Olympics opening ceremony focuses world’s attention on environment

The start of the Rio Games has been marred by unfulfilled promises to tackle pollution and improve public transport, writes Cristina Veiga 
<p>The Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Image by swiftjetsum626)</p>

The Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Image by swiftjetsum626)

The decidedly green feel to the 2016 Olympics opening ceremony, which kicked-off in Rio de Janeiro last Friday amid unfulfilled promises to tackle pollution and improve public transport, went some way towards improving the Games’ environmental credentials.

From the outset of the extravaganza, when actors reconstructed the ‘discovery’ of Brazil by Portuguese colonisers, to the portrayal of its conversion to an agricultural powerhouse, deforestation and the country’s environmental footprint remained in sharp focus.

In another gesture, each of the 11,000 athletes who participated in the ceremony in the famous Maracanã stadium planted a seed from native Brazilian trees. These will eventually sprout into the Athletes Forest, which aims to compensate for greenhouse gases emitted during construction of the Olympic park and village.

But the host city has failed to meet big environmental commitments made to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Perhaps the most serious of these is the lack of improvement to water quality in Guanabara bay and the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, where outdoor aquatic events including sailing, rowing and canoeing will take place. City authorities had promised to clean up 80% of the water, but scarcely 40% has been decontaminated, according to official sources.

Untreated waste water from the 15 municipalities which surround the city of Rio flows directly into the 400-square kilometre bay of Guanabara, with the results visible on the surface. This despite a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) designed to support clean-up efforts. It was always going to be a big ask with 55 different rivers from surrounding areas – and all the waste they carry – flowing into the bay.

In a murky twist to the ongoing failure to address the Guanabara clean-up, Priscilla Pereira, who was appointed to address the situation by the quasi-governmental organisation in charge of the operation, was shot 13 times as she sat in her stationary car. Pereira had earned a reputation for her thoroughness and for questioning why contracts had been signed to improve Guanabara, but little had been done, Bloomberg news agency reported.

The water in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon is scarcely any better. Situated in a densely populated urban area, its waters are contaminated by a clandestine sewage network which deposits waste in nearby gutters. When it rains, these flow into the lake. Fortunately, forecasts for the Games, which take place between August 5 and 21, predict dry weather. With the help of the weather and a touch of ingenuity, the last-minute installation of “eco-barriers”, which intercept floating waste, and the deployment of “eco-boats” to collect rubbish, athletes will be exposed to lower quantities of waste material than they might have feared.

“Neither the IOC, nor any world health organisation expected that the water would be free of viruses. This wasn’t the case in any previous Olympics, be they in Barcelona, Seoul, London or Beijing,” Edes Fernandes de Oliveira, of Rio’s water and sewage authority, told chinadialogue’s sister site Diálogo Chino. Fernandes highlights that viruses and bacteria are different things.

On land

Many of the 10,500 athletes representing 205 competing nations across 306 events over the next 17 days will encounter other problems, with some experiencing difficulties even before the Games have begun. The Olympic village, which accommodate the athletes, is barely complete. Various delegations, including from Australia, have had to stay in nearby emergency accommodation until contractors finished the installations. The Australian team were relocated after a faulty fire alarm went off.

“If necessary, we’ll put a kangaroo in the door to their building to keep them happy,” joked Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro. Kitty Chiller, head of the Australian delegation, sent a stuffed kangaroo to Paes in response.

Long queues are another source of frustration for visiting athletes. Staff at the Olympic village are poorly trained and, as such, take a long time security-checking athletes who would prefer to be spending their time preparing for events.

Delays are also a problem on public transport, which is also unsatisfactory despite the local government’s determination to add new metro lines, a light rail vehicle (LRV) and new buses exclusively reserved for athletes and ticket-holding spectators. The buses are blamed for adding to traffic congestion, the solution to which, according to the mayor, is to declare days expected to be busiest as public holidays.

Athletes do, however, appear prepared for the threat of the Zika virus whilst in Brazil. Members of the Chinese team, for example, will sleep under special mosquito nets to prevent infection from the Aedes aegypti mosquito which carries the virus. In any case, the number of cases of Zika in recent months has fallen owing to lower temperatures. Cases of chikungunya and dengue fever are also down. It is currently winter in Rio and temperatures have not surpassed 32C, which are relatively low for the subtropical city.

“We’re going to do the Games Brazilian style,” said Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, following numerous criticisms by the committee over water pollution, extensive queues, transport, traffic and unfinished arenas. Asked by the Brazilian press what the German meant by his comments, he replied with a samba-imitating shake that he meant “Brazilian happiness”.

The government, however, is not betting on Brazilian cheer shining through as the country faces crippling political and economic crises. Organisers plan to turn up the music when interim president Michel Temer declares the Games open since they’re expecting a loud outpouring of boos, which might strike a discordant note for the occasion. In contrast to the last Games, where 95 leaders or heads of state attended the London 2012 opening ceremony, only 40 will be present in the famous Maracanã stadium on August 5.

Something in the air

While Brazilians may be known for their happiness, ongoing crises have made them increasingly bitter. Since May 12, Brazil has not had an elected president. Dilma Rousseff has been suspended from office while congress decides whether or not she is guilty of fudging government accounts. Since then, Temer has taken over amid uncertainty about the next administration and accusations that he has appointed a cabinet unrepresentative of Brazil’s diverse population. Few people know who will govern the country until there is a decision on Rousseff’s impeachment, expected around the end of the month.

There are 11.5 million people currently unemployed in Brazil and industrial output plunged 9.1% in the first half of the year. Annual inflation is estimated at around 5.6% as real incomes have fallen to 2013 levels.

Disillusionment has grown since the heady days of 2009, when Brazil won the right to host the Games. The then-president Lula da Silva trumpeted Brazil as an emerging global powerhouse, but fewer of his compatriots now share that sense of confidence.