Is Rio de Janeiro going to kill the Olympics?
Or will this looming disaster force the IOC to change the Games for the sake of survival?
It’s barely six weeks before the start of the Rio Summer Games, and athletes are finding excuses for not attending as if it’s the Pro Bowl.
Those heartwarming quadrennial stories of athletes who have striven for an Olympic bid all their lives are being replaced by columns such as one in the New York Times that carried the headline: “Olympians Shouldn’t Swim Through Sewage.”
As an opinion piece goes, I don’t think that stirs much controversy. Hmm, making athletes swim through human waste … are we for that or against it?
Look, every Olympic host city generates negative headlines as the Games near. The venues are never close enough to completion and cost-overruns are common. And security is a grave concern at any event around the world.
Over decades, some general truisms emerge: The Games cost far more than originally budgeted. The fiscal return is far less than originally projected. The expected tourism and global exposure never materializes. And the real monetary impact is so shocking that sometimes the true ghastly accounts get burned in suspicious fires (See: Nagano, Japan).
But Brazil appears on the way to setting records for fiscal insolvency, political instability, pollution, contagious diseases and criminal activity. Those could become the five interlocking rings of infamy that represent the Rio Olympics.
As a BBC News story reported on Rio: “(It’s had) the worst-ever preparation for Olympics.”
As of Tuesday, NBA star LeBron James was leaning toward skipping the Games; other key Team USA would-be invitees Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul had already ruled themselves out.
Dozens of pro golfers are wavering.
A few of the concerns:
▪ The Zika virus, which can cause birth defects, is considered such a physical threat that a recent Forbes report cited an open letter from 200 doctors asking the World Health Organization to pressure the International Olympic Committee to move or postpone the Rio Games in the name of public health.
Rio is considered an epicenter for Zika, and the CDC has issued a Level 2 alert for those attending the Games.
▪ Security. Because of the widespread depression and political upheaval, concerns over security are more pressing than ever.
An Australian paralympian training in Rio was mugged at gunpoint recently. And a hospital that is being recommended for the use of international visitors was the site of a fatal assault by a group of gunmen who reportedly were trying to free a suspected drug dealer.
▪ The pollution of Guanabara Bay, into which the largely untreated wastes of Rio’s 12 million residents flows, is considered a significant health risk to those competing in the open-water swimming events and sailing.
An Associated Press report last summer said that athletes were competing in the viral equivalent of raw sewage.
Oh, and another bit of news reported the discovery of a severed arm found floating in the bay.
I have been privileged enough to cover the Olympics in Japan, Greece and Italy. And there always were problems looming before the Games, but the biggest issue in the aftermath was of massive debt saddling the host countries and cities.
The Greeks’ debt crisis now, to some degree, has been linked to the fiscal lunacy of hosting the 2004 Summer Games.
Brazil, itself, is still weighed down by 2014 World Cup soccer debts. The most expensive stadium, the $550 million Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, is mostly used as a parking lot for buses.
It’s simply not worth it to host the Olympics. The only reasonable and sensible alternative to the system of bidding by host cities is to develop a rotation of half a dozen sites at large cities around the world, with extant suitable venues, in-place infrastructure, and readily available security.
Olympics wouldn’t have the sometimes interesting travelogue quality for viewers, but athletes wouldn’t be asked to swim through sewage or slalom past severed body parts.