Race to 2016 is on as flag arrives in Rio

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Race to 2016 is on as flag arrives in Rio

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Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor Eduardo Paes, left, the Brazilian Olympic Committee’s Carlos Arthur Nuzman and Brazilian Olympic athletes in yellow uniforms hold up the Olympic flag in Rio de Janeiro on Monday. [REUTERS/YONHAP]


RIO DE JANEIRO - The Olympic flag has touched down in Rio de Janeiro, the city that will host the 2016 Summer Games.

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes waved the five-ringed flag as he descended Monday from his flight from London, where he was on hand for the Olympic closing ceremony a day earlier.

The flag’s arrival marks the official start of Rio’s Olympic preparations, with the city to undertake nearly 200 projects to construct sports venues and other infrastructure during the next four years.

Not all are elated; a small group of demonstrators gathered outside the airport where the mayor landed to protest against evictions connected with Olympic projects.

Rio will be the first South American city to host the Olympics.

When Rio was awarded the Games three years ago, it was hailed as a rite of passage for Brazil, Latin America’s biggest country and an economy that is now the world’s sixth largest.

Along with the FIFA World Cup, to be held in Rio and 11 other Brazilian cities in 2014, the Olympics would show that Brazil was finally reaching long-elusive, first-world goals.

But the exuberant celebrations which greeted the decision to award Rio the Games are giving way to trepidation in this seaside metropolis of 6.5 million people.

Construction delays, cost overruns and overburdened airports, roads and subway lines give locals a sense that Rio, the first South American city to be awarded the Olympics, has a long way to go if is to stage the event as seamlessly as London.

Part of the unease has to do with the sense that Rio, despite its long history as a global attraction, is still playing catchup with the developed world.

Even after a recent economic boom in Brazil, soaring investment because of the sporting events and an ongoing rush to develop massive new offshore oil fields due south of the city’s beaches, Rio remains pock-marked by poor development.

“Brazil and Rio have four years to do all those things that have not been done in 400 [years],” said Alberto Murray Neto, a Sao Paulo lawyer and past member of Brazil’s Olympic committee.

The task is huge. Brazil’s tourism ministry expects almost 400,000 foreign tourists for the Games, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Brazilians who themselves will add to the crush on airports, hotels, roads and other infrastructure.

Meanwhile, costs for Olympic projects are soaring, as the investment boom and Brazil’s high taxes and labor costs, known locally as the “Brazil Cost,” inflate the price of everything from construction cranes to beachside coconuts. The cost of the Games, critics fear, could far exceed initial estimates of 29 billion reals ($14.4 billion).

Rio Mayor Paes, who landed from London with the official Olympic flag, said in a recent briefing that an updated budget isn’t possible yet.

Luis Fernandes, executive secretary of the Brazilian sports ministry, also sidestepped the issue, telling reporters in London on Monday: “We can only disclose the cost of the Olympics when everything is ready.

“In this budget, there are certain aspects we have to take note of when it comes to sporting venues that will be prepared and constructed,” he said through a translator. “Our horizon is to base ourselves in the main, original program we proposed.”

So far, very little is ready. During their last visit in June, members of the International Olympic Committee said “the timelines for delivery are already very tight and the amount of work to be completed is considerable.”

Most troubling, said the IOC, is that Rio has yet to begin building the Olympic Park and complex of buildings that will host most of the competitions as well as media facilities.

Paes and other city officials remain upbeat. Leonardo Gryner, chief of the Rio organizing committee, in London last week said all sports facilities would be ready by 2015 with ample leeway for testing.

Rio is no newcomer to big events.

The city’s famed carnival celebrations attract more than 800,000 revelers each year. Big concerts and New Year’s festivities on Copacabana Beach have attracted over one million.

Rio hosted the 2007 Pan American Games, though critics recall that event was also marred by cost overruns and a lack of lasting improvements.

On Monday, O Globo, Rio’s biggest daily newspaper, featured a photograph of a dirty and tattered flag over a Pan American memorial, calling it “a portrait of abandon.”

Maracana, Rio’s main soccer stadium, was rebuilt for the occasion, only to be razed again to be reconstructed for the 2014 World Cup. Rio officials tout ongoing efforts to spruce up the city after decades of disrepair.

Until Brazil’s recent boom helped begin reviving its fortunes, Rio suffered from a lack of investment, soaring crime rates, and the encroachment of favelas, the city’s well-known shantytowns, into its verdant hillsides.

Social problems also complicate planning. New roads and rail lines being built to reach Olympic venues, in the city’s far-flung southern suburbs, will run right through some of Rio’s poorest neighborhoods.

Residents of Vila Autodromo, a favela of 500 families, are among tens of thousands who could be evicted by construction of Olympic projects.

Reuters, AP

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