Nick Butler

Whisper it softly, but our sporting scandalometer was slightly steadier last week.

We had the odd moment here and there: a Russian European Games boost and more FIFA Presidential manifestos, and tennis stepped up to the breach, of course, with a new spin placed on old allegations about match fixing.

But the lack of major developments in the ever-escalating athletics and football dramas gave us more time to focus on other issues, including the still uncertain preparations for Rio 2016 after another chaotic week, which began with celebrations marking 200 days until the Opening Ceremony.

A floating grandstand at the rowing and canoe sprint venue on the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas was abandoned, meaning a loss of 4,000 seats, with a reduction also mooted at the Copacabana Bay beach volleyball venue. Domestic ticket sales have been disappointing thus far, with 90 per cent of Paralympic and half of Olympic seats still to be sold. There are also concerns over whether locals would be able to travel on trains, buses and the subway during the Games (about which we eventually received a richly detailed, if slightly ambiguous, 625 word clarifying statement).

Oh, and there are also heightened fears over outbreaks of the Zika virus, with pregnant women advised not to travel to 14 Pan American nations and territories, including Brazil.

The funny thing is, Zika virus aside, none of this really needed to be that big a deal. The widely reported beach volleyball reduction, for example, turned out to be untrue and the result of some “ambiguity” in a press conference. And the rowing reduction, while a blow, had been mooted for months and was widely expected.

A loss of seats at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas was one of several negative stories involving Rio 2016 last week ©Getty Images
A loss of seats at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas was one of several negative stories involving Rio 2016 last week ©Getty Images

Organisers arguably don't always help themselves, however. The confusion over the volleyball reports would have been helped by a general correcting statement being sent out, while rowing and canoeing officials were being rather unhelpfully “reassured” by Rio officials all last year that the floating grandstands would still materialise despite the deep rooted doubts.

It reminded me of a particularly nauseating press conference I attended last year where the speakers adopted a technique - familiar for any journalist who has worked in China or Brazil - where convoluted “opening remarks” lasted so long that most journalists had either fallen asleep, lost all enthusiasm or become irritated enough to ask the most confrontational question possible.

Marco Antônio Cabral, the Secretary for Sport within the State Government, then insisted they had enjoyed a lot of success reducing pollution levels on Guanabara Bay, and would not be far from their targeted 80 per cent reduction by the time of the Games, despite most independent observers believing the problem had got worse.

In another incident, a colleague was once told something by one Rio official, corrected by an email from another, only to check again with the initial speaker, who still maintained he had been right all along. 

Organisers do, admittedly, have the most difficult job in sports administration at the moment and are being forced to deal with many issues out of their control, And a sharp and coherent message does not really appear the Brazilian way. Part of the problem is all these different levers of Government and organisation which have responsibility for specific areas and I have lost count of the number of times someone has told us: “We cannot answer that because it is not covered by us…”

Even the poor ticket sales may not be that much of a worry, I feel, as the culture is so last-minute that many may simply not have got around to ordering them yet. We shall see.

There is no doubt, however, that more profound challenges also exist than “ambiguity”.

Water pollution concerns, particularly on Guanabara Bay, remain a major challenge ©Getty Images
Water pollution concerns, particularly on Guanabara Bay, remain a major challenge ©Getty Images

Water pollution is one, whatever organisers insist, and there is no doubt Brazil’s worst recession in 25 years is making a big difference. Inflation is soaring, real prices are rising and the budget has already been cut by around 30 per cent.

It remains possible that the Games could become a vehicle for protests against many of these wider problems.

I have never been anywhere where there seems such a hatred of those in power from the general public as Brazil, and when you consider the level of corruption across business, politics and sport in recent times, it is not surprising. Even President Dilma Rousseff, the ex-Marxist guerrilla fighter and darling of the poor, has been dragged into it by the scandal in state-owned oil giants Petrobras, which is also threatening to engulf various Olympic construction contracts.

Many normal Brazilians therefore see the Olympics as just another chance for the powers-that-be to line their pockets.

Taking advantage of my sister having spent a year in Brazil, I carried out a tried and tested modern journalistic research method known as a “Facebook vox-pop” with her friends, speaking to just three individuals, admittedly, but of different ages, genders and backgrounds.

“The city is divided on staging the Games,” said the first, from Rio de Janeiro itself. “Many think it is a joke to hold a mega event like this, when so many basic public services are routinely overlooked. Others think it is important to foster the local economy, although most of the investments are being paid by the Government, which will result in higher taxes in the future.”

Major demonstrations have taken place in Rio this month against rising bus prices ©Getty Images
Major demonstrations have taken place in Rio this month against rising bus prices ©Getty Images

The other two were both from Recife, a city 2,300 kilometres away to the north-east.

"Having the Olympics in Brazil is something great,” said one, a 28-year-old who was born in a favela community and now works for a Coca-Cola social project. “I'm happy about it. I'm not excited though personally because I wanted to be able to go and watch seeing as it's in my country. But because I'm not wealthy I have no way of paying for the journey, accommodation and tickets. And watching on TV is the same as it being anywhere in the world.”

The final response came from a lawyer in his 40s. “The expectation of the Olympic Games here is still somewhat shrouded by so many allegations of corruption linked to the Federal Government,” he said. “TV channels like ESPN and Globo transmit daily images and advertise the Olympics, but at the moment, people here are not very keen on this.

“The Municipal Government is very excited about the Games, it worked quite effectively to realise them. However, the State Government did the opposite, and has spent too much on projects that do not meet the public interest and in the end has no money to meet sick people who line up in public state hospitals.

“They say Rio's drug traffickers are not really enjoying the presence of so many policemen in the Olympic city. However, others say that the value of drugs will increase, because the Games will attract many foreign and domestic tourists thirsty for the famous Rio cocaine.”

This final remark I found particularly interesting simply because the views of drug traffickers were deemed significant enough to be mentioned. The wider consensus appears that, while there is some excitement, the Games are not really considered justifiable given the wider economic problems.

Growing numbers of security forces are arriving in Rio ahead of the Games ©Getty Images
Growing numbers of security forces are arriving in Rio ahead of the Games ©Getty Images

And yet, it is worth remembering that many people in Britain would have said the same ahead of London 2012. Once the Games begin, the positives may still overshadow these concerns.

"I know there are worries about the economy in Brazil et cetera, et cetera,” Patrick Hickey, a member of the IOC’s Coordination Commission, told insidethegames last week. “But the Brazilians have a great way of celebrating, and we think that a touch of carnival will kick in. Every city, ever, for the Games, there’s been doubts and worries, going back to Barcelona and Athens, and look what happened - they were all great Games."

Hickey, also President of the European Olympic Committees and Olympic Council of Ireland, is not exactly a neutral source, but he has almost 30 years of experience in these things. And he does have a point.

In more recent times, there was almost nothing positive to say in the build-up to Sochi 2014 before a largely successful event. Similar things could be said about the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

The IOC had no way of knowing the economy would take such a dive from its highs of 2009, when Rio was selected over Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago. Yet it is worth remembering that Rio was not awarded the Games because of Brazil’s reputation for reliability, but because of the “carnival culture” Hickey so describes, as well as the chance to visit a new continent.

Success, therefore, can still be achieved, but the next few weeks are critical and another major setback could prove disastrous and turn Brazilians further against their own event.