A year since the Rio Olympics, legacy of the games is tattered

Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald on

Published in Olympics

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Maracana Stadium pulsed with samba, bossa nova and forro music a year ago during the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, but since then, Brazil's storied temple of soccer has barely been used.

Odebrecht, the giant construction company that helped renovate the stadium and is the majority shareholder in stadium concessionaire Maracana SA, is embroiled in a massive Brazilian corruption scandal. The soccer arena has scarcely been maintained and the concessionaire has asked for such high rental rates that most teams can't afford to play there.

Maracana is one of the more symbolic post-Olympic casualties as Rio de Janeiro marks the first anniversary of the 2016 Games -- the first to be held in South America.

During an anniversary event at Olympic Park, one of the musical groups performing on an outdoor stage had to make repeated announcements to muster an audience of less than 100 people. Small groups of people ambled around the park gawking at the arenas, including the Velodromo where a falling unmanned hot-air balloon set off a July 30 fire that scorched a wedge-shaped section of the roof.

That lackluster event could serve as a metaphor for the sports legacy of the games. While the competition itself and the party Rio threw for fans from around the world was considered a success, and the city got an important boost to its transportation system as a result of the games, the sports facilities have languished as Brazil struggles to emerge from a prolonged recession.

"They are all fulfilling their destiny as white elephants just as people thought they would," said Lucio de Castro, an investigative sports journalist who writes the Sportlight blog. Most of the Olympic facilities aren't in use, or are only being used sporadically.

For de Castro, the fate of Maracana -- where Brazil finally managed to win its first Olympic gold medal in its beloved national sport in 2016 -- is especially troubling.

"Before it was a symbol of the city; a place for the masses. Now the soccer clubs of Rio are looking for alternative sites for games," he said. During renovations, the low-cost bench seats were pulled out. When the stadium was renovated for the 2014 World Cup, the capacity was reduced to 78,000. In the old days, attendance sometimes soared toward a stadium-shaking 200,000 fans.

In the past year, Maracana has been vandalized and its velvety pitch allowed to go dry, and the Olympic pool where American swimmer Michael Phelps won his 23rd gold medal in a career that has spanned five Olympiads has been disassembled but is yet to be repurposed.

It's possible that water needed to put out the fire at the Velodromo has permanently damaged the track, which must be constantly air conditioned to preserve the Siberian pine flooring.

Arenas called Carioca I, II and III are used for occasional competitions, but their schedules are far from full. The handball arena was supposed to be transformed into four schools, but there is no money.

The Barra da Tijuca apartments that housed athletes have been renamed the Ilha Pura (Pure Island) development and are being marketed as condominiums, but so far sales have been sluggish.

"I think the legacy is much less than hoped for because of the timing," said Armando Castelar Pinheiro, an economist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. "The legacy was run over by the state crisis."

In the months before the Olympics, impeachment proceedings began against former President Dilma Rousseff for misusing funds to mask budget deficits and she was finally forced from office last Aug. 31.

When Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup, it was entering a recession and by the time the Olympics came to town, Rio was in economic crisis. The state of Rio de Janeiro gets much of its revenue from oil royalties, and as the price of oil plummeted, the state's fortunes declined rapidly.

Former Gov. Sergio Cabral and associates are in jail for what prosecutors called the systematic collection of bribes related to public works projects. Most Rio state employees haven't been paid in months, and the cash-strapped Organizing Committee for the Rio Olympics still owes various vendors around $38 million for hosting the Paralympics, which followed the Olympics.

And now the military, so visible last August, has returned to Rio to crack down on drug trafficking and a wave of hijackings of cargo-laden trucks. At least one other thing remains the same: Guanabara Bay, which was supposed to be cleaned up for Olympic sailing events, is still filthy.

Even some of the awarded medals are rusting and need to be repaired at Brazil's mint.

But go to Rio's formerly forbidding port area, now rechristened as Porto Maravilha (Marvelous Port), or ride one of Rio's new rapid transit buses or the subway extension from Ipanema to Barra da Tijuca that whisked Olympic fans from Rio's beach neighborhoods to the Olympic Park and Olympic Village and you'll see an entirely different Olympic legacy.

State, local and federal governments used the World Cup and the Olympics as an opportunity to push through transportation projects and redevelopment of the port -- projects that had been talked about for decades, but couldn't get off the ground.

A decrepit 2.5-mile elevated highway cut the waterfront off from the rest of downtown Rio. Not that anyone wanted to go there. It was dark and dank and surrounded by aging warehouses and buildings with smashed windows.

Now the ugly viaduct has been pulled down, many buildings have been splashed with bright murals, a rapid transit bus delivers people to the port area, and at least some of the old warehouses have been rehabbed and used for events, such as the recent Rio Gastronomy fair, which brought together top chefs who offered tasting samples and gave cooking demonstrations.

Long lines of people now wait to get into the new Museum of Tomorrow, which was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. It sits on a pier jutting out into Guanabara Bay. The biggest difference is there are actually people -- on lunch break, visiting the museum or posing with large letters that spell out Te Amo Rio (I Love You Rio) -- along the waterfront.

Luis Fernandes, who was deputy sports minister during the 2014 World Cup and the lead-up to the Olympics, said the new transit lines and the port development are the most-positive parts of the legacy. "The port is now an area where people go to have a good time and it's become a new area of development."

Had the government not changed so abruptly, plans to redevelop the Olympic Park might have continued, too, he said. "We've been deeply affected by the political and economic rupture."

In an op-ed piece he wrote for O Globo newspaper, Eduardo Paes, the former mayor of Rio, said Brazil's economic and political crisis of the last three years "overshadow Olympic conquests, and even worse, make the Games to some extent responsible for the current problems of Rio."

But while he acknowledged errors were committed, he said the Olympics wasn't responsible for bankrupting Rio or causing the other problems that Brazilians are now living through. Instead, he said, the Rio games "were the cheapest in history with the largest amount of private resources."

"I'm certainly disappointed that Brazil didn't get more in terms of legacy (from the World Cup and the Olympics)," said Fernandes, now a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio, "but the events themselves were a great success and we did get positive returns in terms of tourism and job creation."

(Whitefield traveled to Brazil as part of an exchange program sponsored by the Washington-based International Center for Journalists.)

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