Olympic white elephants? Rio's got a herd of them

Rio 2016 opening ceremony (Getty)
Rio 2016 opening ceremony (Getty)

Rio de Janeiro - Rio's Olympic organisers promised there'd be no white elephants after the crowds and athletes went home. Unfortunately, six months later there's a herd charging through Brazil's run-down second city.

From the dead grass at the world famous Maracana stadium to the unsold apartments in the 31 towers of the athletes' Village that were meant to become a new luxury neighborhood, you don't have to look far to see the unfulfilled promises of South America's first Olympic Games.

Even a year before the Games started, a top official in the mayor's office, Pedro Paulo, promised: "We will leave no white elephants." Right before the August 21 closing ceremony, then mayor Eduardo Paes repeated the assurance.

City and sports officials point to a new metro line and bus network as lasting achievements. The transport system in often chaotic Rio was badly in need of help and these costly infrastructure projects are widely seen as a success.

But the Olympic Park, partly built on land formerly occupied by a deeply rooted local community, is in a state of eerie abandonment.

Open to the public only on weekends, the vast area where swimming, gymnastics, basketball and other popular competitions took place sees few visitors.

Construction equipment is scattered about, former rows of seats are piled up, and sewage holes are left half-uncovered.

As for the Olympic swimming warm-up pool, where just half a year ago Michael Phelps prepared to raise his medal tally to an Olympic record of 28, it's now a dank, mosquito-filled hole.

One of the most popular sporting legacies promised was to turn the Deodoro canoe slalom course into a giant swimming pool. This was sure to be popular with the poor residents of northern Rio during the city's scorching summers.

But instead the park is closed. And although the mayor's office says "everything is being done to reopen it as soon as possible," few are holding their breath.

At the base of Rio's problems is uncertainty over who will even run the installations. The Olympic Park was expected to go into the hands of a private management company, but no one was interested. So the Brazilian sports ministry had to take over.

The Arena of the Future was meant to be broken up and transformed into four schools - another bright idea in the optimistic legacy plans. However, this has not happened and the new mayor, elected after the Olympics, says more time is needed to check the budget.

"As a citizen, I'm very worried. I've learned not to trust politicians. If these schools don't get built it will be a true fiasco," Gustavo Martins, the project's original architect, said.

Other installations are meant to be turned over for use as high level sporting centres, but that also has yet to take place.

"We're going to have a meeting with the sports ministry next week and we hope to be able to use these installations in the second quarter," said Agberto Guimaraes, executive director at the Brazilian Olympic Committee.

Arguably the biggest legacy promise was dramatically reducing pollution in Guanabara Bay, the sewage-infested bay where sailing events took place. Brazilian officials initially promised to cut out 80 percent of the untreated sewage pouring into the waterway.

That didn't come close to happening and now that the media attention has largely ended, there are doubts about the future of even tentative efforts to reduce the sewage and garbage. After the Games ended, officials predicted that 25 years would be needed to do the job properly and even then only if there were huge private investment.

The brightest spot is in transport, with a metro line extension connecting the western neighborhoods of Barra da Tijuca to the tourist-friendly south of Rio.

A once dirty and abandoned harbor zone was given a huge makeover, where the Museum of Tomorrow and the AquaRio aquarium have proved hits. However, Brazil's recession has put a stop to plans for further development.

"Rio's legacy plan is good," said Christophe Dubi, the International Olympic Committee's executive director. "But it has to be carried out."

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