Skip to main content

Cars drive in front of 2016 Rio Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 31, 2016. Picture taken July 31, 2016.RICARDO MORAES/Reuters

One of the most gruelling endurance sports of the Rio Games is unfolding not inside a stadium but on the streets of this seaside city. Call it the Olympic traffic marathon.

The city's notorious road congestion has posed a logistics puzzle for Canadian Olympic organizers, to say nothing of the ordinary Brazilians who have seen their commutes double and triple in recent weeks. And this was before the arrival of a half-million visitors.

The motto on Brazil's flag is Ordem e Progresso Order and Progress – but neither quality is readily apparent when it comes to moving people through Rio's choked streets. Blame it in part on the city's natural beauty. The sea and mountains squeeze motorists through winding roadways that weren't built to accommodate the skyrocketing numbers of vehicles on them.

It's enough to give the sweats to Canadian officials who need to ensure athletes make it on time to training and competition sites spread out in venues across the city. The main Olympic Park and athletes' village is located in Barra de Tijuca, a suburb that sprawls far to the city's west.

"Honestly, when we first arrived here, we were worried about transportation," admits Eric Myles, the executive director of sports at the Canadian Olympic Committee. He says he's been reassured by measures like reserved Olympics bus lanes and a newly opened roadway from the athletes' village to venues in Deodoro, and he's now confident that competitors will make it to their sites in under an hour.

Globe guide: What to expect at the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics

Some teams aren't taking any chances. Canadian rowing and canoe/kayak athletes are staying near their competition site at Ipanema's Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, where traffic is known to be especially dense, and the beach volleyball team is being housed close to its venue in Copacabana.

Even before the world's biggest sports competition came to town, the city of over six million was rated the fourth-most congested in the world, according to the TomTom Traffic Index. Since Olympic visitors began arriving, local media have reported 20-kilometre-long traffic jams.

Authorities in Rio have brought in measures to avert chaos. Mayor Eduardo Paes, taking a festive approach to traffic management, declared four municipal holidays tied to the Olympics, beginning with two this past week. The usual winter school holidays – this is the Southern Hemisphere, and these Summer Games are happening in the winter – were switched to August from July, all in an attempt to get motorists off the roads.

Planners also added dedicated Olympic bus lanes for athletes and officials. The measure has been a boon to those with credentials but made life more miserable for ordinary Rio residents, who see it as yet more evidence that the Olympics are bringing benefits to a few, but few benefits to them.

They include people like taxi driver Mario Pessoa, who says traffic around Olympic sites is so bad he avoids them altogether. Mr. Pessoa says he loves the Olympics, he just doesn't see how the ones held in his home city will help people such as himself.

"É para inglês ver," he says about the Olympic investments in his city, using a common expression in Brazil that means they are a façade for foreigners, "for the English to see."

"I'd be happier to have it invested on other things that we need more, like education, health, better transportation – basically, everything," he said from behind the wheel of his yellow cab.

Sandro Barbosa, who works behind the desk in a Copacabana hotel, saw his usual 45-minute bus ride from his home near the Olympic Park stretch to four hours this week. He says he saw no positive impact from having his country host either the Pan Am Games in 2007 or the World Cup two years ago. "I'd like to be optimistic. But I think it will be the same with the Olympics," he said.

Even the Games' signature legacy project, the extension of the metro line toward Barra de Tijuca, site of the Olympic Park, is mired in controversy. It finally opened on Monday, just days before the opening of the Games, at a cost of $3-billion (U.S.). It is a gleaming showpiece that, earlier this week, had few people riding on it, and will only be accessible to the general public in September at the earliest. Even then, it links popular tourist zones to Barra, a wealthy district with higher-than-average car ownership.

"It's symbolic of the urban bling that Rio has put around its neck," Christopher Gaffney, a University of Zurich research fellow who studies the impact of major sports events on cities. "This is a farcical project designed by Rio's elites for Rio's elites, and it will not deliver any significant improvements to the city's transportation."

Critics note that while the Olympic metro line got built, a long-promised subway line that would have served an area in the east with five times the population, all of them poor and stuck commuting on rickety buses, never made it off the drawing board.

Olympics organizers have expressed confidence about their ability to move people around efficiently during the Games. The Brazilian government has promised it will take athletes no more than 50 minutes to get to their competition areas. It sounds like a reassuring prediction. Like the Games' competitions themselves, however, all bets are off about the actual results.