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World With the Rio Olympics looming, Brazilians are in no mood to celebrate

A woman holds a sign that reads ‘Bye Dilma’ next to a man holding a puppet of Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Andre Penner/AP

Mood

Brazil has never been much of an Olympic power – there is really only room for soccer in this country's sporting heart – but when Rio won the Games seven years ago, there was anticipation that, at least, this would be an opportunity for a rising superpower to show off. Flash forward to 100 days before the Olympics: In the midst of a massive political crisis, a collapsing economy and a public-health emergency, Brazilians aren't in much of a mood for a party. In fact, there is almost no media coverage of the impending Games here and Brazilians can rarely be heard discussing them. Rio 2016 officials say 62 per cent of 5.8 million tickets offered for sale so far have been purchased. Brazilians have other things on their minds: Unemployment is more than 10 per cent, and so is inflation; the country's international reputation is in tatters. "Forget people who live in the Amazon or Bahia or Sao Paulo – I live right here in Rio and even to me it feels so surreal that we're going to receive the Olympics in a few weeks. I know they're coming, but it seems so very far away from my daily life," said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist with the State University of Rio de Janeiro. And the Games, unlike the World Cup, are seen as an event for outsiders, he added. "People in Rio really love a good party, and I believe that the moment that the Games start, foreign tourists will be well received. But it will be very ephemeral."

Political crisis

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Brazil's Senate is considering an impeachment case against President Dilma Rousseff, and many analysts are predicting she could be removed from her job as soon as the middle of May. If that's the case, then it may be Vice-President Michel Temer who oversees the opening ceremonies in August. But there's an impeachment case against Mr. Temer, too, as well as corruption allegations, and it's not clear how long his new regime would last. Third in line to run the country is Eduardo Cunha, speaker of the lower house of Congress, but he has been indicted on corruption charges. Olympic preparations have progressed largely insulated from the drama in Brasilia, but the political upheaval could have an impact. The machinery of government is frozen at present. The Sports Ministry is among five without a minister in charge; Tourism got a new minister just a few days ago. If Mr. Temer takes over and appoints a new government, the people in charge of critical files during the Olympics will have been in their jobs for only days or weeks, Prof. Santoro noted.

The economy

Brazil's economy is in its worst recession since the 1930s, and the Olympic host city is particularly hard hit, since much of the Rio state budget relied on offshore oil sales; royalties have plummeted. Spending on virtually everything has been slashed, and the state is weeks behind in payment of civil-servant salaries and pensions and other benefits. Teachers have been on strike since March 2. "We ask people who are coming to Rio please not to get sick," Jorge Darze, the president of the doctors' union in Rio, told the newspaper Estadao after the governor declared a state of emergency in the health department. City residents' enthusiasm for the games was not boosted by the fact that the state government recently asked the federal one for an emergency loan of $280-million (U.S.) to finish the Olympic subway line. Before the World Cup, angry workers in several key sectors – such as police and rubbish collectors – seized the opportunity to strike, or threaten to. With 33 different sectors on strike here in the past month alone, there is serious risk of labour disruption around the Games.

Security

Among the budgets cut: $550-million (U.S.) was chopped from the state security budget last month. The security plan for the Games involves 38,000 military personnel and 47,000 police and other state security personnel, more than double the number deployed for the London Games. The state security secretary said plans for the Games would not be affected by the cuts, but it's not clear, actually, that the state can afford to pay what will effectively be a massive overtime bill to officers who work the event. It can compel them to work anyway – just, not happily. And they're needed: After years of improving public security in Rio, the situation has been deteriorating sharply in recent months. There are four murders a day in the city. A man was shot dead a week ago at 9 a.m. in an apparent hit related to criminal activity across the street from Rio's fanciest hotel, just blocks from the Copacabana Olympic venue. There were gunshots exchanged in at least seven different areas of the city in the past week. Pedro Heitor Barros Geraldo, an expert on public security with Fluminense Federal University in Rio, said there is no question the reduced spending is affecting what crimes are getting investigated and how well, and what equipment police have, but he said that the Olympics will be insulated. "The trademark of policing in Rio is inequality," he said, referring to the sharp difference between how wealthy neighbourhoods and favelas are policed. "And I predict that is what you will see at the games, too: Tourists, athletes, visiting government will get well treated – Brazilian citizens won't." Police will boost their presence and control movement so intently that Olympics-related areas will likely be safe for the duration of the Games, he predicted. There are wild card factors, however: A known Islamic State member has tweeted that the group plans to target the Olympics; Brazilian police have no experience in counterterrorism.

Venues

Organizers say the venues are 98-per-cent complete. The velodrome, equestrian centre and tennis centre are all behind schedule, but officials say there is no question they will be ready for the Games. Test events haven't gone perfectly – most critically, the gymnastics venues lost their electricity, and the scoring system didn't work during a recent test. But again, organizers say all this can be fixed (and that's why they hold tests). But tragic events in Rio last week have raised new questions about the safety of the venues: A public bike path along the sea, opened just 95 days ago, snapped under pressure from a wave and a portion of it plunged into the ocean, sending two people to their deaths. The construction firm that built the path had contracts to monitor building works for seven different Olympic-related projects. There are also mounting questions about how Olympics-related construction may be tied in to the giant corruption scandal known as Lava Jato, which is toppling Ms. Rousseff's government. Infrastructure giant Odebrecht, whose CEO has been sentenced to more than 19 years in jail for money laundering and corruption, had contracts on two key projects, the subway and the revitalization of the old Rio port.

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Transportation

A key part of Rio's plan was a new public transportation system to get visitors to the games and to be a legacy for city residents who battle some of the world's worst traffic. But neither a bus rapid transit system nor the crucial metro line are finished. Signposts around Rio that were optimistically erected to point the way to metro stations have now been stickered over with "coming in 2018." The key part of the metro was an extension linking Copacabana and Ipanema with the western suburb of Barra da Tijuca, site of the Olympic Park. Without the metro, it's a two-hour trip on a normal traffic day. Games organizers say the line will be finished days before the event begins – but there are rumours from the city planning office that the only new station that will open is the one at the park, and also that the city is testing an alternate transport plan using buses, in case the metro isn't done.

Olympics fever?

Rio is an epicentre for Brazil's Zika outbreak. The virus, once thought harmless, has been confirmed as the cause of catastrophic fetal brain injuries, with more than 5,000 confirmed or suspected cases diagnosed so far. Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes, seeking to assuage fears about Zika, not long ago remarked that dengue fever is a much bigger problem. Bleak, but true: There were nearly 19,000 cases of dengue – which can be fatal – in the city last year, and rates in the first three months of this year are six times higher than the same period in 2015. The mayor also likes to say that Zika won't be a big worry because August – the Brazilian winter – is cool and dry, bad weather for mosquitoes. The area around the Olympic park has recorded some of Rio's highest rates of dengue – likely because of the plethora of construction work that creates many pools of stagnant water, and because it's swampy ground to begin with. City officials say they have taken extra steps to control water pooling near the venues. And air conditioning was installed in the athletes' village to lower the risk that they might have windows open. Zika isn't just a risk for those who come to the Olympics: This strain has proven to be sexually transmissible, something the virus was never known to be before it hit Brazil – and Canada has confirmed its first case in someone infected by a person who travelled to a Zika-infected area.

Water

The Olympics legacy that Rio residents were most anticipating was the clean-up of the city's postcard-pretty, hideously polluted Guanabara Bay and the surrounding white sand beaches. The bay will host sailing, rowing and canoeing events, while competitors in the triathlon will swim off Copacabana. Rio's bid to host promised the water would get cleaned up; it didn't happen. "Guanabara Bay is polluted and it's not going to be unpolluted by August," said Carla Ramoa Chaves, a geographer with an expertise in Rio's water issues. Why not? The short explanation is that it's a really difficult problem to fix. Some 55 rivers drain down into the bay, and a "large majority" of these receive sewage as if they were part of a sanitation system, Ms. Chaves said. Only about 60 per cent of city households are attached to an actual sewage system and 14,000 industries surround the bay and dump a huge amount of untreated effluent. The clean-up plans got mired in bureaucracy, and the financial and economic crises (the agency that is supposed to monitor industrial pollution has had its inspector roster slashed, for example). The only thing that has actually changed, she says, is that the city deployed new boats to putter back and forth across the water picking up trash (and the occasional corpse). Ongoing tests by the Associated Press have found levels of bacteria and viruses so high that three teaspoons of water would theoretically be enough to sicken an athlete. Most, however, seem prepared to power through, and pay the price of a potential few days of illness after training for years to compete. "There's no way to know the real health risk," Ms. Chaves said.

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