IT is as much a ritual of an Olympic Games as the Opening Ceremony. I’m talking, of course, about the rising sense of panic as the Games loom, with venues behind schedule, promised new transport infrastructure unfinished, or yet to be started, and the host city visited with increasingly regularity by nervous teams of International Olympic Committee inspectors, who arrive with deadlines and threats, but little actual power.
If hand-wringing was an Olympic sport the medals would have to be handed out about now – six months before the Games begin. Naturally, the build-up to Rio 2016 is conforming to the norm which is to say, it is beset by problems.
The big threats to the last two Games, in Beijing and London, were different – smog in Beijing and security in London – but they served the same purpose: to whip up a storm of uncertainty and inspire thousands of stories asking whether the Games might be, what, cancelled?
Of course not. The remarkable thing, given the earlier point about the limits of the IOC’s influence when it comes to major capital projects, is that they go ahead – always. But the uncertainty and spiralling costs invariably lead to suggestions that instead of moving from city to city the Games should have a permanent base. Athens is often suggested. That’s 2004 hosts Athens, where venues were covered in scaffolding when the athletes arrived.
Nevertheless, Brazil might look at Greece and shudder. Twelve years on, some of the 2004 venues are crumbling ruins. More worryingly, some argue that the £6.5 billion cost of staging the Games contributed to the country’s economic collapse. Certainly claims of any financial boost at the time are heavily disputed – one academic has said that it was Italy who benefited, from tourists looking for Mediterranean sunshine but keen to avoid the crowds. (“Olympic tourism” is certainly a nebulous concept. London never seemed quieter than during the 2012 Games.)
As is always the case, the Rio bid to host the Olympics was launched well over a decade ago: a very different time in Brazil. The year they were awarded the Games, 2009, also saw the first formal summit of four of the world’s emerging economic powerhouses: Brazil, Russia, India and China. These were the so-called BRIC nations. They were the future.
Or, to borrow a quote: “They were the future once.” By August 2013, when the four had been joined by South Africa to become BRICS, they were dubbed the “fragile five”. In Brazil the situation is particularly dire, with the Petrobras oil scandal, a web of corruption that implicated senior politicians and large construction companies, having devastating and ongoing consequences for the economy and wider society.
There are other, more specific concerns for the Rio Olympics. The Zika virus, which has affected 1.3 million people in Brazil, has been declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organisation. While most affected adults report relatively minor flu-like symptoms, there are possible links with neurological and auto-immune conditions. And there is the great fear is that it affects unborn babies: 4,000 Brazilian infants have been born with the defect microcephaly, believed to be linked to Zika. The Games will be held during the Brazilian winter, when the mosquito carrying the virus should be less prevalent.
Another health concern is the water in Guanabara Bay, where the sailing will take place. A report in the New Yorker last year said that while training in the bay sailors had seen “mattresses, cars, washing machines, trees, tables, televisions, couches, and chairs, as well as dead dogs, horses, and cat[s].” The Brazilian sailor Lars Grael told the New York Times that he’d seen human bodies on four occasions.
BUT it isn’t all bad. Another way of looking ahead to the Games is to do so through the eyes of an athlete hoping to compete there. So on Friday I called Keri-Anne Payne, the Edinburgh-based open-water swimmer who won a silver medal in Beijing. Does she worry the Games will be a disaster, fear illness or worse, or dread swimming 10km through filth? She worries more about not qualifying.
In fact, the open-water swimmers shouldn’t have to dodge rubbish, raw sewage or bodies, since they are competing around the bay, off Copacabana Beach. Although there have been reports of swimmers falling ill after competing there, an Associated Press investigation gave the water a cleanish bill of health, finding bacterial levels acceptable and safe for swimming.
Payne swam there in August last year, winning the Olympic test event. Speak to her and it’s almost as if some of the more extreme media reports are talking of somewhere else. “The water quality was fine,” she says.
She’d rather swim there than off the Perth coast, where she spent some of the winter failing to avoid jellyfish: “We did a sea swim and there were thousands and thousands of jellyfish. We all have scars from the stings, really bad ones. It was an hour of being stung. I was praying for the shark alarm to go off so we could get out.”
Famously, Payne swam past a dead dog at a World Cup event in Shantou, China, in 2008.
But for open-water swimmers danger lurks in the most benign places. She climbed out of the Serpentine in Hyde Park at the end of her event in London with a black eye after a brutal, bruising and ultimately agonising race – she was fourth, four seconds away from a gold medal.
To better prepare for the physicality of her event, Payne took judo lessons throughout 2013 with Euan Burton, Gemma Gibbons and others. She is relaxed about Rio – “my favourite city in the world” – believing that even if some of the venues remain unfinished, the people are ready – and it is the people, not the buildings, who determine whether or not the Games are a success.
She is reassured, too, by the British Olympic Association. Some governing bodies jokingly (but disparagingly) refer to the BOA as a travel agency, but they come into their own at times like this, when some athletes are genuinely, and legitimately, worried. “I’m completely confident that the BOA would not send us anywhere where they were not convinced of our safety,” says Payne. “They do such a good job of keeping us informed and giving us health information.
“I remember in the lead up to Athens it was all about the venues not being finished,” she continues. “But the Games went ahead and they were amazing. Then in Beijing it was all about the smog, but the Games went ahead and they were amazing. In London it was all about security, and the terrorist threat.”
And? “And the Games went ahead and they were amazing.”