A temporary arena on Rio de Janeiro’s famed Copacabana Beach will host beach volleyball and is one of several venues built for the Games. Photo by Felipe Dana/AP Images
A temporary arena on Rio de Janeiro’s famed Copacabana Beach will host beach volleyball and is one of several venues built for the Games. Photo by Felipe Dana/AP Images

Every Olympic Summer Games seems to come with its own challenges and concerns. In 2008, questions swirled around Beijing’s air quality. In 2010, there were doubts about adequate snow levels at the alpine venues near Vancouver. In 2012, some wondered whether London’s public transportation would be too crowded to move people efficiently. And in 2014, spectator safety was the pressing issue in Sochi, Russia.

So what to make of the 2016 Olympic & Paralympic Summer Games headed to Rio de Janeiro, which have been fraught with a seeming record number of problems? The construction pace of some venues has been a near-crawl, resulting in the cancelation of test events scheduled at the Olympic Park’s velodrome late this spring and delays in construction of perhaps the signature venue, a temporary arena on Copacabana Beach for volleyball. Pollution in Guanabara Bay, where sewage, trash and—even worse—body parts, have been found in recent months have many debating the decision to host sailing events there. A subway line connecting the new Olympic Park with other parts of the city was still not complete in July and was scheduled to open just days before the event. Advance ticket sales have been sluggish compared with past Games. The president of Brazil has been impeached, and the economy is in a downward spiral. As if that’s not enough, the spread of the Zika virus, and its potential harm to pregnant women in particular, has already caused some athletes to announce that they plan to stay home. The concern is so prevalent that Off! was signed in July to be the Olympics’ first insect-repellant sponsor, with the product to be distributed to athletes, volunteers and staff.

And yet, International Olympic Committee and U.S. Olympic Committee officials remain confident that, like the challenges facing other Games in the past—all of which were resolved or proved largely unfounded—the IOC’s decision in 2009 to award the first Olympic Games to a South American country will pay dividends. When NBC broadcasts the Olympics (August 5–21) and the Paralympics (September 7–18) to its widest distribution in history, organizers and Olympic officials in the United States believe the beauty of Rio’s backdrops and the spirit of competition will take center stage.

“There’s risk associated with any Games, whether it’s terrorism or crime or transportation—whatever it is, you’re always going to have something,” said Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. “I think we’re excited about the opportunity to go down there. As with every other Games, our expectation is when the opening ceremonies come, we’re all going to be focused on that.”

Mario Andrada, a chief spokesman for Rio 2016, also sought to reassure visitors and athletes, addressing media earlier this year at the USOC Media Summit in Los Angeles. “We just hosted the FIFA World Cup, and we just had one failure, which was in the pitch,” he said, referring to the host country’s fourth-place finish. “Outside the pitch, it was a wonderful event and a wonderful tournament. We have a job to do that’s extremely clear—organize a great Games and an unforgettable celebration. That’s what we need to do, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

A New Look

The Olympics will be staged at venues clustered in four zones in Rio de Janeiro: Barra, Copacabana, Deodoro and Maracanã. An Olympic Park, whose finishing touches were still being made in July, will host the majority of events at a group of stadiums and arenas built for the Games in the southwestern Barra da Tijuca section of the city. A lasting legacy of the Games was supposed to be a subway line connecting the area to other popular parts of the city, including Copacabana, although Rio 2016 officials said the line may not be open until August 1 at the earliest. At Copacabana Beach, the temporary beach volleyball venue should provide some of the most scenic shots of the Games. The area is expected to be so panoramic that NBC will stage its broadcast center there, the first time since 1992 that the network will not house its main set at the International Broadcast Center. The Deodoro neighborhood, to the northwest of Copacabana, will host several other events including shooting, BMX, whitewater, equestrian and the debut of rugby sevens. Opening and closing ceremonies will be staged at the famed, 78,000-seat Maracanã Stadium, whose surrounding area will also host track and field, archery and soccer.

The 2016 Games will also feature a relatively new look with two sports that are returning to the Olympic program after long absences. Rugby was last an Olympic sport in 1924, when the full 15-a-side rugby union version was staged. This year, the faster, shorter and higher-scoring rugby sevens will be played, with the United States qualifying both its men’s and women’s teams. “It’s incredibly exciting,” said Madison Hughes, captain of the U.S. men’s team. “We’ve already seen how much it’s done for our sport. Rugby union has always been a bigger brother to rugby sevens, and since rugby sevens’ inclusion in the Olympics, we’ve gotten more exposure and more funding. More of the superstars of the rugby world have tried their hand at sevens, which is exciting to see.”

The other sport making a long-awaited return is golf, which was last on the Olympic program in 1904. The sport will be played with professional golfers—or at least those golfers who have not bowed out over Zika-related concerns or scheduling issues. On the men’s side, the four top-ranked golfers in the world have said thanks but no thanks: Americans Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson, Australia’s Jason Day and Ireland’s Rory McIlroy have all taken a pass. On the women’s side, however, many of the world’s top golfers are expected to compete at a new course built near the Olympic Village in Barra.

“It’s going to be something really special, and a lot of girls have put it pretty high on the list,” said Stacy Lewis, a former No. 1 golfer who is expected to represent the United States. “They are maybe extending careers a little bit longer to make the Olympic team. The impact is going to take a few Olympic cycles, but I think the immediate impact is that golf is going to be exposed to a lot more places around the world than it ever has been.”

Venues in the Spotlight

As for the discussion about whether Olympic venues will be adequate and provide a level playing field, USOC officials have expressed little apprehension. “The Rio Organizing Committee has done a really good job under some tough circumstances, focusing on the athletes to make sure they do everything they can to put on a great experience,” said Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sport performance. “While they’ve had to make adjustments, we’ve all been reading about the challenges they have with their economy. The reality is they’ve stayed true to the mission in our dealings with them.”

Perhaps the biggest cause for concern is Guanabara Bay, where the backdrops of the city are stunning but the water quality remains a serious issue. For decades, the bay has been the end of the line for sewage and trash, and Rio organizers had vowed to clean up the pollution as a legacy of the Games. However, concerns over the bay’s sufficient cleanliness for competitions are still raising eyebrows. In July, sailors testing the waters reported an oil slick they needed to navigate. And World Sailing, the governing body of the sport, announced it would monitor water quality with helicopters and trash-collecting boats aided by GPS to look for debris, with plans to move the sailing events to the open Atlantic in a worst-case scenario.

For her part, U.S. Olympian Briana Provancha said that in eight visits for competition in Rio, including 150 sailing days and two Olympic test events, the conditions were not a concern. “We take the same precautions we would if we were to travel to Europe, any other part of South America, even Asia—honestly even in the United States,” she said. “You make sure you wash your hands, you wash your sailing clothes after every day with fresh water. All that stuff is just in the normal routine.”

Ashley said health and safety precautions would be established for all athletes, including those in other water sports. In addition, he said, before athletes head to Brazil, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be on hand at the U.S. team’s processing in Houston to answer questions. Other governing bodies are taking precautions as well. U.S. Rowing, for example, is expected to clothe its athletes in antimicrobial one-piece uniforms.

Andrada with Rio 2016 reiterated his belief that the issues will be non-existent when the competition begins. “I can 100 percent assure everybody that it’s going to be fair competition and that there will be no risk to the health of the athletes,” he said of Guanabara Bay. “We tested twice, we did two events in Guanabara Bay with more than 600 athletes there, and they all can tell you the competition, the field of play, was clean enough for fair competition.”

Will People Come?

Pollution in the bay isn’t the only potential threat. Concern over the Zika virus has prompted several star athletes in several sports to stay home, and it remains to be seen whether the issue will affect travel and ticket sales. Again, organizers in Rio have sought to downplay the issue, noting that the Games will be held during Brazil’s winter, when mosquito activity is reduced.

“In the case of Zika, we need to make sure all the venues are inspected and cleaned every single day,” Andrada said. “And also to give the athletes and the tourists the proper information about how they can protect themselves—long sleeves, windows closed in the evening, use the air conditioning, use repellent.”

Blackmun said the USOC is regularly monitoring the situation for its athletes as well. “We want to get the best information we have, working with WHO (the World Health Organization), the IOC and the Centers for Disease Control to make sure we have the best, most up-to-date information possible, and push that to our athletes in the most efficient way possible,” he said.

But will spectators stay away as a result of the virus? If ticket sales are any indication, it is possible. With less than three weeks remaining until the opening ceremony, Rio 2016 reported that about 70 percent of available tickets had been sold. Andrada, for his part, said those numbers are as much a reflection of Brazilian culture as anything else. “Brazilians are late buyers,” he said. “They will take a while until they start buying tickets. Sometimes people get nervous and say, ‘They only sold 50 percent of the tickets. Is there a problem?’ There’s no problem. We’re going to sell all the tickets.”

The Brazilian Tourism Board also remains optimistic. According to a study released by the Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau with ForwardKeys, international flights to Rio are expected to increase 289 percent between July 25 and August 21 compared to that same period in 2015. The bureau also reported that there were already 45,400 trips planned during that period and that for the Paralympics, bookings are up 50 percent compared to the same period the year before. China, Japan and the United States will bring the most tourists, according to the report.

“Great events are unique opportunities for Brazil to raise its level of competitiveness among the international tourism market,” said Gilson Lira, who recently served as interim-president of the Brazilian Tourism Board. “This study is important for us to plan for and define early actions that can positively impact the Brazilian tourism sector, one of the largest generators of employment and income in the country.” The survey also noted that the city’s hotel occupancy would be up more than 200 percent from the year prior during the Olympics and that international visitors planned to stay, on average, 14 days.

Olympic Trials

While all eyes will be on Brazil in August and September, dozens of cities across the United States have already been able to capitalize on Olympic fever by hosting Olympic and Paralympic trials in a number of sports and disciplines, starting with trials for archery in College Station, Texas, in September 2015, and wrapping up with women’s gymnastics, staged in early July in San Jose, California.

For the third-consecutive Olympic cycle, USA Swimming chose to host its trials in Omaha, Nebraska, in a temporary pool built inside CenturyLink Center. But the national governing body changed a few things this time around, expanding its Aqua Zone fan festival area and creating the USA Swimming House, a hospitality house similar to what the USOC and other national Olympic committees construct during the Games themselves. “One of the benefits of coming back to Omaha for the third time is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel by going to a new location,” said Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming’s executive director. “We’re able to take the things we’ve learned in one year and build on those things for the future.”

Athletes said they look forward to the environment in Omaha, one in which fans are closer to the action than typical. Another advantage, according to Natalie Coughlin, a 12-time Olympic medalist who competed again at this year’s trials but failed to make the team for Rio, is a massive scoreboard that floats over the pool. “As a backstroker, I like to be able to check my split,” she said. Also, the atmosphere is unparalleled, she said. “The entire stadium gets really dark, other than the pool. And the entire town gets really behind the trials unlike any city I’ve seen.”

USA Track & Field also returned to a familiar site, hosting its trials in Eugene, Oregon, at the University of Oregon’s historic Hayward Field. This was also the third-consecutive Olympic cycle that the venue had been used to host the trials.

“It’s a special place,” said Allyson Felix, who qualified for the 400 meters at the trials. “Obviously the stadium has such history, and there’s always such big performances there. I love competing in front of a really knowledgeable crowd with high energy. That’s what you want for the Olympic trials.”

Other national governing bodies have found similar success when returning to familiar locations. In April, USA Wrestling returned to the same host city—Iowa City, Iowa—for its Olympic trials for the first time in history. The decision made sense as the 2012 trials in Iowa City set an all-time attendance record of 54,766. The 2012 event also yielded an estimated $5.6 million in economic impact, said Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Home to the University of Iowa Hawkeyes—a wrestling powerhouse—the city didn’t need a return of the trials to put it on the wrestling map. In fact, at last year’s World Wrestling Championships in Las Vegas, Schamberger said the coach of the Turkish wrestling team told reporters he’d rather be wrestling in Iowa City. But the exposure has nonetheless been welcome and something the city hopes to build on as it constructs a new 7,000-seat arena that is expected to open in 2019 and be available for other wrestling and amateur sports events.

Attendance for the 2016 wrestling trials was down from the record in 2012 but still averaged more than 11,000 people per session for the four sessions. Schamberger said one reason some fans may have stayed away was that the trials in 2012 used a hard-to-follow scoring system that has since been revamped to be more fan-friendly as part of international wrestling’s effort to remain on the Olympic program. “I think there was a lot of excitement and walk-away from this one just because the fans really understood it better than ’12,” he said. “But I think we lost some of the one-time fans from 2012 because of the goofy rules (in place then). This time around, there was nothing but excitement. And it didn’t hurt that one of the finals was a Hawkeye versus a Hawkeye.”

But not all trials returned to a former site. In Oklahoma City, the newly opened, $45 million Riversport Rapids along the Oklahoma River, made its debut as a venue by hosting the second stage of the whitewater canoe/kayak trials in May. Mike Knopp, executive director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation, said the event went off well, especially for its timing so close to the completion of the venue. “The day we had trials was the day we opened and it was quite a way to open,” he said. “But we wanted to really showcase Riversport Rapids and make a big impact on the community. Of course we were a little nervous leading up to it making sure that we could hit that date, but I think the Olympic trials helped give a marker to shoot for and everyone did great.”

The first half of the whitewater trials were staged at the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, in April. In fact, Charlotte debuted a new concept of its own, hosting three Paralympic sports—swimming, track and field, and cycling—in one event held at various spots around the city in July, including University City, the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center and the Irwin Belk Complex at Johnson C. Smith University.

Paralympics Poised

In September, the Paralympics will be the 15th ever staged. But the last one in London in 2012 marked a turning point, both in ticket sales and television exposure. More than 2.76 million tickets were sold in 2012, making the event the third largest in the world behind the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, said the 2016 version will draw a record 4,350 athletes from 170 countries. They will be competing in 22 sports, including the debut of canoe and triathlon. And with millions of tickets available at a price point of about $2, organizers are hoping attendance will rival 2012 as well.

“I think the growing interest in Paralympic sports in the last 20 years is due to the ever-improving performances of Paralympic athletes,” Craven said. “The majority are now full-time and benefiting from high-performance training on par with their Olympic counterparts.”

In the United States, NBC will broadcast a record 66 hours of coverage from the Paralympic Games, which is crucial to exposing Paralympic sports and their athletes to the public at large, said Rick Adams, chief of Paralympic Sport and National Governing Body Organizational Development for the USOC. “NBC’s coverage is changing the way people view Paralympic sport in this country,” Adams said. “They’re seeing things they didn’t know were possible. Most important, you have young kids—a 5-year-old boy or a 5-year-old girl—who are now seeing things they can strive toward. Obviously, there’s a very small number that ultimately get to that elite Paralympic level, but the fact that it’s there has changed everything, and that’s really a result of NBC.”

There is also evidence that the event leaves a lasting impression on its host country. Surveys done after the 2012 Paralympics showed that one in three adults in Great Britain had changed their attitudes toward people with disabilities following the London Paralympic Games, Craven said. “This seismic shift in attitude is something we feel can be replicated in other countries around the world,” he said.

Craven attributed part of that success to the IPC’s efforts to better support the host city. “Whereas maybe in the past we were very much dependent on the performance of the local organizing committee, which we couldn’t influence too much, now there’s a greater appreciation that the IPC is a capable organization, and we interact very well with the organizing committee,” he said. “That’s where we had to improve our capabilities if we could expect others to do the same.”

One of the top stories sure to emerge from the event will be American Tatyana McFadden’s attempt to become the first athlete to capture gold in all seven track distances, from the 100 meters to the marathon, after she qualified at the trials in Charlotte. McFadden will be a five-time Paralympian and has won 11 Paralympic medals. From her start in Athens in 2004, she said there has been a noticeable difference in the way the event has been organized and treated by spectators. “London absolutely set the bar way up here as well for the social movement,” she said. “They really learned to parallel the Olympics and the Paralympics. It’s really the same. We are athletes trying to reach one goal.”

Expecting the Best

What remains to be seen, of course, is whether the choice to award the Olympics and Paralympics to Rio de Janeiro will pay off in the end. While many questions remain unanswered, USOC leaders remain confident that it will be a memorable event, accessible to fans in the United States and noteworthy for the talent athletes bring to their various fields of play.

“Rio is a city of incredible beauty,” said Larry Probst, chairman of the USOC’s board of directors. “Combine that with the fact in the months of August and September it’s a one-hour time difference off of Eastern time, and I think viewership is going to be really strong. I think it’s going to be spectacular on television, and I think it’s going to be a great environment for our athletes.”