On Rio’s shores: Brazil’s Olympic journey nears its destination

After seven years that began with hope but have brought all manner of difficulties, the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games are finally here.

On Rio’s shores: Brazil’s Olympic journey nears its destination

After seven years that began with hope but have brought all manner of difficulties, the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games are finally here. Leonardo Gryner, the chief operating officer and deputy chief executive of the local organising committee, remains convinced it will all be worthwhile.

By Eoin Connolly

The founding principles of the Olympic movement are inherently optimistic. “The Olympic Games,” said their modern founder, Pierre de Coubertin, “are a pilgrimage to the past and an act of faith in the future.”

The very concept is a challenge to its adherents to be the best they can be – to go higher and faster and be stronger – and the promise is that trying will bring its own rewards. For the hosts of modern Games, the same applies. Whatever the forensically budgeted plans and the careful projections of financial impact, staging an Olympics is a public act of self-improvement: a city seeking the greatest version of itself.

The real test comes when optimism meets reality.

“The world has recognised that the time has come for Brazil,” said Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, president of the country when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) named Rio de Janeiro as the host of the 2016 Olympic Games back in 2009. It was a sentiment that many would have shared at that moment.

Rio had seen off the challenge of Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago, the latter with personal backing from a box-fresh President Barack Obama. Brazil, five years away from hosting a Fifa World Cup, was among the celebrated BRIC group of fast-emerging economic powers, alongside Russia, India and China – South Africa was added the following year. Midway through his second term as president, Lula led a pragmatic yet modernising administration which had vastly improved the country’s international standing and lifted tens of millions out of poverty. He was one of the most popular political leaders, anywhere, in the modern age.

Optimism; reality. The Brazil of the intervening years has been beset with trials – foreseeable and otherwise – that it has not yet overcome. Its destiny is not what was imagined for it seven years ago. Abundant growth has yielded to depression, corruption has bled dry confidence in public officials. A US$2.5 billion bribery scandal involving the state oil company, Petrobras, and its main contractors has implicated many of the country’s leaders and fundamentally undermined the economy.

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, is suspended awaiting the outcome of an impeachment trial for illicitly manipulating deficit figures to win a second term; for many months, her low approval ratings betrayed a widely held opinion she was culpable for the Petrobras fiasco. Lula himself has drawn the interest of prosecutors who wonder how far he is implicated.

That chaos has spread to all areas of government life. Three men have served as sports minister in 2016 alone: George Hilton, Ricardo Leyser, and now Leonardo Picciani.

Even before all of that, protests at misdirected public spending had become a regular occurrence. The state of Rio is bankrupt, and dependent on a federal bailout. According to Leonardo Espíndola, chief of staff for acting governor Francisco Dornelles, it will run a deficit of around R$20 billion (US$5.8 billion) this year.

President Lula of Brazil (centre) celebrates with members of the bid team as Rio is awarded the rights to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

As if to add a biblical dimension, there is a national public health emergency after the outbreak of the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne and sexually transmitted illness which causes only mild symptoms in a minority of adult sufferers, but can cause microcephaly in any offspring they conceive or bear while carrying it.

Amidst this maelstrom, an Olympic and Paralympic obligation seems not so much a distraction as a nuisance. Yet optimism tested is not the same as optimism exhausted. Leonardo Gryner, the deputy chief executive of the Rio 2016 local organising committee, remains “absolutely sure” that the city will deliver the kind of Games it promised seven years ago.

 “We promised, in our bid, lots of passion and transformation, and that’s exactly what we’re delivering now,” he says, speaking to SportsPro a month before the opening ceremony. “We are delivering lots of passion in the way we have dedicated ourselves and the Brazilian society. So the atmosphere that the visitors will live here in Rio, and a huge transformation of the city. We were very fortunate that the government understood well this possibility and potential of the Olympic Games to transform the city and took it very seriously. And, in fairness to them, in many areas they went beyond what was promised in the bid.”

Gryner has been involved in some way with every Summer Games since 1976. He was marketing and communications director of the Rio 2016 bid team, and then of the local organising committee (LOC). In 2010 he was named Rio 2016 general director. Two years later, in a reshuffle which brought Sidney Levy into the chief executive’s role, he became chief operating officer and deputy chief executive, his Olympic experience brought to bear on the proliferating organisational challenges.

Together with Levy and Rio 2016 president Carlos Nuzman, he is part of a triumvirate which has led Rio 2016 through its own difficulties. In April 2014 IOC officials used the occasion of the SportAccord Convention in Belek, Turkey to launch a sustained attack on Rio’s preparations, with Australia’s IOC vice president John Coates describing them as “the worst I have experienced”. The result was greater integration between an IOC task force and the LOC, with more regular assessments from IOC executive director Gilberto Felli. Coming just a few months before public attention moved from Brazil’s 2014 Fifa World Cup to Rio, it was a telling moment.

On a visit to the city in April 2016, Coates declared himself impressed with the progress Rio had made since and said the organisers were ready “to rise to the challenges and deliver Olympic and Paralympic Games that will reflect the Brazilians’ warmth, hospitality and passion for sport”. 

Making the comparison with the World Cup, where the host cities were not chosen until two years after Brazil was awarded the tournament, Gryner suggests that the exacting nature of the bid process has kept Rio from straying too far from its initial vision.

“Since the very beginning,” he says, “we knew exactly where our venues would be located, how the park would be set up, how the new transport system that would be required to run the Games should be built, so it’s a more detailed and robust plan that we had to provide. And that, in some ways, helped us to guarantee that we would deliver exactly what was required to run a smooth Games.”

From that point of existential concern for the Rio Games two years ago, Gryner reports now that only the “final touches” need to be applied. Yet even with the venues and key Games infrastructure completed, one final construction delay has loomed over the last weeks of preparations for Rio 2016. Metro Linha 4, running from the beachside district of Ipanema to Barra da Tijuca, where the Barra Olympic Park is located, had not yet opened at the time of publication. Gryner insists that the subway “will be delivered” and will open on 1st August, though its use will be restricted to ticket holders, athletes, and accredited staff and media until after the Games.

“We knew from the very beginning that this was going to be one of the most challenging projects we have within the whole Games because it’s a 16km line of subway,” he says. “Just so you can have an idea, that’s exactly the amount that we have so far in terms of subway rails, so we are doubling the extension of the lines. But we’ve managed to do it; the construction is over, the trains are being tested.”

Over the years since Rio was awarded the Games, there have been periodic concerns as well about a sluggish commercial operation – not least as economic conditions have worsened. In the days after Gryner speaks to SportsPro, a Reuters report claims that the LOC is running a deficit of between R$400 million (US$123 million) and R$500 million (US$154 million). This is rejected by LOC international media manager Philip Wilkinson, who insists that the team is “on course to deliver a balanced budget for the Games”.

The condition of the city's waters around Guanabara Bay, where sailing events will be held, is an ongoing concern.

The operational budget, not including related spending on infrastructure, is posted at US$3.6 billion. Last December, Rio 2016 revealed it would make cutbacks of around 30 per cent to avoid exceeding that target.

“We were all committed to being on budget,” says Gryner. “Due to that, we took the decision to make a very frugal event. We are not doing spectaculars or big stadiums or big constructions, you know, that will cost very much, and at the end of the day the use of it will be exactly the same if it was simpler. And we took the simpler option to be ours. And it’s working very well. We’ve tested all the venues already in our test events; all of them worked very, very well. The athletes were very pleased with the stadiums when they came here to participate in our test events. So we are very happy. We think we took the right decision.”

Funding has been a more profound issue for the state government, which declared a state of financial emergency in June. Protests followed from police officers, who at the end of the month held banners at Galeão International Airport which read: ‘Welcome to Hell. Police and firefighters don’t get paid; Whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.’ 

As SportsPro was going to press, reports emerged of a state government fire sale, with even the governor’s summer residence on Brocoio Island up for grabs. As far as the Games are concerned, however, Gryner is adamant that all commitments will be met.

“The state has delivered everything that they promised,” he says. “All levels of government, even though they’re going through the challenges that they are facing – the state government has one sort of problem and the federal government another sort of problem – they all committed to keep the Games protected. That happened, so we are getting the subway from the state government; all the stadiums that they had to deliver, they delivered to us; many other services that they had to provide is being provided by the state, even the sustainability programme we have for the cleaning of the bay and the cleaning of local water.

“It won’t exactly reach the targets that we established in the bid but it has undergone a very extensive investment and has improved, a lot, the sewage treatments around the Guanabara Bay in the last seven years. So I would say that that decision to protect the Games worked and we will be able to deliver the Games as expected and as committed back in 2009.”

The condition of Guanabara Bay, where the sailing events will be held at the Marina da Glória, has been another long-running concern.

“We have in Rio a very active commercial port, and due to that we have a very large and deep channel that comes into the bay to enable the ships to arrive and dock into this port,” Gryner explains. “In this area, we have absolutely clean waters because there is a lot of exchange between the sea and the water inside the bay; there is a constant flow of water. And that’s where we have all our richest wild animals’ environment. We have dolphins there – our city is famous for them, it’s part of our city logo, the two dolphins, and that’s where you can find them.

“Of course we placed the races, the sailing courses, exactly on top of this channel to make sure that the athletes will enjoy a perfect environment for them to perform.”

The issue, he adds, lies in the surrounding waters. Rivers and tributaries flow from 13 different cities in the Rio metropolitan area, including Rio de Janeiro, into the bay. “So in order for us to clean up the bay, we have to establish a series of measures and clean it not only under the responsibility of the city of Rio de Janeiro but around these 13 cities that go around the city of Rio de Janeiro and make up our greater metropolitan area,” Gryner says.

When Rio was given the Games in 2009, just 11 per cent of the sewage that flowed into the bay was treated. That figure now stands at 60 per cent – a fivefold improvement but, Gryner concedes, short of the 80 per cent target in the bid phase.

Leonardo Gryner, the chief operating officer and deputy chief executive of Rio's local organising committtee. 

“The other issue that we have in the Guanabara Bay is the issue of waste – not sewage, but waste,” he continues. “And this is because of the situation of underprivileged communities around this metropolitan area. Lots of waste comes through these rivers that I just mentioned to you, and we need to improve the garbage collection in all those 13 different cities.”

Everything from plastic bags to body parts has been found in the waters near competition venues in recent years, and the problem is one that will require further civic cooperation in the years ahead. In the meantime, the organisers “are putting what we call ‘eco-barriers’ at the point where the rivers meet the bay to hold up all this waste”. In this way, Gryner says, “we can make sure that the water will be free of any debris or anything that could harm any competitor that will be participating in the Games”.

The other environmental threat to the health and safety of visitors could not have been predicted when planning began. Brazil is one of around 60 countries to have reported cases of the Zika virus in the past year, and the state of Rio has been particularly affected. The matter has been highlighted by a spate of high-profile athlete withdrawals – though this phenomenon, admittedly, has almost exclusively afflicted wealthy male golfers – but none of the 17,000 participants in test events contracted the virus.

And despite the elevated risk in Brazil more generally, both the World Health Organisation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported a very low risk of any further spread of the virus during Rio 2016. There is speculation that Zika may have peaked in Brazil but the reasoning behind the official advice is straightforward: it is winter. 

“We normally have an increase on diseases transmitted by mosquitos, in general – many types of diseases – during our summer, which is the rainy season here in Rio,” Gryner says. “So usually from October/November to March/April is the time in the year where we have a huge increase in the number of diseases, many diseases, caused and transmitted by mosquitos. And that drops down close to zero in this period from June to September.”

In all hope, then, the Games should avoid the unpleasant legacy that further transmission of the disease would represent. Nonetheless, doubts remain over what Rio’s citizens will inherit when the Paralympic flame goes out in September, not least when so many of the stadiums built for the 2014 World Cup are currently struggling to justify the updates needed for that event.

Gryner, however, still believes that Rio 2016 will have a transformative impact. For one thing, he argues that the Olympic Park, which will be home to “the first Olympic training centre in Brazil and the first Olympic training centre in South America”, will make Brazil “a hub for Olympic sports in the coming years” and even more of “a destination for athletes in this region of the world, South America”. He cites the expansion of the city’s hotel capacity from 20,000 rooms to 54,000 as evidence of its increased ability to welcome visitors and events, and the new golf course as an example of how Rio 2016 will inspire sports tourism.

The Paralympics, too, can leave a physical and cultural legacy. Gryner expects a strong performance from the hosts in September, when an improvement on the seventh-placed finish in the medals table achieved at London 2012 is likely, but he believes amendments to public spaces and facilities to be the real achievement. “Once you see those athletes performing during the Games, it will be one of the biggest transformations in the city,” he says. “It will be a more accessible city, with public transport and everything fully accessible, and with a new perception towards people with disability.”

Others share Gryner’s view of how Rio 2016 will affect the city’s future. In a July interview with the Guardian, Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes admitted to a number of regrets around the management of the Games: the need to displace residents, the death of two cyclists on a new coastal path, how events had conspired to cloud perceptions of the city for its celebratory moment. But he, too, remains convinced that Rio 2016 will bring change for the better, that the Games have been “a great inspiration to get things done”.     

"It’s amazing to see how people are enjoying all the transformations."

Rio de Janeiro’s authorities have spent a reported R$24 billion (US$7.57 billion) on legacy projects around the city, including the new metro line, a rapid bus system, a light railway and new highways. The effects are already being felt. 18 per cent of Cariocas used public transport in 2009; 63 per cent do so today.

“I had a very privileged seat here, watching all this transformation happening just in front of me,” says Gryner. “And I have to confess that I go every weekend, almost, I go and visit all the different parts of the city that have been transformed, and I can’t hold myself. I so admire what has been delivered so far. The new port area in the city of Rio is receiving so many visitors already over the weekend, in a downtown area of the city where we didn’t have anything happening over the weekend – restaurants would close, nobody was walking there, although we have some museums and some cultural centres there. But because of the renovation, now you have many more visitors in those areas and last weekend, when I was walking by, I saw that many restaurants already started to open over the weekend in the downtown area of the city, bringing more business.

“So it’s amazing to see how people are enjoying all the transformations. The other day I was using the new light rail train that is going around the city. It was so crammed; people were so happy and enjoying it. All the conversations, all the talk inside the train was about the train, and, wow, how it’s wonderful and how good the new transport is and how well it’s managed. So people are enjoying this transformation of the city and it’s amazing to be here and watching what’s going on. It will not only be a fantastic experience for those who will visit Rio during the Games but for the citizens of Rio in the years to come.”