In an unusually blunt public warning, a vice president of the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday called the delayed preparations for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro “the worst I have experienced.”
John Coates, who has made six trips to Brazil as part of the IOC’s coordination commission for Rio, said the Brazilians are behind “in many, many ways” and are in worse shape than Greek organizers were in preparing for the 2004 Olympics.
Despite the critical delays, the Australian said there is no backup plan and the games will take place in Rio.
Coates noted that the IOC had taken the unprecedented step of embedding experts in the host city to help the local organizing committee deliver the games.
“The IOC has formed a special task force to try and speed up preparations but the situation is critical on the ground,” Coates told an Olympic forum in Sydney, outlining that construction delays are just part of the problem. “The IOC has adopted a more hands-on role. It is unprecedented for the IOC, but there is no plan B. We are going to Rio.”
Brazil has also come under fire from football’s world governing body, FIFA, for long delays in construction of stadiums and other infrastructure and the overdue delivery of venues for the World Cup, which kicks off in June. Two years out from the 2016 Olympics, the situation on the construction front is just as bleak.
“We have become very concerned. They are not ready in many, many ways,” Coates said. “And this is against a city that’s got social issues that also have to be addressed; a country that’s also trying to deal with the FIFA World Cup coming up in a few months.”
The IOC released a statement trying to defuse the tension following Coates’ comments.
It mentioned working “with our partners” in Rio on measures to “support the games,” including establishing joint task forces, a local construction manager and a high-level decision-making body “bringing together” the IOC, the government and all key partners of the project.
The IOC said there would be more “regular visits” to Rio by executive director Gilbert Felli, the senior troubleshooter sent to the city last week as part of a series of actions to tackle the delays.
“Mr. Felli has received a very positive response on the ground in the past few days, and a number of recent developments show that things are moving in the right direction,” the IOC said. “Now is a time to look forward to work together and to deliver great games for Rio, Brazil and for the world, and not to engage in discussion of the past. We continue to believe that Rio is capable of providing outstanding games.”
Coates said dealing with three levels of government in Brazil made it harder for local organizers than it was for the heavily criticized organizers of the Athens Games, which were also plagued by construction delays and earned a “yellow light” warning from then-IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch.
“I think this is a worse situation than Athens,” Coates said. “In Athens, we were dealing with one government and some city responsibilities. Here, there’s three.
“There is bureaucracy, there is little coordination between the federal, the state government and the city – which is responsible for a lot of the construction. The flow of funds from the federal government is not happening quickly enough. We think we need to help facilitate that.”
Coates, who chairs the IOC coordination commission for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, said he thinks the IOC has put the message across in Brazil.
“We have to make it (the Olympics) happen and that is the IOC approach, you can’t walk away from this,” he said. “If it comes off – the first (Olympic) Games on the South American continent, in a magical city in so many ways – it’ll be a wonderful experience for the athletes.”
Rio organizers responded to Coates by releasing a statement saying they know what needs to be done and are focused on delivering the games. They also cited “unequivocal signs of progress” recently in the city’s preparations.
“It is time for us to focus on the work to be done and on engaging with society,” the Rio committee said. “The support of the International Olympic Committee is also crucial. We have a historic mission: to organize the first Olympic and Paralympic Games in Brazil and in South America. We are going to achieve this. In 2016, Rio will host excellent games that will be delivered absolutely within the agreed timelines and budgets.”
Work hasn’t begun at Deodoro, a complex for eight Olympics sports venues, and the course that will host golf’s return to the Olympic program for the first time in more than a century doesn’t have grass yet. Water pollution is a big worry for sailing and other sports.
Concern over the delays has been building over time but hit crisis levels at the SportAccord meeting in Belek, Turkey, earlier this month.
In a rare display of unified, open criticism against an Olympic host, 18 sports federations publicly aired concerns over Rio’s preparations, with some sports asking about “Plan B” contingencies.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes fired back last week at the complaints by sports federations, saying they were making too many unnecessary demands.
Paes said the federations were asking for too many “large things” that won’t be used by the city after the Olympics.