Olympics: Rio mayor, Australia hop away from kanga-row

Mayor of Rio de Janeiro Eduardo Paes (left) accepts a kangaroo doll from the chief of the Olympic Australian Delegation Kitty Chiller (R) during a welcome ceremony.
Mayor of Rio de Janeiro Eduardo Paes (left) accepts a kangaroo doll from the chief of the Olympic Australian Delegation Kitty Chiller (R) during a welcome ceremony. PHOTO: EPA

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - Rio's mayor and the Australian Olympic team buried the hatchet Wednesday in a row that started over shambolic lodgings in the athletes' Village and veered into a bizarre controversy over kangaroos.

Mayor Eduardo Paes kissed Australia delegation chief Kitty Chiller on the cheek, handed her a symbolic key to the city and apologized for the construction hiccups at the Village, which included blocked toilets, dangerous wiring and leaks.

"I saw the things. This was the worst building. I recognize the problems you faced," a repentant Paes said.

Paes' speech was a far cry from his apparently combative reaction Sunday after Chiller publicly lambasted the accommodations as the worst she'd seen in a career spanning five Olympics.

The mayor's quip that a kangaroo should be sent to make the Australians feel better did not go down well, being widely interpreted as a jibe and quickly surfacing on Twitter as #kangaroogate.

Paes explained that he'd not meant any harm. "I wanted to make fun of Australia because of the kangaroo," he said, offering "a formal apology - almost a diplomatic thing."

Earlier Wednesday, Paes said in an interview on Globo television that he'd simply made "a bad joke".

Chiller, flanked by Australian athletes, praised Brazil for the hard work to repair the accommodation problems in the last few days.

"So very happy to be here, happy for the Village that you provided, for the beautiful city, and the people," she said.

"This is something we have noticed when we had our challenges: the passion and the commitment of your people to help us out," she said.

Showing that they've also decided the kangaroo controversy should be sent hopping, the tongue-in-cheek Australians have taken Paes' advice and stationed a large replica of the iconic animal outside their front door, along with an emu.

And just so that Paes didn't leave empty handed after he presented the symbolic key, Chiller gave him a present of her own: a stuffed kangaroo.

The Olympic Games - the first to be held in South America - are to open on Aug 5, less than two weeks away.

The initial lack of preparedness in the Olympic Village was another embarrassing blow for host Brazil, which is struggling to show it can cope with the Olympic pressure during a severe recession and political crisis.

It is already facing questions over low ticket sales, public apathy, fears over the Zika virus, and a spike in street crime as police complain of lack of resources.