Olympics: Rio backs Games legacy, 1,000 days from start

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - Political protests, stark prophecies of cost overruns, and stories of infrastructural projects struggling to stay on track.

It may sound like the problems dogging the 2014 World Cup, but they are also plaguing the 2016 Olympics, Brazil's other showpiece.

Saturday marks 1,000 days to the opening ceremony of the Games.

"We understand the complexity of the task ahead of us," says organising committee chairman Carlos Nuzman, stressing "the most important legacy is bringing the Olympics to Brazil" in the first place.

Rio, a seething metropolis of some six million, has been straining to modernise ever since it was awarded the Games on Oct 2, 2009, seeing off opposition from Madrid, Tokyo and a Chicago bid personally backed by Barack Obama.

But four years on, amid soaring cost estimates and street protests against the cost of both the Games and next year's World Cup, organisers have constantly found themselves having to answer: Can the city complete a garguantuan programme of urban renewal on time? Can Brazil afford the cost for both sporting jamborees of some US$15 billion (S$18.7 billion) each? And would the money not be better spent on social infrastructure, such as health and education? Nuzman has been preaching optimism for months, saying as early as last December: "Everything is on the way and on time. The budget will be ready next year. We are in a comfortable, good situation. We are in a very good road." Even so, with the end of 2013 just seven weeks away, Rio 2016 communications director Mario Andrada felt moved to tell reporters that the budget could not yet be disclosed.

Legacy and sustainability are the bywords for the event which will be nothing if not picturesque with 30 competition venues spread across four Olympic zones - Maracana with its iconic and recently refurbished stadium, Copacabana, with its world famous beach, Barra out to the west and Deodoro in the north.

Rather less picturesque are the regular public protests by disaffected Brazilians.

Organisers of both events are promising a transformation of a giant country which is growing apace but which still is a showcase for the gulf that exists in developing countries between ultra rich and dirt poor - in Rio both extremes cohabit literally metres of each other.

For Andrada "we can set standards for future events, we must lead by example". The Barra district is one example of the sporting legacy Rio wishes to leave as it will become a training center after the Games.

Yet plans to link the area with central Rio threaten to be held up by reported delays to a metro link, Brazilian media reported in recent days.

Games executive director Gilbert Felli noted that "we'll need a contingency plan if suddenly the Metro is not ready". International Olympic Committee coordinators have made five visits to check on progress in the "Marvellous City" and will return in 2014.

After the last one Coordination Commission chair Nawal El Moutawakel noted "progress in a number of areas" and saluted Rio's commitment to securing a lasting legacy and "leaving a sporting heritage to the city". But just a month ago Brazilian press reported that a national auditing office check on the finances of the Games showed preparations behind schedule with earmarked state cash largely unspent.

Organisers have earmarked an operating budget of around $4 billion. But the capital budget is around three times as much and already there are fears as much as $700 million of public money may be needed to shore up the cost of the extravaganza.

That means cranking up sponsorship efforts - although one potential source of cash has other business to attend to - mining, energy and shipping magnate Eike Batista's oil company OGX filed for bankruptcy protection last month.

Organisers stressed on Wednesday that the demise of the now former billionaire, who helped to bankroll the Rio bid campaign, would have "zero impact" on the Games.

Even so, number-crunchers in the organising committee estimate sponsoring would have to top the billion dollars of London 2012 to prevent the government having to put its hand in its pocket.

Some of the negative publicity is meanwhile, if not self-inflicted, at least home-grown.

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said in August that "it is a shame Brazil is hosting the Olympic Games" as it was not clear who would run the sports centers thereafter.

He added: "It is difficult to manage sports in Brazil with the quality of leaders we have." Yet despite missteps such as the closure last March of the Joao Havelange stadium, which opened in 2007 at a cost of £123million, for structural problems, there are some visual signs of progress.

Last week, the city authorities began dismantling an ugly evelated ring road which is being replaced by a tunnel as part of a massive urban regeneration program for which the Games are undeniably the catalyst.