RIO DE JANEIRO – All eyes will turn to Rio de Janeiro on Friday when it opens South America’s first Olympic Games against a backdrop of political and economic crises off the sporting field and doping scandals on it.
More than 10,000 athletes from 206 countries will compete in 306 events over 42 sports, with a global audience of billions set to tune in for the 31st Olympiad in Brazil’s second-biggest city.
Rio will light the Olympic flame at Maracana Stadium after a buildup that has seen Brazil fall from emerging powerhouse to financial hardship since it was awarded the games seven years ago.
Brazilian Interim President Michel Temer will become the first acting leader to preside over an opening ceremony, after President Dilma Rousseff was suspended in May amid impeachment proceedings stemming from accusations of manipulating the government budget.
Rousseff will not attend the opening ceremony, while former ally-turned-rival Temer — whose approval rating recently polled at 11 percent — says he is “extremely prepared” to be booed by the crowd.
Preparations for the games have also been battered by a series of controversies including health concerns over the mosquito-borne Zika virus, rising crime rates, pollution in the city’s Guanabara Bay and a doping scandal that almost saw Russia’s entire team banned from competing.
The fate of some Russian athletes was still being decided 24 hours before the opening ceremony, with the International Olympic Committee announcing on Thursday that 271 Russian athletes have been cleared to compete.
That followed a World Anti-Doping Agency investigation that revealed state-sponsored doping on a massive scale, although the IOC declined to impose a blanket ban on Russian athletes, putting the onus on each sport’s international federation to decide their fate.
IOC President Thomas Bach has faced heavy criticism for the governing body’s perceived weakness in dealing with the situation, and was forced to defend himself again on Thursday.
“During my many visits to the Olympic Village here, I have been looking into eyes of many athletes,” said Bach, a German former Olympic champion fencer who is preparing for his first Summer Games as IOC president.
“I have a very clean conscience. There is no way to get 100 percent support. There are too many arguments on each side. I respect every athlete who may have another opinion, but I can look them in the eyes.”
Bach and the IOC will hope that the Olympic rings can retain enough of their luster to convince a skeptical Brazilian public to fully embrace the games, which cost an estimated $12 billion. Experts say the actual figure could be as high as $20 billion.
Brazilians have been slow to buy tickets for events, although organizers claim that 80 percent have been sold after a late surge.
Preparations have also gone down to the wire, with Rio officials inaugurating a crucial metro line just four days before the opening ceremony and work on competition venues continuing until the last minute.
Organizers have been forced to cut costs wherever possible, and the games’ chief spokesman admitted earlier this week that those participating at Rio 2016 may have to “fasten their seatbelts.”
That certainly appears to be the fate of the triathletes, sailors and open-water swimmers who will compete in the city’s filthy Guanabara Bay, which is so polluted and virus-ridden that athletes have been warned not to put their heads underwater.
But organizers will be hoping that all the problems can be put aside for the 17 days of competition, with a dazzling cast of athletes looking to command the world’s attention once the Olympic flame is lit.
Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt will be hoping to end his storied Olympic career with an unprecedented perfect haul of three gold medals for a third straight games, while swimmer Michael Phelps will try to add to his all-time record haul of 22 medals.
For Japan, gymnast Kohei Uchimura, a six-time world champion, is the hot favorite to retain the all-around title he won in London four years ago, swimmer Kosuke Hagino, the 400-meter individual medley bronze medalist in London, is expected to succeed in the pool, and decorated wrestlers Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho, both of whom are three-time defending gold medalists, will look to extend their dominance on the mat.
The Rio Games will also make history with the inclusion of a refugee team, featuring 10 athletes competing under the Olympic flag.
Whether such human stories will be enough to lift the cloud hanging over the Rio Games — and indeed the whole Olympic movement — remains to be seen.
But for the next two weeks at least, all eyes will be on Rio de Janeiro.
“We are all looking forward to tomorrow’s opening ceremony, and the athletes and sport taking over,” said Bach. “We will be welcomed by an enthusiastic Brazilian public.
“We are addressing some last-minute challenges, as is normal. Our cooperation with the organizing committee and the city is going well.”