Rio de Janeiro will be the site of the 2016 Olympic Games, the first South American city to host the event. Part of the Olympic Park will be gradually transformed into a sustainable and accessible new residential neighborhood. (Photo Courtesy of RIO2016)

Rio de Janeiro will be the site of the 2016 Olympic Games, the first South American city to host the event. Part of the Olympic Park will be gradually transformed into a sustainable and accessible new residential neighborhood. (Photo Courtesy of RIO2016)

It is envisioned as one of the grandest parties in the Western Hemisphere—the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro will be the first South American city to host the quadrennial showpiece, and the events in “Cidade Maravilhosa” (Marvelous City) are expected to constitute one of the most expansive Games ever.

For more than two weeks, beginning August 5, 2016, the activities will be staged in nearly three dozen venues over four Rio neighborhoods called clusters—Barra de Tijuca, Copacabana, Deodoro, and Maracanã. Of those Olympic venues, 18 are already operating, nine will be new, and seven will be temporary. The Olympic Village is being built on 185 acres (75 ha) and will hold 17,700 beds in three- and four-bedroom apartments in 31 condominium buildings.

However, concern that Rio might not be ready in time for the Games is growing louder. After a three-day site visit in March, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) used its website to voice its reservations—couched in highly diplomatic terms:  “The delivery timelines of some of the venues for test events and the Games have faced delays, and now leave no margin for any further slippages.”

The language quoted by independent news media was more straightforward. John D. Coates, vice president of the IOC, was quoted in the New York Times saying, “We’ve become very concerned, to be quite frank. They really are not ready in many, many ways.” Issues include the lack of progress on the Deodoro sports complex, and pollution in waterways that will be used for aquatic events.

According to Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, the Games represent a unique opportunity to accelerate much-needed infrastructure investment that, in the absence of the Olympics, would only be realized over a much longer term.

“Rio de Janeiro will probably be the host city which will leave the biggest legacy of all,” says Maria Silvia Bastos Marques, president of the Municipal Olympic Company, which is coordinating the Rio City Hall’s projects for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. “That is because the investments underway are not only for the Games, but to transform and renovate the city. It’s a big challenge to promote and deliver this amount of work, not only in changes citizens experience on a daily basis, but also in terms of managing the process. These challenges are being met with planning, effort, transparency, and integration with other levels of government, the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee, and residents.”

With a sleek, curved roof, the velodrome has a conceptual design considered to be among the boldest of all the venues. (Photo Courtesy of RIO2016)

With a sleek, curved roof, the velodrome has a conceptual design considered to be among the boldest of all the venues. (Photo Courtesy of RIO2016)

Urban Goals In preparing for the Olympics as well as the FIFA World Cup, which the country is hosting in June and July of this year, the federal, state, and local governments are seeking not only to build world-class venues, but also to combat urban sprawl, improve mass transit, build new schools, and integrate some of the city’s favelas—the residences of the poor built on hillsides, where one in five city residents lives—into the social and economic fabric of the city.

In the transportation initiative, Rio’s plan to move Olympic spectators and workers via public transit is based on accelerating existing projects, creating a “high-performance transport ring” that includes a renovated train system, an expanded metro/subway structure, and four new bus rapid transit (BRT) lines. This network, to be integrated at several stations and link all four Games clusters with key areas of the city, is intended to transform the urban environment and leave a legacy of significant social impact after the Games conclude.

Designed to maximize use of existing projects, the transport ring will expand and improve the city’s transportation network, helping provide Rio residents with a mass transit system compatible with the city’s future needs. Plans call for extension of one of Rio Metro’s two underground lines more than seven miles (11 km) and adding six more subway stations. Expected to be completed by December 2015, the expanded system is forecast to eventually carry 230,000 passengers per day.

“The main project is the implementation of a BRT system that includes high-capacity express buses that will travel in 94 miles [152 km] of segregated lanes,” says Marques. “In addition, the system will integrate the whole city, linking the BRT buses to trains, ferries, and subways; increasing the use of high-capacity transport from less than 20 percent to over 60 percent; and benefiting around 1.3 million passengers.” The first BRT lane, the TransOeste line, has been in operation since 2012; the second, the TransCarioca line, will start operating this year, he said.

With such improvements and worldwide attention on the city, the Olympics could bring a better sense of self-esteem to Rio and Brazil, says Alberto Murray, a former member of the Brazilian Olympic Committee (BOC) whose grandfather, Major Sylvio de Magalhães Padilha, was president of the BOC for 27 years. “Rio is the postcard of Brazil, and I see no other city in the country that could host the Games,” says Murray. “If the Games are democratically shown to the world, the world will see a beautiful city and a beautiful country, but one with social problems that must be resolved. The social problems cannot be hidden from the world.”

The iconnic Maracana Stadium will be the venue for the Olympic and Paralymic opening and closing ceremonies, as well as soccer matches. (Photo Courtesy of RIO2016)

The iconnic Maracana Stadium will be the venue for the Olympic and Paralymic opening and closing ceremonies, as well as soccer matches. (Photo Courtesy of RIO2016)

Sprawling Expenses The cost of holding the 2016 Olympics is staggering. Brazilian authorities say upwards of 5.6 billion reais ($2.3 billion) will be spent on infrastructure directly related to the event. Those costs will rise as projects are added; many of the largest investments such as a new subway line and renovation of Porto Maravilha were excluded from the Olympics tally. Because many of the infrastructure improvements such as airport upgrades are also for the World Cup, precise cost figures for the Games are unavailable.

Rio officials have sought to attract private investment and reduce the use of public resources, Marques says. “Public/private partnerships and other types of private partnerships have been an excellent option for achieving this,” she notes. “These initiatives ensure the financial sustainability of the city and enable important and impacting projects like the revitalization of the Porto Maravilha area—the biggest ongoing public/private partnerships in the country at a cost of 8 billion reais [$3.4 billion]—and the construction of an important part of the 2016 Olympic Park.” Other partnerships with the private sector include the Athletes Village and the renovation of the Sambadrome, which will host the archery competition, she says. A mixture of funds from the municipal and federal treasuries, together with loans, are financing other public infrastructure projects not undertaken with private resources.

Renovation of Porto Maravilha, the existing port located in a historic area of Rio and one of the city’s main gateways, is expected to be completed in 2016. Work includes construction of 2.5 miles (4 km) of tunnels and overpasses, redevelopment of 43.5 miles (70 km) of streets, and construction of 435 miles (700 km) of sewer, water, and telephone networks. Areas for art, culture, entertainment, education, and housing are also being created, including the Rio Museum of Arts, which opened in March 2013. The Porto Maravilha project also includes the 9.2 million-square-foot (850,000 sq m) Olympic Port, which will include the Media Village, the Referee Village, a hotel, and operations centers.

As part of its plan to move Olympic spectators and workers via public transit, Rio is expanding its bus rapid transit system. The TransOeste line has been in operation since 2012. (Photo Courtesy of RIO2016)

As part of its plan to move Olympic spectators and workers via public transit, Rio is expanding its bus rapid transit system. The TransOeste line has been in operation since 2012. (Photo Courtesy of RIO2016)

Spending billions on preparations for the World Cup and Olympics is not favored by all Brazilians. Last year, street protests—some violent—challenged government priorities such as building new soccer stadiums in a nation where public schools and hospitals remain in less-than-adequate condition. A historic threshold was crossed with those demonstrations, says John J. MacAloon, professor of the social sciences graduate division and emeritus director of the master of arts program in the social sciences at the University of Chicago, and an expert on the economics of the Olympics.

“All Olympic projects have organized opposition,” MacAloon explains. “The citizens of Denver, by referendum, once forced the city to give back the rights to host the Games because the city would have to take on huge debt to pay for improvements.” That vote, in November 1972, led to Innsbruck, Austria, having to step in as host of the 1976 Games.

“However, the leaders of these campaigns are generally ignorant of or disinterested in sport. With the number of candidate cities dwindling, many in the International Olympic Committee have become seriously worried by what Rio represents for the future. Those in Rio demonstrating against the Games cite not only the economic factors, but also criticize the international image and marketing agenda as empty and meaningless.” However, that has not dampened the enthusiasm of others for the Games, and construction continues at a frantic pace. As part of its commitment to sustainability, the city is seeking certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program for the construction of the sports halls and the other permanent venues of the Olympic Park to ensure that the buildings are designed, constructed, and operated in a way that reduces their environmental impact. Design of the temporary venues will be based on nomadic architecture—modular buildings that can be disassembled and reused, processed, and moved around to ensure a minimal impact on the environment.

Much of the Olympic activity is centered on Barra de Tijuca. This area will be the site of the most venues, including the Olympic and Paralympic villages, the Olympic Park, and Riocentro, where sports such as gymnastics will be held. After the Games, part of Olympic Park will be gradually transformed into a sustainable and accessible new residential neighborhood, says Marques. The sports venues will become the Olympic Training Center, dedicated to high-performance athletes and intended to be the largest sports legacy of the event. It will be composed of three sports halls—the Maria Lenk Aquatic Center, the velodrome, and the tennis center—allowing the city to host international sports competitions in the future.

Rio’s historic Porto Mravilha is being renovated at a cost of $3.4 billion in one of the biggest public/private partnerships in the country. (Photo Courtesy of RIO2016)

After the Games

The master plan for the 2016 Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games was created by Los Angeles–based global design firm AECOM, along with Rio’s DG Architecture, the United Kingdom’s Wilkinson Eyre Architects, Spain’s Pujol Barcelona Architects, Expedition of London, and New York’s IMG Sports and Entertainment.

AECOM’s master plan involves three phases: the Olympic Park area during the Games, a transition plan for the period after the Games, and the final plan, which is intended to showcase the 2016 Olympic legacy. In addition to the 31 17-story towers where the athletes will stay during the Games—with private infrastructure such as sewers and roads expected to be completed on time for the Olympics in 42 months—a 700,000-square-foot (65,000 sq m) public park is planned.

Unlike other Olympic cities, where facilities were built in areas that needed renovation, Rio’s Athletes Village will be constructed in Ilha Pura in Barra de Tijuca, and development will continue for more than 15 years after the Games conclude. The Olympic Village is expected to become luxury housing, with the more than 3,600 apartments used by the 18,000 athletes sold to buyers. The planned four-bedroom apartments in Ilha Pura will be 2,200 square feet (200 sq m), compared with 1,600 square feet (150 sq m) in Rio’s wealthy enclaves such as Ipanema and Leblon—a key selling point.

The decision to build luxury condos for the wealthy has raised some eyebrows. “I think if the government is paying the bill, there should be some sort of subsidies for poor people to be able to buy apartments there,” says Murray. “Many feel the Olympic Games are being held not for the good of the sports and of the citizens, but for the interest of real estate speculation.”

Andrew Zimbalist, Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and an expert on the economics of the Olympic Games, questions building luxury condos on the site. “[D]o they have enough high-end individuals who are able to buy a luxury condo?” asks Zimbalist. “Maybe the Athletes Village should have been turned into low- or middle-income housing for the people in the favelas.”

The Deodoro zone, a military facility that has been used in the past for sports events, will host several Olympic competitions, including modern pentathlon, shooting, equestrian events, cycling, canoe/kayak (slalom), and fencing. The Copacabana cluster will be the Olympic venue for rowing, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, and beach volleyball. The Maracanã district houses Rio’s famed 80,000-seat Maracanã Stadium, which will be the site of the opening and closing ceremonies and some soccer.

For the World Cup and the Olympic Games, the area adjacent to the Maracanã Stadium will undergo large-scale renewal. Roads will be redesigned to facilitate access to the stadium as well as its connection to the São Cristóvão neighborhood and Avenida Brasil, a major thoroughfare. But the project also includes the relocation of the Favela do Metro on Avenida Radial Oeste, a major Rio favela that is home to 728 households and 119 businesses.

“That’s the problem when you build Olympic venues in city neighborhoods,” says Zimbalist. “You are dislocating and relocating people and need to provide them with livelihoods and housing. Sometimes you move them 30–50 miles [48 to 80 km] away. It’s difficult—difficult on the human level and also difficult socially and politically. It irritates people who are directly and indirectly affected. And they protest.”

In addition to the protestors, one of the biggest worries within the Olympic community is crime. City officials say that issue is being handled. Pedro Dantas, a spokesman for the Rio de Janeiro Public Security Secretariat, says Rio is already taking necessary precautions and improving its safety record.

“The security forces are ready to ensure a safe city and a safe event,” says Dantas. “It is important to emphasize that the Confederations Cup and World Youth Day happened in Rio de Janeiro without any serious incident, and security was guaranteed to delegations, authorities, and the public in both events.” At the beginning of the current administration in 2007, there were 37.8 homicides per year for every 100,000 city residents; in 2012, that number had fallen to 18.9, he says. “While this is not an ideal rate, Rio does not figure among the top 50 most violent cities in the world. It’s a good beginning,” he says.

Brazil will continue to spend vast amounts to build Olympic venues, improve the city’s infrastructure, and relocate thousands of residents. “The Olympics are very grand, but is it the best use of Brazil’s resources?” asks Zimbalist. “Brazil has a lot of resources, but there is even more poverty—and a lack of transportation, adequate health care, good education. People are angry that money is spent on the Olympics and is not being used for more pressing societal needs.”

Nonetheless, Rio de Janeiro is at a special moment in its history, says Marques. “The Olympic and Paralympic Games have an important role to play in the generation of opportunities linked to the event,” she says. “For Rio de Janeiro, it leaves a lasting legacy that includes not only investments in venues, but also in infrastructure projects, such as in transportation and redevelopment, accommodation, and others. Rio has suffered from the lack of investments and the absence of new development projects. It needed an important event—a tipping point—to regain its identity. And now the City Hall is taking advantage of the Olympic Games to leverage investments that the city needs in order to be transformed.”

The 31 17-story towers planned in the Athletes Village in Barra de Tijuca will house 18,000 athletes in three- and four-bedroom apartments. After the Games, the development will continue for 15 years, with the Athletes Village expected to become luxury housing. (Photo Courtesy of RIO2016)

The 31 17-story towers planned in the Athletes Village in Barra de Tijuca will house 18,000 athletes in three- and four-bedroom apartments. After the Games, the development will continue for 15 years, with the Athletes Village expected to become luxury housing. (Photo Courtesy of RIO2016)

Mike Sheridan is a freelance writer in Parsippany, New Jersey.