If the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics turn out to be the organizational disaster they look like today, the International Olympic Committee will have only itself to blame.
Thursday, when IOC President Thomas Bach announced a near-emergency series of measures to get the preparations oversight on a short leash, he sounded like a guy trying to close the proverbial barn door when the IOC (cash) cow was already loose in the Amazon rainforest.
If there is a donkey still in the barn, pin its tail on Jacques Rogge, Bach’s predecessor as IOC president, and Gilbert Felli, the past and present administrator whose title is IOC Olympic Games Executive Director.
First of all, let’s get two things clear:
*Cassandra is an unofficial Olympic mascot, with doomsaying over Olympic host cities' readiness long a part of the Games program. In the past, things always came together in the end, even if anyone who stood still in an Olympic city during the final days before the torch was lit risked being painted or hammered.
*With under 28 months to go before Rio’s opening ceremony, it would be virtually impossible to move an event as big as the contemporary Summer Olympics - even if Bach oddly did not answer a Thursday question about whether the possibility of another host was categorically off the table. That non-assurance might have been simply designed to pressure the Rio (dis)organizing committee.
With that said, the Rio situation remains problematic – far more so than it had been in Athens, when former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch felt compelled in April 2000 to issue a veiled threat about moving the 2004 Summer Games.
At that point, the Greek government lopped off the heads of its Olympic organizing committee and spent drachmas and Euros like retsina to make sure everything got done on time. Samaranch later would say Athens had come within three months of losing the Games.
Why is that different from Rio?
The obvious answer is time frame. The 11th hour is much nearer, and the Brazilians already are preoccupied with getting the country ready for this summer’s soccer World Cup.
Plus, the Greeks’ historic link to the Olympics had nearly the entire country pulling in the same direction to make the Athens Games a success. That is not the case in Brazil, a country riven by social inequality of a degree that produced protests over the money being spent for the World Cup, the event the nation really cares about. Unnecessarily wasting money to pay for 24/7 Olympic construction is unfair to Brazilians.
How did we get to this place?
Start in June, 2008, when the IOC cut the field of 2016 applicants from seven to four, and Rio ranked a distant fifth of the seven in the technical evaluation of the applicant cities. Rio made the cut only because the IOC conveniently told Doha, Qatar that oh, by the way, the October dates you proposed - to avoid holding the Summer Games in hellish heat – are unacceptable.
That left Rio to compete against Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago. It left Rogge in a swivet if he wanted to assure something memorable about his 12 years as IOC president – and what better legacy than to have been the boss when an Olympics was awarded to South America for the first time?
So the IOC dispatched a team of experts to Rio, where their mission was to improve Rio’s bid. The IOC defends that move on the grounds of needing to make sure the city had a workable plan in case it was selected host, but it clearly rigged the process in Rio’s favor.
The message it sent to the IOC voters was how much the organization wanted Rio to look good, because none of the other finalists got such help.
And Rio did win, with the usual behind-the-scenes cow trading and, truth be told, an excellent presentation of its plans Oct. 2, 2009 in Copenhagen, where the IOC members chose Rio over Madrid 66-32 in the final round after having eliminated Chicago in the first round and Tokyo in the second.
Somebody at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland must have immediately known Rio’s commitment to fulfilling those plans still was based on smoke and mirrors. Not only that, but Rogge had been head of the IOC coordination commission for Athens until he was elected president in July 2001, and many key IOC administrators had the Athens debacle fresh in their minds.
The IOC should have instantly sent a permanent delegation to Rio – at the Brazilians’ expense – to supervise preparations during every one of the 2,499 days between the vote and the Aug. 5, 2016 opening ceremony.
Who cares if that might have insulted the Brazilians by symbolically impugning their organizing abilities? Too much was at stake to watch from a distance and send the IOC’s Rio coordination commission to visit for a few days at a time every so often – exactly six visits in the 4 ½ years since the vote.
In that lost time, Rio has fallen so far behind its construction deadlines that work has yet to begin on facilities in the complex supposed to include venues for eight sports. Needless to say, that alarmed bosses of the federations whose sports are to be played there. And it is only one of the huge problems Rio still faces, as recent pictures of Brazilian military in armored vehicles patrolling against crime in Rio slums showed all too well.
Bach, elected to replace Rogge last September, said Thursday the IOC executive board had decided to have “increased frequency of visits by IOC administration and advisors” and “frequent assessment visits” by Felli. The IOC also will “recruit a local project manager with experience” in construction to monitor the project on a daily basis.
This may all come out fine in the end.
But the continued failure to have Felli in Rio as leader of a permanent IOC delegation with administrators, consultants and experienced hands from other Olympics actually proves there is at least part of a donkey in Lausanne.
Because the IOC once again has settled on a half-fast approach.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun