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Are the Rio Olympics Really Going to Be a Complete Disaster?

Sure, but not because of contaminated water

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Getty Images

The opening ceremony of the Olympics is going to get rained out. Visa rules are making tourism impossible, leaving the host city deserted. An algae outbreak has filled the waters intended for sailing events with bright green mush. The air is so polluted that experts are comparing it to “feeding an athlete poison.” Nations are moving their training camps to neighboring countries. There won’t be enough water to keep the city running during the Games. The Olympic torch was extinguished. Hackers could strike at any moment. Local broadcasters are preventing U.S. networks from filming anything. American athletes are being forced to bring their own food. Locusts could invade. Security risks are high, and the government is brutally cracking down on protesters amid sweeping human rights violations.

Remember what a disaster the Beijing Olympics were? No? That might be because they were, well, fine. There was plenty of food and water; the effect of pollution on athletes was negligible; security risks were overblown; the opening ceremony was spectacular. Despite the backdrop of ongoing human rights violations, the games were widely heralded as a success.

For months before China’s debut as an Olympic host, much of the world gritted its teeth, certain that the Middle Kingdom was about to unleash a cataclysm upon us all. Something similar seems to be happening now with Rio: The belief in just about every quarter is that the 2016 Olympic Games, which kick off in less than six weeks, will be a disaster of epic proportions.

There has been no shortage of reasons for concern: Brazil is mired in economic and political instability; water at Olympic sites has been found to be contaminated with bacteria; the Rio lab that was set to process all drug testing was just suspended by the World Anti-Doping Agency; the velodrome still hasn’t been completed; activists have alleged many human rights violations, including violence by police toward children. The Rio governor himself cautioned this week that the event could be a “big failure.” Oh, and last week, organizers shot a jaguar, the games’ mascot, when — whoops! — it got loose at a torch-lighting ceremony.

There’s also the looming threat of the Zika virus, the effects of which are still not fully understood; in addition to the risk to attendees of the games, infected visitors may hasten its spread worldwide once they return home. Athletes including golfers Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and American cyclist Tejay van Garderen have dropped out of the Games over Zika-related concerns.

But for all the doomsaying, it would be wise to expect something a lot less dramatic than the disaster we’ve been promised in South America’s first Olympic Games.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Brazil’s organizers have insisted that planning is on track and that 98 percent of the Olympic Park was finished as of last month, and there are reasons to believe them. Rio’s bid called for the construction of nine permanent and seven temporary venues as well as the refurbishing of numerous existing stadiums; many of these, like the 15,000-seat, sustainability-minded Olympic Aquatics Stadium, have already opened to acclaim. The planning commission continues to insist that pollution in Guanabara Bay, where sailing events will take place, will be mostly treated by the opening ceremony, while athletes who have practiced there report no trouble. And for all the political tumult, it would be reasonable to expect that visitors will be left in peace, as they were during Brazil’s World Cup two years ago.

As for Zika: The actual risk of visitors contracting it is fairly low during Brazil’s winter, when contagion-spreading mosquitos are significantly less prevalent; the World Health Organization found that there is “very low risk” that the games will appreciably spread the virus globally. It’s not wrong to be concerned about Zika — the virus will have serious and long-lasting effects around the world, regardless of whether the Olympics spur a major outbreak — but the current science strongly suggests that the paranoia surrounding it has vastly outpaced the real threat.

In the run-up to 2014, planning for the World Cup was met with many of the same concerns, Zika aside. But the tournament was largely a success, and it checked most of the boxes FIFA must surely have imagined: infrastructure capable of withstanding massive crowds; respectable stadiums, many of them brand new; and a tournament without any disaster greater than that which befell the host’s national team.

The 2014 World Cup also made FIFA a record amount of money — much of it at the cost of Brazilian taxpayers. And that’s where we’re at with major international events that run into the tens of billions of dollars: There’s an agreement to pretend that the construction of new venues and the influx of visitors will benefit the host country in the long run, in spite of copious evidence that this is virtually never the case. Two years after the World Cup, Brazil is in worse shape than it was two years ago, and the country is dotted with unusable stadiums and bus depots built for the event. But none of this is exactly surprising: Whatever organizations like FIFA and the IOC promise, major international tournaments are almost always a net loss for host countries.

There’s a tendency toward alarmist handwringing around these major events, particularly when they’re held outside of Europe and North America: It happened in Beijing, in Sochi, and in New Delhi ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. But each event, despite the steady tide of shocking updates that preceded it, provided the successful monument to athleticism and patriotism that it had promised.

So in the end, whether or not Rio is a disaster might depend on how you define it. Will the events start on time, and will visitors from around the world be treated to watching their nations’ greatest athletes represent them? Almost certainly yes. The real disaster will probably be the glitzy, wildly expensive one that organizers, the IOC, residents of Brazil, and fans have had every reason to expect all along: The mistake of hosting an Olympic Games in the first place.