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Rio Olympics: will Brazil be ready? Why so much of the world thinks it won’t.

Kayaker in front of Rio landscape
As the Olympics prepare to open, many are worried that Rio won’t be ready.
Lars Baron/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

When a new elevated bike path in Rio collapsed in April, hit by a fluke wave, the deaths of two people weren’t just seen as a tragedy. The collapse became an irresistible metaphor for the state of Olympic readiness in Brazil.

As Rio prepares for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, which open Friday night, the bike path is not the only disaster to serve that purpose. There were also the body parts washing up on the shore where beach volleyball games will be played, the toxically polluted bay that will host swimming and sailing events, and the skydivers who fell to their deaths trying to recreate the Olympic rings.

The concerns about Rio de Janeiro’s readiness are understandable: Brazil has the unenviable task of hosting an Olympics at the intersection of more crises than many nations see in a decade. The good news is that the Games themselves probably won’t seem like a disaster. The bad news is that they could end up worsening Brazil’s already deep problems.

Rio’s Olympics plans have run into snags

Police officer in Brazil
Brazilian police are underfunded and now have to provide security for a huge international event.
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Rio is struggling even more than other host cities because its economic fortunes have changed dramatically since it won the right to host the games in 2009. Rio began planning the Olympics when Brazil was in the middle of an economic boom. But now it’s hosting them during what could be the worst recession the country has ever experienced.

Brazil spent the late 2000s on an economic hot streak. While Europe and the United States were mired in a recession and slow recovery, Brazil’s economy — by 2011, the world’s sixth largest — was expanding. The poverty rate dropped from 25 percent in 2003 to 9 percent in 2013. Incomes went up. Unemployment in its biggest cities fell from near 13 percent in the early 2000s to below 5 percent in 2014.

When the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Rio, the choice was seen as a way to help the country continue growing and to give South America its first host city. If Brazil had continued to grow, that strategy might have worked out.

But beginning in 2011, Brazil’s growth started to slow. Prices for the country’s main exports, such as soy, oil, and sugar, fell; a massive scandal involving the state-run oil company engulfed the government and hurt consumer confidence. Wages fell. Unemployment began to rise. In the first quarter of 2016 alone, the country’s economy shrank nearly 6 percent. Inflation has soared, and Brazilians are finding it harder and harder to pay back the household debt they took on when economic times were good.

A struggling economy made it more difficult to complete the expensive infrastructure and logistical projects needed to host the Olympics. By 2014, the International Olympic Committee was suggesting that Rio was less prepared than any host in history.

Coordination between the city, state, and federal governments was difficult. Construction projects were running behind. The state of Rio had planned to spend $4 billion to clean up the polluted Guanabara Bay, where some events will be held; in the end, it spent just $170 million.

In June, the acting governor of Rio de Janeiro state declared a state of financial disaster in order to rearrange its budget and requested nearly $900 million in federal funding.

The economic calamity has also created many other problems. Police budgets in Rio state have fallen by one-third, and crime rose 15 percent in the first four months of 2016 when compared with 2015. Striking police officers held a sign at the international airport reading, "Welcome to Hell … Whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe."

All of this — combined with the more typical construction delays that frequently plague Olympic hosts — would be enough to make the games a challenge. But the perception that they are doomed to fail has been worsened by political and public health crises in Brazil.

Brazil is also dealing with a political crisis — and the Zika virus

Dilma Rousseff
Dilma Rousseff is facing an impeachment trail.
Igo Estrela/Getty Images

The economic crisis has been intertwined with a political crisis that brought down the Brazilian government. President Dilma Rousseff is facing an impeachment trial, officially on charges of manipulating figures to make the economy seem better than it was during the 2014 election but also because she’s extraordinarily unpopular. A verdict must be reached by the end of August or early September.

Her vice president, Michel Temer, is serving as president during the trial, but it’s so far unclear if Rousseff will actually be ousted. Meanwhile, about 60 percent of Brazilian members of Congress are also under investigation for corruption. The political instability makes it even more difficult for Brazil to address its plummeting economy.

The Zika virus has layered on yet another crisis. Brazil, and Rio de Janeiro in particular, has been hit harder than anywhere else in the world by the mosquito-borne illness, which can cause serious birth defects as well as more minor symptoms. As of July 29, Brazil has had more than 165,000 Zika cases this year, nearly one-quarter of which have been in the state of Rio.

The good news is that it’s winter in Brazil, mosquito season is ending, and the number of new cases is dropping fast. It’s unlikely that many athletes or visitors to Rio will be infected with Zika, as Vox’s Julia Belluz explained.

Neither the political crisis nor the Zika virus is likely to have a major day-to-day impact on the Olympics. But both have added to the general perception that things in Brazil are pretty bad — and it’s reasonable to wonder if a country dealing with the triple threat of a deep recession, political instability, and a widespread epidemic can really pull off hosting a major international event.

The Olympics will probably be mostly okay, but some trends really are worrying

The good news for Rio is that nearly every recent Olympics has been preceded by hand-wringing about poor preparation and predictions of disaster.

Athens for the 2004 Olympics was so disorganized and behind schedule that officials took out an insurance policy to help mitigate the risk of having to cancel the event altogether. And the week before the Beijing Olympics opened in 2008, the city shut down factories and dramatically reduced traffic in a last-ditch attempt to improve air quality. In 2012, presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who served as the chief executive of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, made what was then considered a devastating gaffe when he implied London might not be ready in time.

And Rio, like the other cities, seems to be on a path to get many things done. The chronically overdue construction of a new subway line got to completion just in time — it opened Monday. The velodrome, the venue that took the longest to build, is finished. About 80 percent of tickets had been sold as of August 1 — meaning Rio is lagging behind the Summer Games in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, but on par with Athens in 2004 and Atlanta in 1996 — and the event is 95 percent of the way to its revenue target.

That doesn’t mean the city should be blindly optimistic. The pollution in Rio’s waterways is serious: The locations for the rowing and sailing races are ridden with viruses that could sicken athletes if they inadvertently end up swallowing water, according to an investigation from the Associated Press. Five times in the past 13 months, Copacabana Beach, where the marathon swimming and triathlon will take place, had so much rotavirus in the water that if it were located in California, it would have had to post water quality warnings.

Olympics officials are continuing to assert that the water will be fine. The other problems are less serious: The athletes’ village is reportedly in bad shape, but the Sochi Olympics started with journalists’ complaints that their hotel rooms had no wifi and sometimes no lightbulbs. These are of course annoyances for the people who endure them, but they’re not usually enough for the games themselves to be remembered as a disaster.

The real issue is that Rio has diverted resources for other problems to the Olympics

Even if the Olympics come off seamlessly — and at this point, Brazil could benefit from very low expectations — it won’t necessarily be a victory. Athens is a useful parallel here: After the chaotic preparations, the fact that the games were held at all might have seemed like a huge success. But the Athens Olympics piled on to Greece’s ballooning public debt, contributing to the country’s economic crisis a decade later.

For Brazil, the risk isn’t just that something will go badly, embarrassingly wrong in Rio. It’s that the country spent billions of dollars, amid a period of economic crisis, in exchange for an uncertain promise of publicity and a bigger role on the global stage.

The biggest beneficiaries of Olympic spending, as Alex Cuadros documented in the Atlantic, have been the elite who own land in the wealthy suburb of Barra de Tijuca. The athletes’ village will become a gated community, not subsidized housing. Brazil has hidden its favelas, famously crime-ridden poor neighborhoods, from international visitors flooding into town; it hasn’t been able to improve lives there in the way it hoped to when it won the Olympic bid.

While it’s far from certain that athletes will catch rotavirus from the polluted bay or Zika from mosquitoes, the deeper problems in Brazil aren’t going to be improved — and may well be worsened — by hosting the games.

The International Olympic Committee "brings its circus to town for 17 days and then, after the final fireworks end the most expensive party in the world, leaves, never to return," soccer journalist Peter Berlin wrote for Politico Magazine. "The host must clear up the broken bottles."

Watch: Inside Rio’s favelas

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