on several key initiatives involving the Olympics, including construction of stadiums, housing and infrastructure. As a result, considerable work remains on critical stadium and transportation projects, with a daunting amount of activity coming down to the wire.

“Every hour counts. We are working around the clock, 24/7, with 1,000 workers in each station.”

— Rodrigo Vieira, Rio transportation chief

Still awaiting completion is $143.6-million in renovations to the Rio Olympic Velodrome, a stadium for track cycling beset by delay after delay, making it among the most problematic of the Rio 2016 projects. As late as this spring, organizers had no choice but to cancel a pair of scheduled indoor events. In late May, with its Velodrome work 88% complete, Rio’s own Tecnosolo Engenharia S.A. declared bankruptcy, prompting planners to enlist an emergency replacement contractor. Latest estimates now indicate the facility will be completed July 25, just 10 days before the games begin.

Of far larger concern is the long-delayed $2.3-billion, 16-km subway extending from the city’s center to the Olympic Park, designed to shuttle 300,000 attendees to events on a daily basis. After several delays, the subway finally was due for completion early this months, leaving just weeks to ensure it is fully functional before the games are in full swing. Should problems arise “there is no plan B,” one Olympic official told The Wall Street Journal. (On July 3rd, The New York Times published its own roundup of Rio’s furious race to the finish. The headline? “An Olympic Catastrophe”.) 

Crews have only a month to complete a long-delayed, $2.3-billion subway line projected to carry 300,000 tourists per day.

Crews have only a month to complete a long-delayed, $2.3-billion subway line projected to carry 300,000 tourists per day.

The subway will officially open Aug. 4, just 24 hours before the start of the Games. “Every hour counts,” said Rio transportation chief Rodrigo Vieira, speaking to reporters in late June. “We are working around the clock, 24/7, with 1,000 workers in each station.”

But observers are worried. “They are leaving so little time to try this massive system,” said Jose Manoel Ferreira Goncalves, president of railway expert FerroFrente. “What guarantee do we have that such a sensitive and complicated project is in order?”

If only that were the sole concern.

The subway’s lead contractor is South America’s largest construction conglomerate, Odebrecht S.A., based in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.  The $31-billion multinational player also is the overall manager for the whole of the Games’ mammoth construction program. In March, its 47-year-old former CEO, Marcelo Odebrecht, grandson of the founder, was sentenced to 19 years in prison for bribery, money laundering, and other forms of corruption, all involving Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras. He had only been arrested in June 2015, prompting him to resign last fall as CEO of the 72-year-old firm.

Deep seas of worry

As if that weren’t enough, basic health and safety concerns have continued to grab headlines. In addition to Brazil’s much-publicized Zika virus epidemic that caused some athletes to withdraw from the Games, altogether, and many attendees to stay home, other potential health issues are plaguing the events. For instance, the two bodies of water in which rowers and canoers will compete — Guanabara Bay and Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon — both are teeming with pathogens due to raw sewage flowing from toxic rivers and storm drains.

“The levels of viruses are so high in these waters that if we saw those levels here in the U.S. on beaches, officials would likely close them,” noted Kristina Mena, an expert in waterborne viruses and an associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. She made her remarks last month, speaking with reporters.

Hold your nose: Guanabara Bay, one of two bodies of water dedicated to canoeing, rowing, and other aquatic sports is rife with pathogens, despite a pledge by Brazilian government officials to cleanse it in time for the Olympics.

Remediating the scenic bays figured prominently during Olympic Committee negotiations with Rio in 2009, the intent being to leave a legacy of rejuvenated waters for generations to come. It is a promise that remains unfulfilled, “with athletes lamenting the stench of sewage and complaining about debris that bangs into and clings to boats… potential hazards for a fair competition,” Reuters reported in June. Andre Correa, environment secretary of Rio state, has blamed “Brazil’s difficult financial conditions.”

“There is no way to ‘zero out’ the risk of infection in any water,” Olympic officials also have countered. “To minimize problems, ‘eco-boats’ will scour the bays for debris,” they add.

“The levels of viruses are so high in these waters that if we saw [that] here on beaches, officials would likely close them”

— Kristina Mena, University of Texas Health Science Center

Anyone familiar with preparations for the event shouldn’t be entirely surprised by the current state of affairs. Efforts to bring the infrastructure, housing, and stadiums on line and on schedule hit their nadir in 2014, when International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice president John Coates told London’s Evening Standard that Brazil’s preparations “are the worst I’ve experienced,” noting that construction on all fronts was grievously behind schedule. As a result, “the IOC has formed a special task force to try to speed up preparations,” he explained then. Again, that was in 2014.

IOC’s John Coates dispelled rumors that some 2016 events might revert to London venues used in 2012.

In some cases, striking construction workers caused delays. In others, poor administration was the culprit. In one instance, responsibility for the new Deodoro Olympic Park sports complex, home to no fewer than eight competitive events, including shooting, field hockey, and fencing, passed from the federal government to the state of Rio, to the city itself. By 2014, the facility had yet to break ground. The same held true of several other projects.

Sources told the Evening Standard that at comparable junctures — two years out from the event — Athens had completed 40% of its needed work and London 60%. By comparison, Rio had just 10% of its work done. In fact, prospects were so bleak that the newspaper reported IOC had made an “informal approach” to inquire whether venues from London’s 2012 Olympic could possibly fill in should Rio’s efforts fall short of the mark.


Two years out, Athens had completed 40% of its needed work and London 60%. In 2014, Rio had just 10% done


Coates denied it. “We are going to Rio,” he told press, indicating that deploying a special committee to oversee preparations was unprecedented but critical to getting the project back on track.

In August 2015, a mere year after Coates had forecast disaster, the IOC and Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes assured stakeholders that preparations were both on schedule and on budget. In addition to Arena Carioca 3, one of three planned arenas, the Olympic Village, aquatic center and Central Stadium all were nearing completion. “We want to show we are capable of doing things on time, that Brazil is not a country where everything ends up over budget, everything ends up late,” Paes told reporters.

Rio’s Olympic Village is the largest such venue in the Games’ history. Its 31 towers house 17,000 athletes and coaches.

In June, organizers unveiled the Olympic Village, a 31-tower complex, the largest such community in Olympic history, capable of accommodating 11,000 athletes and 6,000 coaches and support personnel.

Setting unwanted records

All told, once the dust has cleared, this year’s Olympics will lose $6 billion due to cost overruns, according to figures obtained by the The New York Times. Meantime, Andrew Zimbalist, a professor and sports economist at Smith College, projects that, at best, the Rio games will garner $4.5 billion in revenues. One big part of the problem is corruption, he says. That phenomenon is not new to the Olympics, of course, but “the Brazilians have outdone the others,” he told The Progressive last month.

Even those projected losses may climb if Rio de Janiero can not execute the games without disruption. On June 18, the Rio de Janeiro state government declared “a state of emergency”, citing a lack of funding for public security, health and transportation required to proceed with the games, prompting a pledge of a federal bail out. Ten days later, Francisco Dornelles, acting governor of Rio de Janeiro state, told the local O Globos newspaper that the state had yet to receive any new funds.

“I’m optimistic about the games, but I have to show reality” Dornelles told reporters. “We can have a great Olympics, but if some steps aren’t taken, we can have a big failure.”

“We can have a great Olympics, but if some steps aren’t taken, we can have a big failure”

— Francisco Dornelles, acting governor, Rio de Janeiro state

Failure, of course, is relative.

Putting aside the issue of violent crime and the militarized police presence that has descended on Rio, the Games already have failed as a matter of life safety, with construction activity on various venues claiming no fewer than 11 lives so far, from January 2013 through March 2016, according to a report released in April by Rio de Janiero’s Regional Labor and Employment office. By comparison, the report, released by Elaine Casthilo, auditor of the Rio Olympic Games, workers incurred zero fatalities during preparations for London’s 2012 Summer Games.

Causes of death varied from scaffolding and ladder falls, overturned vehicles, electrocution and even one strange death that resulted from “whipping by a compressed air hose.”

“It’s a frightening number,” said Robson Leite, inspector for the labor office of the state of Rio de Janeiro, speaking to reporters in April. He noted that eight workers also had died during construction preparations in 12 cities for the World Cup soccer tournament in 2014, hosted by Brazil.

Health, safety, sanity

Since the April report, Brazil’s Ministry of Labour and Employment has been keeping a closer eye on safety conditions, even halting construction on Olympic Park and Olympic Village in May due to concerns involving worker safety.

Hindsight suggests Brazil clearly underestimated the challenges inherent in undertaking a project of this magnitude, whether as a matter of funding, planning, logistics, execution and life safety. Once all those glistening medals have been awarded, it’s possible that Brazil and Rio de Janeiro will find their legacies permanently tarnished on the world stage — if they are not already.

This fall, as many of the new venues instantly start their post-Games “retirement”, the rest of the world will be left with yet another cautionary tale about the price of hosting the Olympic Games. Even so, the likelihood is strong that some other city, bent on raising its brand and feeding its ego, will convince itself that it can succeed where so many others have stumbled and failed.

Let the Games begin? Home to nine venues, Barra Olympic Park will be the center of it all next month. (Photo: Rio 2016)
  • BuiltWorlds’ Rob McManamy also contributed to this story.