Rio’s Olympics Woes Sour IOC on Developing World as Games Site – Wall Street Journal

Two women take a selfie in front of the Olympic Rings in Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro. The Olympic Games will take place in Rio from Aug. 5 to Aug. 21.

Several prominent members of the International Olympic Committee said the difficulty getting Rio de Janeiro ready for the Summer Games likely means the organization will shy away from again holding the world’s biggest sporting event in cities that exhibit any signs of instability.

The comments, among the strongest yet by IOC officials about their frustration with Rio’s preparations, show the organization backing away from a previous goal of opening up the Games to a broader selection of cities.

Rio, the first South American city to host the event, was supposed to mark the dawn of a new, more adventurous era for the IOC. It is instead shaping up as a cautionary tale about how volatile conditions can be in developing countries. Ambitions to hold the Olympics in Africa or India appear shelved indefinitely, according to IOC members and people who work closely with the organization.​

“Rio has been the biggest challenge we have ever faced,” said Gerhard Heiberg, a longtime IOC member from Norway, who headed the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer. “Maybe we will spend some more time thinking about going to the last continent. We need some assurance it will be a success.”

Though they say they remain optimistic about the Rio Games, IOC officials say getting the city ready has been consistently tumultuous and at times nearly calamitous.

Construction of the Olympic park lagged. The village for the athletes has barely been completed, with some athletes showing up to find exposed wiring, nonworking plumbing and darkened stairwells.

On Saturday, strong winds damaged part of the main ramp of Marina da Gloria, the chief access point for boats in the competition.

Rio abandoned its promise to clean up Guanabara Bay, site of Olympic sailing. “The bay is the biggest shortcoming,” ​said Michael Payne, a former IOC marketing director and onetime adviser to the Rio bid.​

Houses stand next to the heavily polluted shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio. Days before the Olympic Games, the waterways of Rio are as filthy as ever.

Also significant, a promised new transportati on network has been scaled back and remains largely untested on the cusp of the Games, which start Friday). Mr. Payne said if the IOC had known there wouldn’t be a guarantee of major gains against the city’s traffic problems, the organization never would have put the Games there.

In 2009 when the IOC picked Rio, Brazil’s economy was projected to become one of the five biggest economies in the world by now. It has instead fallen into its worst recession in decades, and the government is embroiled in a pervasive and distracting political scandal.

“The lesson is lots of things can change in seven years,” said Dick Pound, a Canadian who is among the longest-serving IOC members.

Mr. Payne predicted IOC members would steer clear of avoidable risks in the near future. “They will say, ‘Let’s make sure the next couple are easier,’ ” he said.

The Rio experience has already informed decisions on which cities and countries get to host future Games or whose bids even make it into a final two-year campaign. With Rio struggling to find its footing in 2013, Tokyo won over Istanbul for the 2020 Summer Games.

And last year, the IOC chose the reliability of the Chinese government in selecting Beijing for the 2022 Winter Games over Almaty, Kazakhstan, even though the Chinese must build a ski resort in an area that gets little snow.

For 2024, Paris and Los Angeles now are cited as favorites over Rome and Budapest. South Africa, once a leading contender for those Summer Games, pulled out in 2015 as it battled some of the same problems facing Rio, such as an inability to provide much of its population with adequate education and health care.

The notion of the Games’ universality, which Rio officials touted and the IOC embraced as part of Rio’s bid, is no longer widely discussed.

IOC spokesman Mark Adams said President Thomas Bach would defer to the organization’s roughly 100 members on decisions about future locations rather than push his own opinions. He noted that “universality” isn’t a component of the Olympic charter.

The selection process is a huge global competition, and the catch phrase the Switzerland-based IOC often uses when evaluating bids is “legacy.” It wants to understand what the lasting impact of the Games will be, both on the host city and on the Olympic movement itself.

The IOC grew frustrated with the Rio preparations as progress stalled when polls showed the Brazilian public turning increasingly negative after few promised infrastructure improvements came to fruition. Nearly all are over budget, behind schedule and unpopular because they favor wealthy neighborhoods. Within the IOC, few statistics are more important than local sentiment about Games.

Rio has been an IOC headache for years.  John Coates, a member of the coordination commission for the 2012 London Games, Rio and the future Tokyo Games, said in April 2014 that the planning and lead-up to the Rio Games were the worst he had seen, surpassing problems in Athens in 2004.

Security forces keep watch on the new Metro Line 4 subway linking the Ipanema and Barra da Tijuca neighborhoods in Rio. The line, which will ferry passengers closer to the main Olympic Park, was much delayed but is opening just in time for the Games.

As cost overruns mounted, local organizers scrambled to cut expenses on everything from venue seating to the types of food served in VIP areas. Ticket sales have lagged, raising the specter of video of half-empty stadiums being beamed around the world.

Rio officials said that hosting the Olympics is helping to address the city’s problems and that the billions spent on infrastructure will pay dividends in a way they wouldn’t in a more developed city.

Sidney Levy, chief executive of the Rio organizing committee, said every city hosting the Games has shortcomings, but Brazil will rise to the occasion. “We have great people, fun people,” he said. This will “compensate for everything.”

Indeed, many of Rio’s problems may not affect visitors. A massive security force roll-out will put soldiers on every corner in Olympics neighborhoods. The beach-side, mountain-enveloped competition sites will look spectacular on TV.

José Antonio do Nascimento Brito, a Rio 2016 board member, said critics are focusing on problem areas rather than vast improvements in the city as a whole. “The Olympics should be transformational in the sense that it can be used as a catalyst for change,” he said.

“Not that we’ve fixed all the problems around here,” he said, but “the consequences, say 20 years down the road, will be simply fantastic.”

Construction workers walk inside Olympic Park as preparations take place for the Rio Olympic Games.

Write to Matthew Futterman at and Will Connors at


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