As Tony Azevedo trained toward the 2004 Athens Olympics, he heard nothing but bad news coming out of Greece. Construction delays left doubts that some venues would be finished on time. Security lapses stoked fears of terrorism, and athletes worried about poor air quality.
“There were so many things that were going to go wrong. It was going to be a terrible Olympics,” recalled Azevedo, a four-time U.S. Olympian in water polo. “But in the end, it worked out to be a great one. And I have a feeling the Brazilians are going to do the same.’’
With 92 days to go before this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the skeptics far outnumber optimists such as Azevedo, who was born in Rio. The first Summer Games in South America faces a different set of issues, including concerns about the Zika virus, filthy water in boating venues, a severe economic recession and nationwide political unrest.
Rio Olympic officials have acknowledged many of those problems will not be solved when the Games open on Aug. 5. In response, U.S. Olympic sports officials are taking steps to safeguard athletes, such as monitoring developments with the Zika virus and setting strict anti-contamination routines for athletes in open-water sports. But Alan Ashley, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief of sport performance, said the focus on Rio’s deficiencies has overshadowed the strides the city has made toward an Olympics he predicts will be “awesome.”
Mallory Weggemann, a Paralympic swimmer from Eagan, agreed. She competed 10 days ago at the new Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Barra Olympic Park and saw venues that “looked great” in a city crackling with energy.
“You hear all these different versions of what’s going on down there,” she said. “To be there in person, to see how it’s all coming together, is phenomenal. It’s exciting to see how far along they truly are.”
Olympic organizers reported last week that Rio’s venues are 98 percent complete. Not all were built exactly as planned. Brazil’s economic nose-dive prompted significant cuts to the Olympic budget, causing some projects to be scaled back and others — including a subway line extension deemed critical to the Olympic transportation system — to be delayed.
Money problems also contributed to Rio’s inability to clean up Guanabara Bay (sailing), Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas (rowing and canoeing) and the waters off Copacabana Beach (open-water swimming and the triathlon swim). All are contaminated by raw sewage and debris. While the pollution has been reduced, Rio officials say it cannot be eliminated in time for the Games.
Several Olympic rowers and sailors said they have competed in bad water before and know how to reduce the risk of illness. None interviewed at an Olympic preview event in March said they were afraid.
“We’ll use hand sanitizer, scrub the oar handles with bleach and water, put your water bottles inside plastic bags, shower soon after,” rower Gevvie Stone said. “You have to take a few more precautions than usual, but nothing absurd.”
Protection against Zika virus
Athletes also will be taking measures to protect themselves against the Zika virus. Brazil is ground zero for the current outbreak of the mosquito-borne illness, which the World Health Organization has declared a global public health emergency.
Zika has been linked to serious birth defects and neurological disorders. There is no vaccine or treatment, and much about the virus remains unknown, adding to the worries of those traveling to Rio.
In March, the USOC assembled an infectious disease advisory group to provide advice on keeping athletes and staff safe. USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun said athletes will be free to decide whether to participate in the Olympics; as of now, he doesn’t know of any who plan to stay away.
“We’re working with the WHO, the [International Olympic Committee] and the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control] to make sure we have the best and most up-to-date information, and we’ll push that out to athletes in the most efficient way possible,” Blackmun said. “We’ll provide advice on mosquito netting, bug repellent, standing water, clothing, all those things to lessen the likelihood there’s going to be an infection. We’ll also make sure we’ve got the appropriate level of medical support on the ground so if we are experiencing conditions there, if people are getting infected, we can treat it quickly.”
It will be winter in Rio during the Summer Games, when the mosquito population is at its lowest. The city also is spraying insecticide and working to eliminate mosquito breeding areas.
Several athletes — particularly women — have voiced concerns about Zika. Swimmer Natalie Coughlin said she’s confident that information and preventive measures will keep athletes safe.
“I’ve been to parts of Africa where malaria is rampant,” said Coughlin, a three-time Olympian. “You treat your clothes and wear bug spray. There are always things that are beyond our control at the Olympic Games, and this is just one of them.”
Ticket sales for the Rio Games have been slow, though it’s been noted that Brazilians don’t typically plan ahead. They’ve also been preoccupied in recent months by a political corruption scandal expected to linger into August.
Brazil’s Parliament is deciding whether to begin impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff. If it does, she could be suspended during the Olympics. The scandal and the country’s other problems — increasing unemployment, runaway inflation and persistent violent crime — have prompted mass demonstrations in major cities, including Rio.
All that has darkened the mood of a usually vibrant country. Azevedo, the American water-polo player, still expects Rio to be ready and eager to welcome its Olympic guests.
A resident of Sao Paulo for the past three years, Azevedo has seen Brazil brush off skepticism before. In the months leading up to soccer’s World Cup in 2014, the country faced widespread questions about its readiness to host, then rose to the occasion through the warmth and spirit of its people.
“One of the great things about Brazilians is they really love throwing a good party,” Azevedo said. “People ended up loving the World Cup, and I think it’s going to go down the same way at the Olympics.
“People are going to show up in Rio, and they’re going to hear all these horror stories, and maybe they’re a little scared. Then the first Brazilian is going to grab them and say, ‘Hey, this is where you should have a drink, this is where you should eat.’ I really feel these Games are going to show Brazil how it should be shown.”