Summer Sports

Rio Olympics pushed to side amid turmoil in Brazil

Brazil's economic and political crisis has relegated Rio de Janeiro's Olympic preparations to an afterthought with South America's first games just over four months away.

'If this was 5 years ago, we could have even lost the games'

Anti-government demonstrators chant with Brazilian flags outside the National Congress building during demonstrations on March 17 in Brasilia. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Brazil's economic and political crisis has relegated Rio de Janeiro's Olympic preparations to an afterthought with South America's first games just over four months away.

Rio's Olympics are being sidelined by an even bigger show: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's fight against impeachment with millions on the streets marching against her. All of this amid multiple corruption scandals with the country mired in the worst economic recession since the 1930s.

"If this was five years ago, we could have even lost the games," organizing committee spokesman Mario Andrada told The Associated Press. "I have never experienced such political turmoil in my whole life," he added. "If you ask me what's next on the political front, I don't have a clue."

Brazil's leaders were hoping attention from the Olympics — and the 2014 World Cup — would burnish the country's image. Instead, they may have done the opposite with the ominous impeachment getting intense coverage, highlighting graft trials, endemic corruption and a sharp fall in the value of country's currency.

Earlier this month an estimated three million people took to the streets across the country in anti-Rousseff demonstrations, which were reported to be larger than protests in 1984 demanding elections and an end of the country's military dictatorship.

Andrada sounded buoyant, saying: "We are almost there. The things that we need from the government — they are smaller, day-to-day things."

Signs of trouble

However, there are worrying signs.

The city of Rio de Janeiro, which is building many of the new Olympics venues, has rescinded contracts on at least two venues — the tennis and equestrian center — and delays have been reported on at least four other Olympic projects. The city says about 95 per cent of the building work is done and venues will be delivered in time.

"The political crisis at the federal level does not affect the last building mile for the preparation of the games in any way," the city hall said Tuesday in a statement.

On Monday, the head police for the state of Rio de Janeiro, Jose Mariano Beltrame, said his budget had been reduced by 2 billion reals ($600 million US), a cut sure to impact Olympic security.

Sergio Praca, a political scientist at the respected Getulio Vargas foundation, said the Olympics would not escape the government chaos.

"The federal bureaucracy is completely paralyzed right now; for lack of money, for lack of knowing where all of this is headed," he said. "So all the security planning, any planning that has to do with the Olympic Games is made more difficult now."

Olympics 'the last thing on everybody's mind'

It was different in 2009 when Rio was awarded the games, championed by then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He called it a "sacred day" and praised the "strength of Brazil's economy," which shrank by 4 per cent in 2015 with no improvement in sight.

"This is a day to commemorate because Brazil has left its status as a second-class nation," Silva said in Copenhagen as thousands back home celebrated on Copacabana beach. "Today we're getting the respect that Brazil has been deserving."

The promises now seem hollow, and so does the legendary Silva.

A few weeks ago he was hauled into a police station for questioning in a graft and money-laundering investigation.

Last week Rousseff named him her chief of staff, which would grant him some legal immunity — an appointment subsequently blocked by a court ruling.

Hours later he told a screaming rally: "There will be no coup," a reminder of the military dictatorship that ended 31 years ago.

"I assure you the Olympic Games are the last thing on everybody's mind right now," Praca said. "This was supposed to be a great year for Brazil and Rio, but it's been anything but that — even if the Olympic Games go well."

It's possible that Rousseff will be out as president when the games open on Aug. 5, which may leave the ceremonial opening of the games to vice president Michel Temer. Lula's future is also murky with some newspapers suggesting he and some family members could face jail time.

"Part of me wishes the Olympics Games would not happen here just so people don't see how politically disorganized the country is, the economic chaos and the recession," Praca added. "This is the worst time in Brazilian history to hold the Olympic Games. Brazil's image, which had gotten a lot better in the last few years, will now completely tank."

Lower expectations

Organizers, led by Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes, have been downplaying expectations for at least a year as endless problems have surfaced: virus-infested venues for sailing, canoeing and rowing; the mosquito-borne Zika virus; $500 million US in spending cuts; charges the $10 billion spent to ready the city is benefiting mostly construction companies and real estate developers.

Paes has repeated often that Rio "is not a developed city like London or New York or Chicago. You can't expect as much from us."

Several email requests for comment from the Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee went unanswered.

This is not the first time in recent memory that unprecedented events have pushed the Olympics off the radar.

The May 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China killed tens of thousands and left millions homeless. It muted protests in the three months before the games began, sparking a wave of goodwill toward the Beijing Olympics that had been battered by pro-Tibet protests, noxious air pollution and attacks on the torch relay as it circled the globe.

Paes, seen by the IOC as the main force behind the games, was caught on a tapped telephone call earlier this month with Silva — one of dozens of calls released by a judge investigating Silva. The calls also included Silva talking with Rousseff and show the powerful speaking candidly — and often crudely.

Viewed as a potential 2018 presidential candidate, Paes seems to lament how the games are going.

"You have no idea how I'm suffering. It's screwed," he tells Silva.

Silva reminds Paes that other mayors across Brazil have bigger problems, and less political and financial clout.

"But you, with all those problems — my dear friend. You still are blessed by God because of the Olympics."

"That's true," replies Paes. "It's true."

Sports Minister quits

Jaques Wagner, who heads Rousseff's office, said Wednesday that Sports Minister George Hilton has resigned.

The sports ministry said Wednesday, shortly after Wagner spoke, that it could not confirm the resignation, illustrating the confusion engulfing Brazil's federal government as Rousseff tries to fight off impeachment charges.

Reports surfaced last week that Hilton had resigned, only for him to remain in office.

Hilton has had a marginal role in organizing the Rio Olympics.

Hilton recently left a political party that was part of Rousseff's coalition government — but is no longer — and changed parties.

Wagner said Ricardo Leyser, who has worked in the ministry, was likely to take over as sports minister.

"He [Leyser] is the guy who has followed the whole Olympic process," Wagner told reporters.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?