• Rio in 6-month sprint to Olympics

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    RIO DE JANEIRO: The Olympics start six months from this Friday and Rio de Janeiro is ready — as long as athletes cover up in anti-mosquito repellent, ignore the polluted water and don’t ask for TV in their rooms.

    Nicknamed “The Marvelous City,” Rio is sure to put on a spectacular show.

    After the opening ceremony on August 5 in the legendary Maracana stadium, 10,500 athletes will compete against what will be one of the most photogenic Olympic backdrops ever.

    The likes of Usain Bolt will run under the gaze of the Christ the Redeemer statue towering from the Corcovado, while beach volleyball will take place on sweeping Copacabana beach and sailors will duel in the shadow of Sugarloaf mountain.

    In a world beset by war, terrorism and environmental calamity, the Olympics — an organization itself badly shaken by corruption and doping scandals — will give everyone a chance to feel good again.

    The Olympics “will be an unforgettable fiesta,” the spokesman for the Rio 2016 organizing committee, Mario Andrada, said Tuesday.

    But fears of the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus and fallout from Brazil’s worst economic crisis since the 1930s are casting a long shadow.

    Mosquitos, sewage
    Incidents of Zika, which has been blamed for causing abnormally small heads in babies born to women infected while pregnant, have exploded across Latin America.

    This week, Brazil followed the United States and other countries in warning pregnant women to keep away. The Australian Olympic Committee told pregnant athletes to think “very carefully” before competing.

    Brazil is desperately trying to eradicate mosquito breeding sites, and Andrada pointed out that August is the Brazilian winter, when mosquito numbers fall sharply.

    But with no vaccine likely for years, total safety cannot be guaranteed.

    Athletes and tourists should wear “appropriate clothing,” “close windows” and “use repellent,” Andrada advised.

    Avoiding bacteria-filled water will be even harder for sailors and windsurfers at the Games.

    They’ll compete in Rio’s stunning, yet horrifically polluted Guanabara Bay. Authorities had promised to clean the natural harbor but even today, some half of Rio’s sewage pours in untreated.

    Even so, regular testing has shown that there are no risks to health, officials say.

    Austerity games
    Back in 2009, when Rio won the Olympic bid, Brazil was an emerging markets star.

    Today, a collapse in commodity prices is fueling Brazil’s deepest recession since the 1930s, while a corruption scandal has sucked in top politicians and executives, and President Dilma Rousseff is fighting impeachment.

    Organizers are rebranding the Olympics an austerity Games.

    The budget of about 39 billion reais ($9.8 billion) is in a different league to Beijing’s 2008 $40 billion splurge. And unlike London 2012, where the budget ended up more than triple the original estimate, Rio is trying to tighten its belt.

    Cuts of up to 20 percent in the 7.4 billion reais ($1.8 billion) operating budget mean athletes won’t get TV in their Olympic Village rooms, VIPs will eat simple Brazilian beans and rice dishes, and fewer staff will get printers.

    Seating has been reduced at some venues, including the slashing of a planned grandstand at the rowing and canoeing venue. Even volunteers are being cut from 70,000 to 50,000 in order to save on uniforms and training.

    Mean streets
    One area where no money will be spared is security, with about 85,000 police and soldiers deploying in Rio — double the number used in London.

    Brazil has never suffered an Islamist attack but in the wake of bloodshed in Paris last year, Western countries in particular are worried that the Olympics will be targeted.

    Even without terrorism, Rio can be a dangerous place, with large slums controlled by drug traffickers and turned into no-go areas for tourists and sometimes even police.

    Andrada said the security team will manage.

    “We have no worries about the security of tourists and of athletes,” he said. “Rio will be the safest city in the world.”

    Ready to compete?
    Last week, the mayor’s office declared nearly all sporting sites close to completion. The same goes for the Olympic Village, a collection of new apartment blocks next to a working class neighborhood bulldozed last year.

    But hiccups continue. Two weeks ago, authorities broke contracts for construction of the equestrian and tennis facilities, saying work was slow and incomplete.

    A new metro line bypassing congested highways between the center and west of the city is 83 percent complete, the consortium told AFP in January. But with inauguration due just one month before the Games, there is barely room for error.

    The giant country’s ultimate test of success, however, will be ticket sales.

    The organizing committee says that only about half of tickets allotted to Brazilians have sold. Brazilians are famously last-minute shoppers and those numbers could change suddenly.

    The Paralympics, which start immediately after the Olympics, are even more worrying: just 330,000 of some three million tickets have sold.

    “We’re looking at how to improve sales,” Andrada said.

    AFP

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