With 5 Weeks To Go Until The Olympics, How Prepared Is Rio?

Jul 1, 2016
Originally published on July 2, 2016 2:09 am

If you Google "Rio Olympics" right now, you won't see much about the athletes. Instead, you'll see links to news stories that use the words "horror," "woes," "catastrophe," "pollution" and "perfect storm."

The latest news hasn't made things any better. On Thursday, mutilated human body parts were discovered on the beach near an Olympic sport venue. And today, armed robbers stole Olympic transmission equipment from German TV crews along the main highway in Rio.

How bad are things, really?

Bad. Leaving aside the body parts, police officers and firefighters showed up at Rio's international airport on Monday with a sign that read "Welcome to Hell." They were striking over back pay and because cops here don't even have enough gas for their patrol cars.

Robberies are up 43 percent in Rio de Janeiro state because of a security vacuum. Policemen are being killed in large numbers and there are fights between the drug gangs in impoverished communities or favelas, where 40 percent of Rio's population lives.

Last month, the governor of Rio declared a state of catastrophe, saying there was no money for even basic services like hospitals. And of course, there is the Zika virus. Add to that Brazil's political crisis, which has suspended president Dilma Rousseff. She will be undergoing an impeachment trial during the Summer Games.

In the run-up to some past Olympics, there was also a lot of bad press — but then everything seemed to work out. Will it be different in Rio?

It depends on what you define as success. The problem for these Olympics is that they are facing unprecedented headwinds. The economy is unraveling and Brazil already has high levels of poverty. Kids are sleeping rough on the streets here. Tens of thousands of people in Rio de Janeiro state are losing their jobs. People who would have been in their families' first generation to go to university are now trying to find jobs to make ends meet.

The Olympics organizers have promised that these will be "legacy" Games and say that Rio de Janeiro will be a better city because it hosted them.

But when you look at who in Brazil will benefit from the Games, who is making money, you see that a lot of new infrastructure has been funneled to already wealthy areas. Thousands of poor people who live in favelas have been displaced to make way for Olympic infrastructure.

We saw what happened after the 2014 World Cup. The games all went fine. But the country was left with billions of dollars of debt and unused stadiums that are white elephants today.

How are people in Rio handling all of this?

For many, it feels like everything for them is spiraling out of control. This is one of the most unequal countries on earth. Its also one of the most violent. And after years of declines in Rio, now violent crime is up.

Most people are looking forward to the Games because 85,000 security personal will be patrolling the streets, double what London had. So the security situation will get better during the Games.

But what will it be like afterward for the people who live here? I spoke to Pollyana Rabello, a mother who had a baby born with microcephaly linked to Zika. She told me mothers like her haven't been getting the support they need from the health services. The hospitals aren't working. She asked why the government is spending all this money on the Olympics when, after the Games go, Zika remains.

"Zika hasn't gone away. It is here," she said. "I think the Games shouldn't happen. I think this money they are investing in the Olympics should be invested in the health and well-being of the Brazilian population. "

What are organizers saying?

That everything is ready. That the Games will be wonderful. And that Rio de Janeiro is a better city because of the Olympics. I sat down with Rio de Janeiro's mayor last month, and he told me they have improved the city's transportation and refurbished whole swaths of the city, like the port area. He and others say these Games will be unforgettable — and that Rio's population will be grateful.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

If you were to Google Rio Olympics right now, you would not see a whole lot about the actual games. You'd probably see news stories with words like horror, catastrophe and perfect storm. And this week, things got even worse when mutilated body parts were discovered on the beach near and Olympic sport venue. Things are bad in Brazil, but how bad are they? To find out, we called NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro in Rio. Hi there, Lulu.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Hi.

MCEVERS: So it seems like there's not a lot of good news coming out of Rio these days. What's going on?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, you know, as you mentioned, there were the body parts. But we've also seen policemen and firemen who were on strike holding up a sign at the international airport saying, welcome to hell because cops here don't even have enough money for gas for their patrol cars. Robberies are up 40 percent in the state because of the security vacuum. So you can imagine the optics of that. Last month, we had the governor declaring a state of catastrophe, saying that there was no money for even basic services like hospitals.

You know, Kelly, I could go on, but I think you get the point. I'm not even mentioning, you know, the Zika virus, the political crisis, which has the suspended President Dilma Rousseff undergoing an impeachment trial. You know, it's bad.

MCEVERS: I mean, for other Olympics, in places like Beijing and Athens, there's always a lot of bad press, right, in the run-up. And then, everything ends up going smoothly in the end. Do you get the sense that that's what's going to happen this time?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I've been very conscious of that, you know, because indeed we have seen this trajectory of the press just says all these terrible things. And the games go off without a hitch, and then everyone says it was all exaggerated. I think it just depends on what you define as success.

You know, the problem for these Olympics is that they have really been facing unprecedented headwinds. The economy is unraveling here. And that is a terrible thing in any country, but, you know, here in Brazil, there are really high levels of poverty. You see kids here on the streets sleeping rough. So you have these Olympic organizers promising that these would be the "legacy games," quote, unquote. And, you know, basically that means - let's say the games go great. Nothing goes wrong. Everyone's happy. Is that enough of a legacy in a country like Brazil, which is going through such a hard time?

And that's the question, I think, that everyone's asking themselves, you know? And when you look at who will benefit from the games, who's making money, you see that a lot of the new infrastructure that was built for these Olympics has been funneled into already-wealthy areas. You're seeing that thousands of poor people who live in favelas have been displaced to make way for Olympic infrastructure. So, you know, it has a lot of people here asking themselves, is it really worth it?

MCEVERS: What are the organizers of the Olympics saying? I mean, how are they answering all this criticism?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, as you can imagine, Kelly, they're saying that everything's going to be fine. They say that all of the venues are going to be up and running and that there won't be any problem during the games. They also speak to the fact that they do believe they have left an Olympic legacy for this city. They talk about areas that have been refurbished. They talk about new transportation lines that will ease some of the congestion of the city. So they have really been trying to give this narrative that somehow these Olympics will be beneficial for Rio de Janeiro.

But when you talk to people here on the streets, you know, they really don't feel it. I'll give you one example. I was talking to one mother who has a microcephalic baby that was linked to her getting a Zika infection. And she said, you know, we're not getting the care that we need. You know, Zika will still be here after these games have come and gone. What about us? What about the people that are going to be affected by this in the future? What will these Olympics have left for that? And that's, you know, a question on many people's minds.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.