Since the modern Olympic Games began in Athens way back in 1896, they have been a herculean logistical challenge: Athletes, coaches, media, and fans descend on a single city from around the world, swarm new arenas, collect a few medals, and vanish a month later.
But even by the epic standards of the Summer Olympics, the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro have already been marred by glaring problems, from the downright gross (raw sewage in Rio’s bay) to the catastrophic (a “state of public calamity” has been declared) and even potentially epidemic (the Zika virus).
It’s a mess—a tangle of complicated problems that affect fans, athletes, and Brazilians alike. And as the Games have drawn closer, the city’s leadership has started to hedge their bets. Even as Mayor Eduardo Paes said that Brazil’s famous beachfront metropolis would be ready, calling it a “transformed city,” he told media that visitors should not expect everything to work perfectly.
At this rate, they'll be lucky if anything works at all. Here are 12 of the biggest, ugliest problems that will face people at the Rio Olympics—if the Games don't get canceled in the first place.
For a city known for its pristine beaches, Rio has long contended with disgusting water in Guanabara Bay—exactly where long-distance swimmers and sailors are set to compete. A water analysis from the Associated Press found that none of Rio’s three aquatic venues would be safe for competition, and that they are so contaminated with “basically raw sewage” that anyone who swims in them will likely become violently sick.
Worse yet, a 16-month-long study published less than a week before the start of the Games found that the water and beaches are so contaminated, anyone who consumes even three teaspoons of water is almost certain to get dangerously ill, The Associated Press reported.
There are two causes: “Super-bacteria,” which likely entered the bay from raw sewage from hospitals, and adenoviruses, which have infested the water there at levels that are 1.7 million times what would be considered dangerous, let alone safe, in the U.S. or Europe.
"Don't put your head under water," biomedical expert Valerie Harwood told the AP—hardly a consolation to open-water swimmers who will be competing there.
Mere weeks before all 10,000 athletes are expected to arrive in the Olympic village, the teams have discovered that less than half of the 31 apartment towers slated to house them are even remotely habitable. The Australians arrived on July 24 to "blocked toilets, leaking pipes and exposed wiring," delegation head Kitty Chiller said. When they performed a "stress test" on the plumbing, "water came flooding down the walls," and some of the apartments smell like natural gas, team spokesman Mike Tancred said. (Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, said "I am just about to put a kangaroo in front of their building so it can jump and make them feel at home.")
It's just not the Australians, either—19 of the 31 towers haven't passed inspection yet, a Rio spokesman admitted.
The living conditions are so bad, in fact, that the Italian team decided to hire their own contractors (link in Italian) to finish up their condos. And when a fire started in the Australian dorm, the team discovered that not only had the fire alarms in the building been disabled, but also that when they returned to their dorm, their personal items like laptops had been stolen.
Combine nearly half a million spectators with a rapidly spreading, mosquito-borne virus that causes dangerous birth defects and the Rio Olympics has the potential to be the epicenter of a global health epidemic.
That’s what the experts are saying, at least. “The Brazilian strain of Zika virus harms health in ways that science has not observed before,” a group of 150 health experts wrote in an open letter to the World Health Organization calling for the Games to be delayed over the Zika threat. “It is unethical to run the risk, just for Games that could proceed anyway, if postponed and/or moved.”
A Brazilian official working on the Olympics said that the Zika risk is relatively low because the Olympics will take place during Brazil’s winter, when mosquito populations drop. But in the public eye, the damage may already have been done.
Whether real or overstated, the Zika threat is already dulling the Olympics’ shine. A number of high-profile athletes, including top golfers Jason Day and Rory McIlroy and American cyclist Tejay van Garderen, have cited Zika as their reason for not competing at the games.
But Zika isn’t the only reason athletes have dropped out. Team USA will be making the trip without many of its top basketball stars, including Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry, NBA Finals MVP LeBron James, NBA Defensive MVP Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. Golf, too, took a hit, as Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel, Vijay Singh, and Shane Lowry have bowed out, citing existing commitments.
Super-bacteria isn't the worst of it. Rio’s fishermen have been protesting the pollution there for years, and now the waters there have been choked by an oil slick right as sailors from around the world converge on the bay for practice ahead of the games.
“You get mad because it shouldn’t be like this anywhere,” Finnish sailor Camilla Cedercreutz told The Wall Street Journal. “It shouldn’t be this dirty. But there’s nothing we can do about it.”
When the Russian track and field team was banned from the Rio Olympics over steroid use—and Russia’s fly-by-night cover-up operation to swap dirty urine samples with clean ones—it cast a long shadow over the Games.
The scandal has been out of the hands of the Rio organizers, but it does put increasing pressure on the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee to prove they have stepped up their monitoring of steroid use.
The cloud of doping scandals is in Rio to stay. Just six weeks before the Games, the WADA suspended the laboratory that was set to handle Rio’s doping testing over its “nonconformity” with international anti-doping standards. The standards will have to be transported to another WADA-accredited lab, the WADA says.
The state of Rio has declared a “state of public calamity” less than 50 days before the Games begin, one of the grimmest and most severe harbingers of what the New York Times called a “man-made, foreseeable, preventable catastrophe.” Leonardo Espindola, a top Rio state official, said in April that “we are nearing a social collapse in our state.” Francisco Dornelles, the state’s governor, admitted that Rio is staring at a financial crisis so bad that it could no longer pay its contractors, leading to what might be “a total collapse in public security, health, education, mobility and environmental management,” he said.
Brazil’s federal government plans to bail out the state with $849 million, but that’s against an expected Olympic cost of at least $12 billion. And even then, the city is roiled by unrest: Angry civil police officers held up banners at the city’s airport that read “Welcome to hell” because firefighters and police officers do not get paid.
About that crisis: The state of Rio already owes $21 billion to the federal government, and another $10 billion to public banks and international lenders, meaning it not only can’t afford its mounting Olympic expenses but also its basic services to keep the city functioning. Hospitals have closed, teachers have gone on strike, and the city’s police force has essentially occupied its slums in a (so far unsuccessful) effort to tamp down on crime.
All this occurs against an even worse backdrop of national economic downturn—Brazil’s GDP has dropped by a staggering 3.8% in a single year, its fifth straight year of decline—and a huge corruption scandal that led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.
With eyes from around the world fixed squarely on the Games, the Olympics have always been faced with heightened security issues—and Rio is no exception. As the Games approach, Brazil has focused on combating a new Portuguese-language front from the Islamic State.
“The concern with Islamic State has always been on our radar,” Brazilian Defense Minister Raul Jungmann told The Wall Street Journal.
While the threat is there in name, it has not yet been confirmed: “We do not have any evidence, up until this point, that takes us to a level of concern, that prompts alarm, panic,” Minister of Institutional Security Sergio Etchegoyen, told the Journal.
Rio has long been a city of extremes, its brilliant beaches contrasting sharply with the crowded, impoverished favelas. But the city’s rise in crime has coincided with the arrival of fans, media, and athletes from around the world. In May, three members of Spain’s sailing team were robbed at gunpoint while walking to breakfast, and in June, two members of Australia’s Paralympic Sailing Team were robbed at gunpoint while riding bikes in a park near their hotel. They're getting bolder, too: Thieves hijacked a German media truck stocked with valuable broadcasting equipment in July.
And not all the crime has been street-level. After a June raid at the headquarters of a consortium of companies building the Olympic venues, Brazilian Federal Police said they’d found evidence of fraud and false documents related to waste disposal. Two of the companies in the consortium were also implicated in the country’s graft scandal.