Rio's Olympics Quest: Can It Handle the 2016 Games?

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Rio2016 / Reuters

The Maracana soccer stadium, left, and the Maracanazinho volleyball venue in Rio de Janeiro are seen in this illustration released by Comite Rio 2016. The International Olympic Committee will select the winning bid for the 2016 Olympics on Oct. 2, 2009. Chicago, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and Madrid are competing to be the chosen city

If life is fair, then the International Olympic Committee will next week declare that Brazil has been chosen to host the 2016 Summer Olympics and thus become the first South American nation to win one of sports' greatest honors.

The other main contenders are the U.S., Spain and Japan, and they've all hosted the Olympics before. So, Brazilians, with their beaches, sun, and a vibrant economy whose recent performance has shamed many developing-world rivals, believe that Rio de Janiero — and South America — deserves the chance to show what it can do.

"It isn't right that the Olympics be held in the U.S. for the eighth time," Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said recently, in what was just one in a series of typical appeals to IOC delegates. "It's not possible that it be in England in 2012 and in another European country in 2016 ... It's not fair that Brazil, one of the 10 biggest economies in the world for 30 years; that Brazil, one of the world's industrialized countries, a nation that has demonstrated its love for sports; it's not fair that Brazil not be chosen."

Lula has a point, but as the former union leader knows, life isn't always fair. If it were, then Rio, while a front runner, would be in a stronger position to win next Friday's decision and edge out Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo. It can claim experience: Rio hosted the Pan American Games in 2007, an event that should have transformed the still sometimes provincial resort into a more modern, more international and safer city.

The problem is, it didn't quite do that. Winning the 2007 Pan American Games was considered a big, if sometimes chaotic, success for Rio. To triumph over rival bidder San Antonio, officials used the same argument — that this was Rio's turn. To back that up, they promised to transform the city with a new ring road system, something called a "via light" railway (presumably a light railway), a new state highway and 54 km of new metro lines.

But none of the roads, nary a kilometer of metro line, were built. Authorities also promised to clean up the Guanabara Bay, the fetid body of water whose smell assails visitors driving into town from the international airport. Although hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, the stench persists and the bay remains a stinking eyesore.

Those broken promises are still an issue for those admittedly few Cariocas who care about such things. The Pan Ams might have provided a three-week jamboree for millions of athletes, locals and visitors, but when the closing ceremony ended, the city returned to its usual mess, said Chico Alencar, a Rio Congressman who campaigned for investigations into the massive overspending at the Pan Am Games. "The chronic problems that we have here are the same as they always were," Alencar said. "I want Rio to win the right to host the games, but we need to learn from our past mistakes and the myth of the Pan American Games and all that they didn't leave behind. If we get the Olympics, then all sectors of society need to unite to ensure that there is a social legacy and no overspending."

The Pan Ams reportedly ended up costing many times the original estimate of $177 million, a phenomenal amount given that none of the money went to the promised infrastructure projects. (Some reports had the final costs in Rio close to $2 billion; the costs of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, according to Chinese organizers, totaled roughly $2.5 billion.) Some commentators said that was indicative of corruption, but it also suggests serious deficiencies in organization and planning. "Brazil is still learning how to do continuous public policy," Alencar said. "Public works are emergency, localized, specific. There is no strategic planning involved. That was what happened with the Pan Ams."

More worrying still is that lessons appear not to have been learned. Almost two years after Brazil was awarded the right to host the 2014 soccer World Cup, work has yet to start on its 12 stadiums. A proposed bullet train linking São Paulo and Rio is supposed to be operational in time for the tournament, but the official tender has not been issued yet, and even politicians are now admitting it could be late.

Nevertheless, those betting on Rio may take heart from the fact that the IOC appears to have skimmed over the Pan Am Games debacle. Rio's bid, which promises more such transport links and infrastructure projects, was described as "detailed and of a very high quality" by the games committee in its most recent report. Another upside is that Rio has a well-deserved reputation as one of the world's most stunningly beautiful and welcoming cities. The third upside is the one that Lula and Rio officials have been hammering home: that fair is fair; that this is South America's turn. It is a valid argument. South America deserves its chance. But it also needs someone to make sure it keeps its promises.