The Bumpy Road to Rio

As questions swirl, disease spreads and body parts float ashore, Olympic officials still refuse to face the music

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The road to Rio is paved with good intentions: NBC features on bubbly gymnasts, comeback tales of swimmers vying for one last glimmer of aquatic glory and unexpected failures in track trials that resign former stars to the wayside of Americans’ collective consciousness.

For others, however, the Rio de Janeiro Games are a lucid nightmare, marred by a Zika virus epidemic, failed doping retests and looming debt that threatens an already fragile Brazilian ecosystem mired in poverty and political unrest.

Rio police officers came out in droves to greet visitors at the city airport June 27, holding protest signs to draw attention to a payment delay amid state budget cuts.

“Welcome to hell,” they read.

A gold medal for mayhem

Dilma Rousseff was not president of Brazil in December 2009, when the International Olympic Committee awarded Rio de Janeiro the right to host the 2016 Summer Games. Still under the tutelage of then-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the economy was on an upswing, the country finally looking ready to embrace its spot on the world stage.

But Rousseff’s impeachment, a symptom of the country’s widespread political and economic turmoil, has cast a shadow on the looming Olympics — a shadow the IOC has both acknowledged and looked past.

“Hosting the Olympic Games these days is more about prestige,” said Lukas Perutka, a visiting scholar with UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies. “Everyone looks at Brazil, and they can see that the country is swamped by political problems, economic problems. … With this case of prestige, I can say that Brazil is losing the fight.”

Rousseff, a member of Brazil’s left-leaning Workers’ Party and da Silva’s hand-picked successor, assumed office in 2011 and was reelected in 2014. But a national economic recession and a corruption investigation of the state-owned oil company Petrobras, both beginning in 2014, opened the door for what Rousseff has labeled a coup d’etat — a calculated takeover orchestrated by her former allies in office, including then-vice president Michel Temer, the country’s acting president.

The Brazilian Senate voted 55-22 in May to impeach Rousseff over allegations that she falsified the country’s 2014 economic report by covering up budget shortfalls, according to Perutka. Placed on immediate suspension while the trial proceeds, the embattled president awaits a two-thirds Brazilian Senate vote to remove her from office.

“Hosting the Olympic Games these days is more about prestige. Everyone looks at Brazil, and they can see that the country is swamped by political problems, economic problems. … With this case of prestige, I can say that Brazil is losing the fight.”

— Lukas Perutka, a visiting scholar with UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies

Rousseff denies the allegations and seeks a return to power, though Perutka deems that outcome unlikely, given her damning ties to Petrobras as its board chair from 2003 to 2010.

Temer also faces problems of his own. Officials in his centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party have not emerged unscathed from the Petrobras bribery scandal fallout, as several of Temer’s cabinet members resigned in the wake of the investigation.

“I think the people of Brazil would welcome (new elections), however the politicians are not going to call them, because in current state of affairs they would be dangerous for the politicians,” Perutka said in an email.

But messy leadership is only the tip of Brazil’s rapidly melting iceberg, according to Andrew Bertoli, a lecturer in UC Berkeley’s political science department. The bulk of public funds once spent on services for the poorest Brazilian citizens, he said, now manifests in massive, expensive Olympic stadiums and the bankrupt state’s other preparations for the games, totaling about $12 billion.

Adding insult to injury, business moguls have capitalized on the games to develop already wealthy Rio enclaves, Bertoli said, by building luxury condos, such as the Athletes Village in Barra da Tijuca, intended for high rent prices at the conclusion of the games in late August — rather than much-needed affordable housing units.

“The people in Brazil are watching these really extravagant games, and they’re smart enough to realize that they’re the ones who are paying the price for it,” he said. “If you’re a poor person living in Rio, the Olympics have been really horrible for you.”

The Rio city government contended in a 2015 report that resettlement — moving poor residents away from bustling city hubs — has “had no relation to the big events the city has been holding, such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games.” Rather, the report said, the relocation improved the residents’ safety, as these areas presented risks such as landslides and floods.

Furthermore, the Brazilian government has argued that the games provided an impetus for much-needed transportation improvements, such as bus corridor and subway expansion.

Bertoli doesn’t buy it, though.

(Rio de Janeiro) didn’t need the games to improve their infrastructure,” he said in an email. “They could have just invested a fraction of the money that they’re spending on the Olympics into developing infrastructure, and they would have gotten better results.”

“The people in Brazil are watching these really extravagant games, and they’re smart enough to realize that they’re the ones who are paying the price for it. If you’re a poor person living in Rio, the Olympics have been really horrible for you.”

— Andrew Bertoli, lecturer in UC Berkeley’s political science department

Not so dope

As doping test technology evolves, athletes who previously dived, sprinted or rowed under the radar must grapple with the repercussions of their failed retests. And many of those who tested clean will not get off scot-free, either, thanks to their teammates’ results.

No national federation heading to Rio has faced more backlash than Russia. The country narrowly missed an IOC blanket ban July 24 after more and more evidence surfaced of performance-enhancing drug, or PED, use. But some sports — notably wrestling and track and field — have been punished more harshly than others.

“The fact that so many athletes aren’t going to be allowed to participate, it’s going to send a very sharp message, and they’re not going to be allowed to wear the Russian colors,” Bertoli said.

In June, the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s governing body, upheld a task force recommendation to enforce a ban on Russian athletes while allowing some to compete neutrally. And the International Weightlifting Federation decided July 29 to ban the entire team of eight Russian weightlifters from competition in Rio.

“The integrity of the weightlifting sport has been seriously damaged on multiple times and levels by the Russians, therefore an appropriate sanction was applied in order to preserve the status of the sport,” the IWF said in a statement.

In all, more than 110 of about 400 Russian athletes have been banned so far, NPR reported. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the punishments discriminatory, while others have questioned why the IOC failed to go further with its sanctions.

“Yes, banning all Russian athletes would be collective justice. That’s the point,” wrote Ted R. Bromund, a senior research fellow with The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, in a Newsday op-ed. “If Russia cheats, it should pay the price.”

Urine samples of 98 international competitors in the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Games have failed reanalysis. That number includes the 45 athletes who failed the second wave of retests using “the very latest scientific analysis methods,” the IOC announced July 22.

What has spurred this alarming trend in PED use, especially as retest methods progress in accuracy and athletes run a higher risk of getting caught?

“Sports is seen as a popular engine for national sentiment,” said Linus Huang, a campus sociology lecturer who researches sports. “It’s a way to stir up national pride.”

Bertoli agreed, adding that a government such as Russia, with its state-run doping program, can harness Olympic achievement as “a source of nationalism and diplomacy, and it can help a guy like Putin — can make him more powerful.”

And demonstrably, PEDs work. Thirty-one of the athletes whose samples failed the latest round of retests were medalists in either the 2008 or 2012 games.

“Athletes have an incentive to use them if they can, even if it hurts them in the long run.”

— Andrew Bertoli

Blood doping, for instance, increases red blood cell mass to allow “the body to transport more oxygen to working muscles and therefore can increase their aerobic capacity and endurance,” according to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. But this PED also can place increased pressure on the heart and lead to blood clots and strokes.

“Athletes have an incentive to use them if they can,” Bertoli said, “even if it hurts them in the long run.”

Condoms, bug spray and ‘enhanced caution’

An estimated influx of 500,000 people to a city for two weeks can and often does give rise to some obvious problems. Rio’s games, however, have an issue no other Olympics have faced: Zika virus.

The virus, which is spread primarily by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and can be transmitted sexually, has become increasingly prevalent this year, and it has affected an alarming number of newborns.

In April 2015, the first positive test for Zika was reported in Brazil. By the end of October, reports of microcephaly — a medical condition in which the head is smaller because of improper brain development — in newborn children, which later was directly linked to Zika in mothers, had increased, and on Nov. 11, 2015, the Brazilian government declared a public health emergency.

More than 100 prominent doctors and professors — hailing from countries such as Norway, South Africa and the United States, among others — submitted a letter to the World Health Organization asking that the 2016 Summer Olympics be either postponed or moved away from Rio de Janeiro.

“The Brazilian strain of Zika virus harms health in ways that science has not observed before,” the letter said.

Known side effects include microcephaly in the children of women who contract the disease, and in rare situations, Zika can trigger Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis and is life-threatening in its acute stages. But there is still a wealth of research that needs to be done to know the full range of effects, including how long Zika stays in a person’s system, according to Arthur Reingold, a professor and division head of epidemiology in the campus’s School of Public Health.

As of now, there is no cure for Zika, and scientists likely are several years away from developing a vaccine, Reingold said.

But even on the precipice of a seemingly risky Olympics, the IOC did not budge. Now, the Olympics have begun. The WHO argued that, with Zika already so widespread, these Olympics were unlikely to prompt further spread of the virus. Reingold said health experts generally agree that there is no need to cancel the Olympics, as it would have very little effect on transmission of the virus.

“If you take all of the travelers to the Olympics, they represent a tiny, tiny fraction of people traveling to and from Zika-affected areas,” Reingold said. “That doesn’t mean that for individuals, particularly pregnant women or their partners, there isn’t a reasonable calculation to make.”

Brazil remains one of the world’s most Zika-heavy locations, with more than 165,000 likely cases of the virus registered by June 11. The number of confirmed cases of microcephaly number 1,700 in Brazil alone. Despite these numbers, the WHO remains insistent: With Rio in the midst of winter, it’s unlikely that any of the athletes or tourists at the Olympics will catch Zika.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has classified Brazil as an area to “practice enhanced caution” and released a list of precautions to take, including the covering of potentially exposed skin and the use of mosquito repellents. Additionally, it has recommended abstinence and safe sex for those in attendance.

Athletes with no escape

For the more than 10,000 athletes competing in the Olympics, there have been a slew of concerns about Rio de Janeiro as the opening ceremony draws closer. Reports say the water may be dirty and undrinkable, with Guanabara Bay, the intended site of sailing and windsurfing competitions in the Olympics, notably polluted. Body parts washed ashore the beach set to be the locale for beach volleyball this summer.

Just two weeks before the Olympics began, the Olympic Village, where the athletes live during the proceedings, was deemed uninhabitable by the Australian Olympic Committee.

“Every time watching an Opening Ceremony of an Olympics — I don’t think I’ve missed one — I always shed a tear. Always.”

— Linda Cornelius Waltman, pentathlete who missed the 1980 Olympics

Days before the opening ceremony, Andrew Bogut, a center for the Dallas Mavericks who will be playing for Australia in Rio, tweeted photos of the village with critical captions, creating an ironic hashtag, “#IOCLuxuryLodging.”

With so much controversy surrounding the Olympics, some of the world’s biggest stars began dropping out. The top four golfers in the world all have ruled themselves out of the sport’s first appearance in the Olympics since 1904. An American cyclist, Tejay Van Garderen, also will not be attending.

A series of top-20-ranked tennis players have announced they wouldn’t be participating, pointing to the virus as the driving force behind their decisions to withdraw. Numerous NBA superstars, such as Russell Westbrook, also are not attending, with rumors abounding that Zika has played into their decision.

Meanwhile, virtually none of the world’s biggest track and field athletes, gymnasts or swimmers are dropping out of the games. The Olympics represent the absolute peak for athletes in those sports, according to Brett McClure, an Olympic silver medalist and the Cal men’s gymnastics coach. Choosing to miss one is simply not an option.

“Compared to other athletes in more high-profile sports, the Olympics for gymnastics is absolutely the pinnacle of the sport,” McClure said in an email. “That is the most important aspect that keeps these gymnasts in the gym every day.”

The athletes in sports such as swimming and gymnastics also rely on Olympic appearances to make them attractive to sponsors. Without viable professional leagues, they have no alternative avenue for cashing in on their abilities, Huang said. Meanwhile, NBA players, golfers and tennis players make millions of dollars just by playing in professional leagues.

For young people trying to make it in those sports, their dreams usually are about playing in the NBA Finals, at Wimbledon or at the Masters — not competing at the Olympics.

“Every little girl dreams of competing at the Olympics as a gymnast,” said Toni-Ann Williams, a Cal gymnast who will represent Jamaica in Rio. “There’s no NBA or anything like that for gymnasts. Not a lot of people have careers as professional gymnasts.”

Because they are held every four years and athletes have short primes, the choice to skip an Olympics is a hard one. If an athlete from a traditional Olympic sport wanted to avoid going to Rio, the decision would come with no guarantee at another shot. Having to choose between crushing their dreams and attending a risky Olympics, most athletes have prioritized their dreams.

Some athletes who were forced to miss the 1980 Olympics in Moscow because of a U.S. boycott never were able to make it back, effectively ending the sole aspiration that had driven their careers.

“These organizations are essentially international businesses, and international businesses have a pretty bad record when it comes to human welfare. From everything I’ve seen, it’s not like they’re that interested in human welfare. They want to put on their games.”

— Andrew Bertoli

“I remember sitting in front of the television watching the Opening Ceremony, just crying and thinking I never really got a chance to be a part of that,” said Linda Cornelius Waltman, a pentathlete who missed the 1980 Olympics, in the book “Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.” “Every time watching an Opening Ceremony of an Olympics — I don’t think I’ve missed one — I always shed a tear. Always.”

The after-party hangover

“History will talk about a Rio de Janeiro before the Olympic Games and a much better Rio de Janeiro after the Olympic Games,” said IOC President Thomas Bach at the Opening Ceremony for the IOC’s 129th session Monday.

But will Brazil’s legacy echo Bach’s vision of a regenerated, prosperous country, or will it succumb to the mountain of debt and political corruption?

If these Olympics truly are a disaster, will anything change?

For the foreseeable future, many cities still are eager to host the Olympics — when Tokyo won the right to host the 2020 Olympics, residents took to the streets to celebrate. And Olympic Committees continue to put together and make competitive bids for cities that may not be ready, even with so many recent Olympics wreaking havoc on host cities’ residents and budgets.

“These organizations are essentially international businesses, and international businesses have a pretty bad record when it comes to human welfare,” Bertoli said. “From everything I’ve seen, it’s not like they’re that interested in human welfare. They want to put on their games.”

Contact Andrea Platten and Hooman Yazdanian at [email protected].