Will Brazil’s Financial & Political Turmoil Affect Rio Olympics?

It’s that year already. Olympic games are coming back and this time, Brazil will be hosting the biggest sporting event in the world.

It is always a matter of pride and elation for any country to play host to such a prestigious event. When Rio was awarded the games in 2009 there was expected jubilation and cheering in Brazil.

Rio bidders had emphasized that Brazil was “a progressive, democratic country” and that “the Brazilian economy is stable”- factors that helped persuade the IOC to award South America its first Olympic Games.

Brazil’s economy was booming. A leftist government had been voted to power, there were reforms which made the life of an average Brazilian better and a spirit of optimism prevailed all around.

Now almost seven years later as the time is inching closer towards the opening of the much awaited games things have changed. With only a 100 days or so to the games Brazil finds itself in the turmoil of a severe political crisis, a kickback scandal involving large companies, a period of recession the worst since 1930 and the shadow of the dreaded Zika virus.

More it is also facing problems with its preparations for the games itself. Will the country be able to wade through all these problems and pull off the event successfully?

The political crisis that the country is going through is being called the worst ever. On Sunday night Brazilian Congress approved impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the nation’s first female president, whose tenure has been struck by a corruption scandal.

President Rousseff is accused of using state owned money from banks to coverup a budget deficit in an effort to bolster her re-election prospects. An impeachment motion was passed against her on Sunday. She has called it a slow-rolling coup against democracy.

The vote to impeach is a crushing defeat for Ms. Rousseff and her Workers’ Party. The party a former band of leftist guerillas had wrestled power from the nation’s military rulers in the 1980s. One of the group’s founders, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was democratically elected to the presidency.

There was a period of great revival for the country after Lula came to to power and the economy grew rapidly under him.

Mr. da Silva, endeared himself to the masses by social welfare benefits. His Zero Famine reforms helped 36 million people escape slipping into extreme poverty in a country of more than 200 million people. Under Lula, children’s education and legal conditions for millions of domestic and other workers also got a fillip. There was an atmosphere of hope and optimism in the country.

Lula moved to to strengthen the government’s control of key industries like petroleum. The state-owned oil company, Petrobras was later rocked by scandals of kickbacks that were apparently received by nation’s political and business elite and funneled into campaign coffers. Petrobras, some of the country’s biggest construction companies and several senior politicians including Lula were implicated in the scandal.

Though no Olympics contracts have been linked definitively by prosecutors to the scandal, and organizers say the contracting process behind the Games was clean, the building of Olympic venues and infrastructure projects have also been tainted by the corruption scandal known as Operation Car Wash.

“We have nothing to hide,” said Christophe Dubi, the executive director for the Olympics Games at the IOC, when asked about the scandal. “Transparency and good governance are the pillars of the way we are working.”

Lola had to step down and he appointed Ms. Rouseff as his successor. She easily won election in 2010. Now she too has been embroiled in the same scandal.

After three days of debate, the lower house of Congress, voted to send the case against Ms. Rousseff to the Senate. The Senate’s 81 members will vote by a simple majority on whether to hold a trial on the charges. The vote is expected next month.

If approved Rousseff would have to step down for 180 days to defend herself against the accusations. So by the time the Games start Brazil could have a different President presiding over the games. Vice President Michel Temer would assume presidency but it seems he could be charged for corruption too.

The economy too had been slipping southwards under Rousseff so much so that the country is now in its worst recession since the 1930s. The local currency, the real has lost a third of its value this year, the gross domestic product has tumbled. Inflation is soaring.
Unemployment has shot up to 10.2 percent and country’s credit rating is way down. The state can’t even pay government employees, including many medical staff, on time.

Olympic organisers have also had to slash their budget, cutting back on everything from printer ink to seating at the rowing venue.

olympic 2016 rio
The proposed art and design for Rio Olympics in 2016.

Apart from the political woes, Zika, a virus that causes flu-like symptoms and in the case of pregnant women can lead to birth defects is also a big worry in the city. Local violence and the potential threat from IS creates a greater risk after the recent deadly attacks in Europe. Rio plans to deploy 85,000 police and soldiers for security purposes.

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee(IOC) is facing more than its fair share of other problems. Ticket sales have been slow though they are expected to accelerate closer to the opening dates.

According to the local organizing committee, the stadiums are nearly complete. However, 11 people died during the construction. Last week a panoramic new cycling path collapsed into the sea, killing at least two people. The track and field are not ready yet. A vital subway extension to the Olympic Park won’t start running until a month before the Games.

There is also a high risk that a metro extension considered vital to moving people between the south of Rio and the major hub at Barra da Tijuca on the outskirts will not be ready by the deadline of July 1, five weeks before the opening.

Another worrying factor is the severe water pollution in Rio that affects the sailing, rowing and canoeing venues. Raw sewage and garbage pours into the bay where the water events are to take place. Testing by The Associated Press found the waterways being used for the Olympics more widely contaminated by sewage than previously known and pose a greater threat to the health of athletes.

“It’s very polluted there. Once you fall sick, you’re done,” Hong Kong’s gold medal winning windsurfer Lee Lai-shan told the South China Morning Post.

On the brighter side, Brazil’s currency, is low at the moment and this ought to attract more foreign visitors. According to Brazilian Hotel Industry Association’s Rio de Janeiro branch, the city’s hotels are nearly fully booked for the Games and happily there have been no cancellations despite all the bad publicity.

Rio de Janeiro Municipal Tourism Secretary Antonio Pedro Viegas said the city is expecting more than a million tourists during the Games.
“We are waiting for everyone to come so we can showcase our city,” Viegas said. “People already know our problems, but they will be surprised by Rio’s beauty and the warmth of its people.”

The organisers and tourism officials also believe the Games will be a success. Once the event begins people are likely to get caught up in the spirit of the games as happened with the World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

“It will be a big party and people will forget the other problems and just focus on the games,” he told reporters. “So I don’t think it’s really a problem for the games.” Brazilian Sports Minister Ricardo Leyser said.

US water polo veteran Olympian Tony Azevedo predicts the Brazilians’ “love (of) throwing a good party” will win in the end.

Carlos Nuzman, head of the Rio organizing committee, said the Olympics will help unite Brazilians and pledged that the host city “is ready to deliver history.”

International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach has promised “an excellent Games” and that Rio will provide “a spectacular stage” for the Olympics.

“These Olympic Games will be a message of hope in troubled times — and indeed the flame will carry this message into all corners of Brazil and, indeed, all the world,” he said.

“I think this Olympics could go down for them as a changing point in the history of Brazil,” he said.

The Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games are scheduled to take place from August 5-21.

Stunning scenery and traditional Brazilian warmth mean the 10,500 athletes from 206 countries and 450,000 tourists should have a spectacular time.

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