Brazilians wake up and smell the coffee as they prepare to host 2016 Olympics


It was not the sort of behaviour to endear yourself to your fans, particularly when you come from a sports-mad nation that will stage the next Olympics.

Fabiana Murer, who last year became Brazil’s first athletics world champion when she triumphed in the pole vault in Daegu, was one of her country’s favourites to win gold here but failed even to reach the final – and then blamed the wind for her early exit.

Murer aborted her last attempt, which could have taken her into the final, saying that the conditions were “too dangerous”. The avalanche of criticism that followed was summed up by Gustavo, a former Brazilian volleyball player who won gold and silver medals. He said on Twitter that Murer had not demonstrated the “Olympic spirit” and that “any sacrifice is valid to win for your country”.

The failure of Murer has not been the only disappointment for the 2016 hosts. Cesar Cielo, Brazil's athlete of the year in 2008 and 2009, was a favourite in both the 50m and 100m freestyle events in the swimming pool but under-performed in both. He had to settle for bronze in the 50m event, in which he was the defending champion and holds the world and Olympic records, and could finish only sixth at 100m, in which he is the world record holder.

Maurren Higa Maggi, Brazil’s 2008 Olympic long jump champion, failed to reach her final, as did Leandro Guilheiro, a major hope in judo, while the country’s volleyball and beach volleyball teams have not dominated their competitions in the way they have often done in the past.

There have been Brazilian success stories, however, with Arthur Zanetti and Sarah Menezes becoming Olympic champions in gymnastics and judo respectively. Zanetti, who won gold in the men’s rings, is being talked about as a possible face of 2016 – Rio’s equivalent of Jessica Ennis – while Menezes enjoyed fame as both Brazil’s first gold medallist of 2012 and first female judo Olympic champion.

It would also be a surprise if there was not more success by the end of the fortnight. Emanuel Rego and Alison Cerutti, the world champions in men’s beach volleyball, are in tonight’s final, while the men’s football team – who, bizarrely,  have never won a gold medal - will be favourites to beat Mexico in the final on Saturday.

Nevertheless, as of late this afternoon Brazil stood at a modest 23rd in the medals table, with just two golds, one silver and six bronzes to their name. For a country with such a sporting pedigree and of such size – with 193 million people, it is the world’s fifth most populous nation behind China, India, the United States and Indonesia – Brazil has enjoyed a surprisingly modest history in the Olympics, with most of its past success coming in sailing and volleyball.

In Sydney 12 years ago Brazil finished 52nd in the medals table and did not win a single gold medal. They improved to 16th in Athens in 2004 with a total of 10 medals (including five golds) and were 23rd in Beijing in 2008 with 15 medals but only three golds.

Having won the right to stage the 2016 Games, Brazil doubled its budget to prepare its athletes for London 2012, but the fruits of its investment have yet to be seen and make the country’s target for 2016 is looking  highly ambitious. Brazil’s national Olympic committee have set a goal of reaching the top 10 in the medals table in four years’ time, which is likely to mean winning around 30 medals.

With 2016 in mind, the Brazilians have brought with them to London 16 athletes across a range of sports who failed to qualify for the 2012 Games but are considered good prospects for Rio and are being given exposure to the whole Olympic experience.

Their party is dwarfed by the number of Brazilian officials here. The Rio 2016 organisers have brought 152 observers who are aiming to look and learn from London’s example, while there are also 51 Government officials studying issues like security.

Like London, Rio 2016 will make use of many existing facilities. When it won the right to host the 2007 Pan-American Games, many of the venues were constructed with a future Olympic Games in mind. The main athletics stadium, for example, was built with a capacity of 45,000 but with provision to expand to 60,000.

Campaigners who want the stadium’s name changed are likely to be disappointed. It is called the Joao Havelange Stadium after the legendary sports official, who was subsequently revealed to have received illegal payments from a company that sold World Cup broadcasting rights. Officials insist his name will stay.

The iconic Maracana Stadium, which will stage the opening and closing ceremonies and the football final, is being upgraded in time for the 2014 World Cup, while a renovated Sambodromo, the home of the Rio Carnival and the stage for archery and the start and finish of the 2016 marathon, was reopened in February this year.

Nearly half the 2016 venues are existing facilities, while another quarter will be temporary structures. The remaining venues are new facilities. Construction work in the Olympic Park, which does not include the main Joao Havelange and Maracana Stadiums, began last month, while builders will move into the last of the four main Olympic clusters at Deodoro next year.

There will be two new sports in the 2016 Games – rugby sevens and golf. A Pennsylvania-based company has been selected to construct the golf course, but work is not expected to begin for another two to three months.

The official line on preparations for 2016 is that everything is in good order. However, others are not so sure. “Only the authorities say they are all set for 2016,” a senior Brazilian journalist said. “The people know that we have much to do both in terms of our athletes’ preparations and building facilities.”

Leonardo Gryner, the chief executive officer of the 2016 organising committee, admits that accommodation and transport are the biggest challenges. More hotels are being built, but the number of rooms is believed to be well below requirements and extra Olympic villages may have to be built.

A new metro line is being constructed, while the revitalisation of the port district will be one of the biggest legacies that the city will enjoy. Legal issues have caused some delays in construction work and there has been criticism over the way thousands of families, especially in poorer districts, have been evicted from their homes because of Olympic projects.

The IOC have warned that deadlines are getting closer and that Rio organisers still have much work to do, but Gryner insisted: “Time is an adversary but time is also on our side. We’ll get a few cold sweats, but this is normal. We are on time and going according to schedule.”

The initial infrastructure budget for 2016, responsibility for which is shared by national and state authorities as well as the city of Rio, amounts to $11.6 billion (about £7.4 billion), which is less than the London 2012 figure of £9.3 billion. There is also an operational budget of $2.8 billion (about £1.8 billion), which organisers are hoping to raise privately through sponsorship, ticket sales and other revenue sources. However, the final budget figures have yet to be agreed.

At the closing ceremony here on Sunday night Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, will hand the Olympic flag to Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, who will in turn pass it to Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro. He faces a busy four years.

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