By: Andrew Warshaw in Rio de Janeiro
Rio 2016 is today celebrating arguably its most important landmark since being awarded the games two years ago, with a special presentation marking exactly five years to the day to the opening of the first summer Games to be held in South America.
Some 300 Olympic, civic and commercial movers and shakers will convene in downtown Rio de Janeiro for an occasion that will inject a much-needed feel good factor after weeks of negative publicity over the staging of the World Cup two years earlier.
So sensitive are Olympic officials over the criticism meted out in recent days to Ricardo Teixeira, head of the World Cup organising committee and Brazil's most powerful football administrator, that his 2016 counterpart, the normally media friendly Carlos Nuzman, has imposed a virtual news blackout, at least until the rumpus over Teixeira's ill-timed attack on English football and his much-publicised altercation with Pele have died down.
Although a routine International Olympic Committee (IOC) technical visit was given as the official reason for Nuzman and his chief executive being unwilling to fulfil an interview request, the real reason was to avoid saying anything that might be construed as jeopardising the relationship between Nuzman and Teixeira, not least concerning Pele who gets on well with Nuzman and was a prominent member of Brazil's 2016 bid.
A few weeks ago, during an informal chat with reporters, Nuzman let slip how important it was for both Organising Committees to work hand in hand. "We have a tremendous relationship with the World Cup organising committee and with Ricardo Teixeira in particular," he told reporters in Durban during a break from the bidding process for the 2018 Winter Games where he gave a progress report to the IOC.
It's not only the World Cup, however, that has given Rio 2016 a head start in terms of planning and preparation. The 2007 Pan American Games enabled Nuzman to hand-pick many of the same personnel for his organising team, while in terms of infrastructure, the 2016 Olympic stadium, which will stage athletics as well as the Paralympics, is already in place, in contrast to Stratford which has had to be built from scratch for London 2012.
Opened in June, 2007 at a cost of $192 million, the venue - a 45-minute drive north of central Rio, past the port area and bisecting clusters of corrugated-roofed favelas that rise steeply upwards - is known both as Engenhão after the local neighbourhood and the João Havelange stadium in tribute to Brazil's former FIFA president.
Home to Botafogo, one of Rio's four top-flight teams, its running track has already been built as a result of the Pan-American Games and the challenge now is expanding it from a capacity of 45,000 to 60,000, improving the woefully inadequate train station opposite, upgrading parking and modernising the myriad of graffiti-covered side streets that surround the stadium.
Already, however, the local authorities are making use of its multisport facilities, building up the profile of the Olympic Games on the back of football. At halftime during a recent Brazilian league match attended by this correspondent, spectators were treated to two 100-metre races for men and women.
Only on a return visit to a now virtually empty stadium was it pointed out that the athletes were in fact blind Paralympians trying to break the world record, albeit in front of a few thousand fans.
Able-bodied young schoolchildren are also regularly put through their paces, all part of a deliberate policy integrating Botafogo with the local community. "Since they have a stadium that has an athletics infrastructure, they are trying to develop an athletics culture," said Rodrigo Garcia, the organising committee spokesperson responsible for sport policy and operations. "It's an attempt, if you like, to find the next generation of Brazilian champions."
Garcia is understandably proud of the Olympic venue, which has an adjacent training and warm-up area and another one, covered, directly underneath. Rightly or wrongly, Rio's Olympic stadium is some distance from the Olympic Park, based in Barra a 20-minute drive away and expected to become a national training centre after the Games. Clearly, Rio, unlike those who oppose West Ham's tenancy of Stratford after London 2012, has no problem about football and athletics mixing. "The strategy we used during our candidature was to try and use as many venues as possible from the Pan-American games," explained Garcia. "To be honest this stadium was always built with athletics in mind."
He insists the expansion project will not impact on residential areas. "We are not hiding anything in terms of relocation but there is no need for it round here," said Garcia. "As far as the Olympic Park is concerned, I'm not at liberty to speak about that. What I can say is that a lot of infrastructure will already be in place because of the World Cup."
Some of it won't include a brand new subway system linking Barra to Ipanema, part of what is described as Rio 2016's "master plan" but not ready until the end of 2015, provided there is the political will.
From the Olympic stadium it was on to the Maracanã, the second most visited place in Brazil; not the famous Maracanã of the tourist guides, more right now, a building site.
With both the World Cup and Rio 2016 on the horizon, thousands of construction workers are feverishly bulldozing their way across the same site where some of the country's most famous players used to demonstrate their sublime skills.
Still holding the record for the biggest crowd ever to watch a World Cup game, one of the great cathedrals of football is being completely rebuilt at a cost of $595 million, mainly for the World Cup but also for the Olympics when it will stage the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and the final of the football tournament.
Icaro Moreno Junior, the man responsible for overseeing the project, recently described it as like "a pie with a new filling". The new capacity will be around 80,000 with state-of-the-art facilities in a stadium that will be entirely remodelled, including a new roof, main stand and access ways to provide better comfort, sound, lighting and safety and allow evacuation of the entire venue within eight minutes. "It's an emblematic stadium, just like Wembley," says Garcia. "Even if the World Cup and Olympics had not taken place, this work was in dire need of modernisation."
But why only one football game at such a prestigious venue? "We have to take out all the infrastructure used for the Opening Ceremony, then prepare for the closing ceremony. There simply isn't enough time. It's impossible to have all the football at the Maracanã. The rest will be spread over the country."
One of Rio's biggest plus points is that every Olympic sport - other than part of the football tournament - will be within the city itself, covering four venue clusters - unlike London where, for instance, sailing is at Weymouth. The whole idea is to try and get as close as possible to the original concept of the Games, to the "soul" of the Olympics, as one insider put it.
"We are very comfortable with five years to go but the main area that is a massive challenge is transport," said Carlos Villanova, Rio 2016's communications director. "Luckily the airport will be ready by the World Cup but there are of course some areas that will only be ready for the Olympics. Luckily again, if there is any need for further development, we'll have another two years."
All Olympic cities endeavour to gain as much inside knowledge as possible from previous Games organisers. Sharing experience is a tradition but Rio's relationship with London 2012 seems to be particularly strong. Officials of the two cities are in constant contact, with Nuzman and his advisers frequently on the phone or paying visits to London. "They are playing a fantastic role in our preparation, opening as many doors as possible," said Villanova. "Maybe it's because Sebastian Coe is a friend of both Nuzman and Agberto Guimarães, our director of sport. We have many consultants but you can't buy this sort of contact."
In terms of ticket prices, Rio are far from formulating a plan but are aware how sensitive the issue is. "It's not just London's concern, it's everyone's concern but it's far too early to provide any likely prices," says Villanova.
Behind the scenes, it is understood there is a growing campaign to include beach soccer as a new sport for 2016, taking advantage both of Brazil's obsession with the round-ball game and its world-famous beaches.
Although new sports can only be admitted to the Olympic programme a minimum seven years in advance, it is believed FIFA president Sepp Blatter and Nuzman are both keen on the idea and may try to persuade IOC president Jacques Rogge to bend the rules.
"If realised, I'm sure that football and the fans only can win, and that beach soccer will be one of the biggest attractions in Rio 2016," Nuzman was quoted as saying by Brazilian newspaper O Globo.
According to the same paper, Blatter attended part of a friendly between Brazil and Japan at Copacabana on the occasion of the recent World Cup preliminary draw. "This was a seed we planted long ago," said Brazilian beach football coach Alexandre Soares. "If it happens, it will be great."
With a legacy to benefit future generations, no stone is being left unturned to promote a "new Brazil". Efforts to stamp out crime and violence in poorer communities have intensified in recent months with a new programme of UPPs - Pacifying Police Units - taking a different approach to tackling crime in the shantytowns. Officials insist the programme has been hugely successful, changing the image of favelas as crime-ridden, drug-infested slums.
Nevertheless, a small but dedicated protest lobby continues to keep the pressure up in terms making sure peaceful, law-abiding communities are treated fairly. On the day of the recent World Cup draw, upwards of 200 protestors staged a peaceful but strongly worded demonstration, decrying the effects of international sporting events on the city. Among the grievances they cited were salaries for emergency workers and the much-publicised forced removal of residents from the favelas, away from their families, their schools and their workplace.
"Everything indicates that the World Cup and Olympics are going to repeat, on a larger scale, the history of the 2007 Pan American Games: misappropriation of public funds, unnecessarily large construction projects that become useless after the competition, benefits only for large businesses whose owners are friends of those in power and the violation of the human rights of millions of Brazilians," said a statement issued by one of the more vociferous protest groups. "The forced removal of families affected by these projects is happening in an arbitrary and violent manner."
Organising committee officials refute such suggestions as over-the-top, pointing out that any areas where residents are being relocated must have strict government approval. "According to city hall, no-one has ever been removed first without judiciary approval, without consent or without compensation," said Villanova.
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