Pestilence. Disease. Roving bands of criminals. Unfinished buildings dotting the landscape.
No, this isn’t the backdrop to the latest installment of The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner, this is the reality facing the city of Rio de Janeiro as it opens the 2016 Olympics this week.
In 2009, Brazil was awarded the bid for this year’s summer Olympics by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in part by using guilt and pointing out that Brazil was the only one of the world’s ten largest economies to have never hosted an Olympic Games, noting that North America, Europe, and East Asia had all hosted the games a number of times. Brazil desired mightily to prove that it was no longer an underdeveloped Third World country, but instead a model socialist utopia.
Mission most certainly NOT accomplished.
Like an South America’s own Baghdad Bob, the host country and the IOC have desperately tried to deny and dismiss the massive problems facing Rio in the months leading up to the opening of the games. And boy, are there some serious problems!
Brazil is in the midst of an outbreak of the Zika virus, which is carried by mosquitos and can lead to serious illness and even death. It has caused deformities and even death in the babies of infected pregnant women. The outbreak is so concerning (despite the IOC and World Health Organization promising that everything will be fine) that a group of 200 doctors and bioethicists signed a letter months ago urging the games be postponed or moved to another city. Many athletes have pulled out of the games rather than risk infection. Understandable, considering one athlete had to have emergency surgery after a minor cut got infected in Rio’s waters.
Zika is not the only infection risk facing athletes in Rio. Massive amounts of pollution and raw human sewage, including feces, continues to be dumped in the river and waterways where the athletes will be competing in the sailing, rowing, and open-water swimming events. The level of dangerous viruses in the water is astonishingly high, so much so that Dr. Valerie Harwood, Chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida, warned athletes not to put their heads under water, lest they accidentally ingest some of the polluted water and become “violently ill”. The situation is so bad that athletes and visitors are being warned that even the sand on the beach contains dangerous levels of viruses. The beaches have also been found to contain drug-resistant bacteria.
If you come to the Olympics and manage to survive the polluted water, deadly viruses, and drug-resistant bacteria, you are still at significant risk to your life and safety. Because of a strike by the police, the Brazilian military has been brought in to provide security. At the Rio airport, visitors are greeted by police holding a banner reading “Welcome to Hell: police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe!” That’s comforting.
Rio is plagued by heavily armed criminal gangs roaming the streets, which have committed nearly 100,000 violent crimes in the first six months of this year, including 31 victims killed during attempted robberies. Already, Olympic athletes have been robbed, news crews have been attacked and had their equipment stolen, and one athlete was kidnapped and driven around the city, forced to withdraw money from ATM’s. These criminal gangs also seem to prefer international visitors, with an average of fifteen foreign tourists targeted for attacks each day since the opening of the athletes’ village on July 24th. All of this is on top of the political unrest that was already present before the start of the games, as well as the ever-present danger of terrorists targeting such a high-profile event.
And if you manage to avoid the deadly viruses, polluted water, roving criminal gangs, and terrorists, you are still at mortal risk from the infrastructure itself. Last month, the New York Times’ Vanessa Barbara posted an article revealing that, with just weeks before the start of the Olympics, the city looked like a “huge construction site”, stating that “almost all venues are still under construction”. Even as the games were getting underway workers were still lazily working on these unfinished projects. The quality of the work is extremely suspect as well. In April a bike path collapsed and killed two people (seriously…how can you screw up a bike path so bad that it kills people?!).
The people who suffer most may be the people of Brazil themselves. The final cost for hosting the Olympics looks to be $12 billion, and they are projecting just $5-6 billion in revenues, half of which will go to the IOC. This is a difficult burden to bear for a country struggling through its worst financial crisis and recession in nearly a quarter century. And if history repeats itself, within just a few years these infrastructure investments will be abandoned and dilapidated. Just twenty years after Atlanta hosted the 1996 summer Olympics, the only Olympic structure still standing is Turner Field, which will no longer be hosting games after this season since the Braves are moving to suburban Cobb County. It may just turn out that the city of Boston, which turned down the Olympics after refusing to put its taxpayers on the hook for the inevitable cost overruns, will come out on top in this big mess.
It may be amusing in the abstract to sit back and look at this massive comedy of errors on display by a nation trying to highlight the grandeur and majesty of its socialist utopia, but the dangers facing the Olympic athletes and the tens of thousands of visitors is not the least bit funny. Here’s praying that we make it through this Olympiad with no deaths or injuries from disease, crime, terrorism, or collapsing infrastructure.
On a bright note, in spirit the Olympics embody the best of humanity; athletes who have spent years dedicated to becoming the best in their sport, having spent untold thousands of hours in a single-minded pursuit of excellence, overcoming obstacles and set-backs, all for a chance at claiming glory during this narrow window in time. Such dedication and sacrifice should be celebrated and honored. Indeed, a respect and honor for such traits is essential to maintaining the American spirit and way of life, where we have spent centuries doing what others claimed could not be done.