Is Brazil ready for the Olympics?
Most of the venues are finished, but the Games could be overshadowed by the slew of problems facing the country. Its political system is in crisis: President Dilma Rousseff has been suspended and faces impeachment over allegations that she massaged the nation's accounts, and top politicians have been linked to a corruption scandal involving state-owned oil giant Petrobras. Brazil is also suffering its worst recession since the 1930s, and mass layoffs have caused the unemployment rate to hit a record 11.2 percent. With tax revenues shrinking, Rio's governor declared a state of financial emergency, saying there was no money to pay hospital staff and police during the Olympics — a big concern given the city's soaring crime rate. Homicides were up 15 percent in Rio in the first four months of 2016 compared with last year, and street robbery has climbed 24 percent. Some health experts have even called for the Games to be canceled because of the recent Zika virus outbreak in Brazil.
Is Zika still a threat?
Yes, although scientists say that the risk of athletes and spectators catching the mosquito-borne virus is declining thanks to efforts to eradicate mosquito breeding sites. Reports of new Zika cases in Rio state dropped from about 3,000 cases a week earlier this year to just 30 cases a week in June. Still, visitors are being advised to take protective measures against bug bites, like wearing long-sleeved pants and shirts when outside. SC Johnson has partnered with Rio 2016 to make its Off! brand the Olympics' first official insect repellant, and the company will distribute 115,000 free bottles of its product during the Games. But many Olympians and fans remain understandably worried about Zika, which has been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralyzing nervous disorder, and birth defects such as microcephaly — which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads.
Have any athletes pulled out of the Games?
A handful of high-profile sports stars are staying home because of Zika, which can also be transmitted through sex. Cyclist Tejay van Garderen was the first potential U.S. medal contender to withdraw, saying he worried he might contract the virus and transmit it to his pregnant wife and their unborn daughter. The world's top four male golfers — Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy — have also opted out. "People just aren't comfortable going down there and putting themselves or their family at risk," McIlroy said. Zika isn't the only health risk in Rio. Olympic rowers, sailors, canoeists, marathon swimmers and triathletes also have to safeguard themselves against the polluted water at the bays and lakes that host their sports.
How dirty is the water?
Absolutely filthy. A cleanup was promised ahead of the Games, but the state government spent only $170 million of a pledged $4 billion on the effort, citing a budget crisis. Surf still churns with sludge, and garbage floats freely; in many places, raw sewage flows directly into the streams and rivers that feed Olympic sites. "Foreign athletes will literally be swimming in human crap," Dr. Daniel Becker, a Rio pediatrician, told The New York Times. The Associated Press found dangerously high levels of viruses and bacteria in the waters. In some cases, the virus loads were up to 1.7 million times the level considered hazardous on a Southern California beach. The U.S. rowing team will wear seamless double-layered unisuits made with antimicrobial material to help protect them from the contaminated water.
What do organizers say about the Games' problems?
They concede there have been "teething troubles" but insist everything will be fine. When the International Olympic Committee's head inspector, Nawal el Moutawakel, made her final visit to Rio venues in early July, she said the city was "ready to welcome the world." All delayed construction — including the velodrome, equestrian center, and a $3 billion subway line extension to help transport hundreds of thousands of fans and athletes — will be completed in time, she said. Moutawakel added that Olympians "can look forward to living in an outstanding Olympic Village." But two weeks later, Australian athletes complained that their accommodation had blocked toilets, leaking pipes, and exposed wiring and was unfit for habitation. On the security front, officials say 85,000 police and soldiers will be deployed to Rio's streets, twice the number at the 2012 London Games. "During the Olympics," said Rio mayor Eduardo Paes, "you'll have absolute peace."
How do Brazilians feel about the Olympics?
Not very enthusiastic. Ticket sales have been slower than expected, with 1.7 million tickets remaining two weeks before the opening ceremony. Fifty-one percent of Brazilians say they have "no interest" in the Games, according to a recent poll, while 33 percent show "little interest." The same survey found that nearly two out of three people think hosting the Olympics will bring the country "more harm than benefit." Experts say Brazilians would rather focus on their country's many crises and don't feel like putting on a show for the rest of the planet. "It's like if you were ready to clean up your house and do some much-needed renovations," said political scientist Maurício Santoro, "and all of a sudden you have all these guests who might see something you'd rather hide."