Running on fear: the threats that could ruin Rio’s Olympic dream

The world’s biggest sporting event is about to open in a cash-strapped city struggling to cope with a terrorist alert, the Zika virus and soaring crime. No wonder Hong Kong’s athletes have been confined to their village

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2016, 5:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2016, 10:14pm

When Hong Kong swimmer Stephanie Au Hoi-shun leads the city’s athletes into Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium on Friday for the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, the whole world will be watching to see if Brazil can pull off South America’s first-ever Games.

While the atmosphere in Rio has been festive on the surface, behind the scenes the Brazilian state has been scrambling to manage fears about public security threats, concerns over the Zika virus, complaints about the readiness of infrastructure, as well as financial and political instability.

The slogan of the Games, emblazoned on the entrances of Olympics venues across Rio, may pronounce it is “A New World”, but there are those who would suggest that status has not yet been achieved.

“Rio de Janeiro is confronted with its most serious public security challenge in a decade. The federal government is paralysed by the worst political and financial crisis in the country’s history,” Dr Robert Muggah, research director at Rio-based security and development think tank Igarapé Institute, said.

“The state government is cash-strapped, having recently declared a state of public calamity in order to release hundreds of millions of dollars to keep services running and salaries – including those of the military and civilian police – paid.”

It is against this backdrop that 38 athletes from Hong Kong will be competing in eight sports – swimming, athletics, badminton, cycling, fencing, rowing, sailing and table tennis – during the 17-day sporting spectacular.They will be aiming to better Hong Kong’s result from the 2012 London Olympics, when cyclist Sarah Lee Wai-sze clinched a bronze in keirin. Team China, meanwhile, will have 416 athletes competing in its largest overseas delegation in the history of the Games.

As Rio opens its door to the expected 500,000 tourists and 10,000 athletes from around the world, it is caught in what has been described as the “perfect storm” since winning the bid to host the Games in 2009.

Personal safety and security is one area which has been a source of genuine concern for participants.

Crime has been a perennial problem in Rio and the recent soaring unemployment rate and economic slowdown has seen a corresponding rise in homicides in the first four months of this year. Recorded cases have reached 1,715, up 15 per cent year on year, a rate of 14 homicides every day in the state of Rio. Equally shocking, there were 21 thefts every hour during the same period.

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But what is more worrying is the threat of terrorist attacks. About two weeks before the Games begin, 12 Brazilians were arrested on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack targeting the Olympics.

Muggah cautioned that there were “justifiable concerns” of a terrorist threat. He cited Islamic State member Maxime Hauchard tweeting last year “Brazil, you’re our next target” after the bloody attack in Paris that claimed the lives of 130 people.

In an internationally coordinated effort to ensure that everyone in Rio is safe, the International Police Cooperation Centre has been set up, with about 250 security personnel from 55 countries working around the clock in what the senior official at Brazil’s Ministry of Justice, Andrei Rodrigues, described as “the largest international police operation in Brazil’s history”.

An estimated 100,000 people will be displaced by the Games after it’s completed
Dr Robert Muggah, Igarapé Institute

But Muggah said the investment in public security may not benefit those who need it most – the underprivileged from the favelas.

“For them, insecurity is likely to rise as police are redeployed to specific parts of the city. Some poorer communities have already been adversely impacted, not least the residents of Vila Autódromo, thousands of whom were forcibly evicted to make way for Olympics-related improvements. An estimated 100,000 people will be displaced by the Games after it’s completed,” he said.

Due to security concerns, Hong Kong athletes are banned from leaving the athletes’ village in Rio for sightseeing and other social activities for the first time at an Olympic Games.

Chef de Mission Kenneth Fok Kai-kong stressed that the Hong Kong delegation had a responsibility to ensure the athletes’ security.

Gymnastics referee Yuen Ka-keung from Hong Kong has adjudicated the 2012 London Olympics, the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing, and many other international gymnastic competitions. This time, he is particularly concerned about his personal safety in Rio.

“What worries me a lot is my safety in Rio. The threat of Zika does not trouble me that much. Public security is a big problem,” he said.

Weeks before the Olympics began, a handful of Rio police staged a strike at Rio’s international airport with a sign reading: “Welcome to Hell. Police and firefighters don’t get paid. Whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.”

Not only were the officers not getting their salaries, some police stations were so pressed for money that they reportedly ran out of printer paper and stationery.

Brazil’s federal government has moved in with emergency loans to cover police salaries. A security force of 85,000 personnel – from Rio’s own police officers to the national guard, army and navy personnel – have been deployed to make sure the city is safe. That’s double the number of personnel deployed during the 2012 London Olympics.

The other issue that has dominated the lead-up to this Games is the threat of the Zika virus, which has led some athletes, including the world’s No 1 golf player, Jason Day from Australia, pull out.

The mosquito-borne virus swept across Brazil last year. It has been linked to an increase in birth defects in South America, with infants developing a condition called microcephaly, which is characterised by an abnormally small head. Most who catch Zika show no symptoms.

In the city of Rio, the crisis peaked in February with 7,232 new cases. It has since dropped to 702 cases in May.

Brazil’s health minister, Ricardo Barros, stressed recently there was “almost zero” chance of tourists and athletes getting infected, as there were fewer mosquitoes in August because it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Rio city government said it had deployed 3,500 health agents to inspect buildings for potential mosquito breeding sites and visited five million buildings this year.

But Lee Igel, co-director of New York University’s Sports and Society programme, was not convinced that the inspection regime was adequate.

“Many residents in Rio are saying that they are sceptical of what the government is reporting about having dispatched the ‘health vigilance agents’ because too many residents haven’t seen the agents inspecting the sites they supposedly did,” Lee said.

“Unfortunately, this is a city government that, among other issues, is already in severe debt. Police and first responders are not being paid on time, and hospitals are running very low on supplies and resources. So, one has to wonder about the strength of the ‘health vigilance’ force.”

Lee was co-author of an open letter to Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, director general of the World Health Organisation, calling for the Games to be postponed or moved somewhere else. The letter was issued in May and has been signed by more than 200 public health experts from around the world.

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Earlier this year the WHO under Chan, formerly Hong Kong’s director of health, declared the Zika virus a global public health emergency due to the risk to newborn children.

But it decided that it saw no reason to move the Games elsewhere, as a change in location would not stop the international spread of Zika. It recommended that people going to the Olympics use insect repellent, wear clothing that covers their bodies and practise safe sex.

Lee argued that the mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus are just one factor in this public health issue. The other problem, he said, was that people from other countries who were already infected with Zika would be bringing the virus to Rio. Zika can be transmitted sexually.

“Organisers are recommending that people use bug repellent to keep the mosquitoes away and condoms to prevent sexual transmission,” he said.

“But imagine just one instance in your life when you thought you would behave one way, only to find yourself doing something different in the heat of the moment. How can the government in Rio reasonably manage the activities and actions of hundreds of thousands of people attending the Olympic Games?”

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Compounding these problems, alarm bells were sounded when high levels of viruses and bacteria from human sewage were discovered in the waters where sailors will compete during the Games.

And about two weeks before the Olympics began, Australian athletes refused to move into the accommodation in their “village”, citing “blocked toilets, leaking pipes and exposed wiring”.

Further controversy has erupted over doping, with calls to ban the entire Russian delegation over the country’s doping record, after the suspension of some Russian athletes for failing to meet International Olympic Committee conditions. Meanwhile, the anti-doping laboratory in Brazil that was set to handle drug testing at the Games was criticised by the World Anti-Doping Agency for its “nonconformity” with international standards.

Assessing the multitude of challenges that Rio needs to overcome, Olympics expert Ed Hula said the city had faced a “perfect storm” in the lead-up.

“All Olympic Games have problems. Rio has had a few more than normal, most of them not the fault of the Olympic organising committee,” Hula, founder of the online Olympics publication Around the Rings, said.

“Through all the troubles Rio has faced, however, work has continued on venues and infrastructure. Along with that steady progress, there is a team of young Brazilian professionals who’ve been working on the Olympic project for more than a half-dozen years so far. They have every reason and desire to make sure these games are a success with as few problems as possible.”

Hula said the pollution in the water where a high level of viruses was detected in a competition zone was the “unfortunate result” of an absence of leadership to cure this environmental problem.

“Rio de Janeiro has made big improvements with more and more treatment of sewage in the past few years. But a goal of cleaning the bay and other waterways in time for the Olympics will not be met. This is particularly unfortunate given that these Olympic Games are the first to be held in a city on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean,” he said.

People need to be asking, what will happen once the Olympic flame is extinguished?
Lee Igel, New York University

Muggah said a major question mark over the Olympics was how much it would eventually cost, and whether it was worth the price tag. He cited a recent study that found all of the past summer and winter Olympic Games had exceeded their budgets by 179 per cent on average.

“The Rio Olympic Committee believes that the Games will significantly improve public transportation infrastructure, provide venues for schools and communities, and enhance the tourist infrastructure, including through the building of 70 new hotels,” he said.

“But the costs – both in terms of lost opportunities, disruption of poorer marginalised communities and displacement – have been significant.”

New York University’s Lee said it was “dangerous” to make predictions about how people in the future might remember the Rio Olympics.

“Unless there is some catastrophe that gets in the way, the Rio Olympics will go on as scheduled. People need to be asking, what will happen once the Olympic flame is extinguished?” he said.

Despite the challenges Rio is facing, Brazilians in Rio are ready to party hard at the biggest sporting event Brazil has ever held.

Brazilian Tata Prosperi embodied the sense of optimism her country is known for when she said: “We are living through one of the worst economic crisis, it is true, but that seems less important in front of the excitement of receiving the most important event in the world at home.”