Olympics: World celebrates countdown to Rio Games despite lingering uncertainties

Hellenic Olympic Committee President Spyros Kapralos (centre) holds the torch with the Olympic flame prior to passing it to the Rio 2016 organising committee president during the handover ceremony in Athens.
Hellenic Olympic Committee President Spyros Kapralos (centre) holds the torch with the Olympic flame prior to passing it to the Rio 2016 organising committee president during the handover ceremony in Athens. PHOTO: AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday launched the 100-day countdown to hosting South America's first Olympic Games with government and global sports leaders insisting they can overcome Brazil's political meltdown and troubled preparations.

At an Athens ceremony featuring ancient Greek goddess costumes, Brazilian organisers took the Olympic flame for the start of a journey that will see it carried by 12,000 people around Latin America's biggest country.

"Rio is ready to make history," Carlos Nuzman, president of the Rio 2016 Organising Committee, said at the torch handover.

New Zealand athletes marked the 100-day countdown with a traditional Haka dance on an Auckland beach at sunrise. Buildings around the world lit up in special colours - Brazilian yellow and green at Tokyo's municipal government headquarters and United States red-white-blue for the Empire State Building in New York.

Several countries also unveiled their Olympic uniforms, including Britain with a set designed by Stella McCartney and the US team turning to Ralph Lauren.

With Rio's hills, beaches and the famed statue of Christ the Redeemer providing one of the most telegenic backdrops in the world, the Games are expected to be spectacular. But despite the insistence of the Brazilian government and International Olympic Committee (IOC) that everything will be ready, storm clouds are gathering.

President Dilma Rousseff appears likely to be suspended from office through impeachment in the next few weeks. Even her vice-president, Michel Temer, who would normally take over - and whom she accuses of mounting a coup - could face action.

And with the economy in steep decline for the second straight year, Brazilian unemployment has shot up to 10.2 percent and Olympic organisers have had to slash budgets, fueling fears of embarrassing delays.

Brazil's human rights record came under fire on Wednesday with a demand by Amnesty International for action over rising police killings, particularly in Rio's favela shanty towns. The rights group said 11 people were killed in police shootings in Rio in just the past month and at least 307 people were killed by police in the city last year - amounting to 20 percent of all homicides.

Murders and violent muggings in even the most heavily policed, well-off parts of Rio in the last few weeks have also prompted concern for the safety of the estimated 500,000 to one million tourists expected to flood the city in August.

Terrorism is another worry, although Brazilian officials say a high-tech centre to coordinate international security teams will be up to the task.

Officials also say that Olympic sites are 98 percent complete. However, there are serious delays to the velodrome, while a crucial extension of Rio's currently limited metro system is only due to open at the start of July, leaving dangerously little wiggle room.

Promises to clean up the horrific sewage and garbage pollution in the bay where sailing and windsurfing contests will take place have been largely abandoned.

IOC president Thomas Bach has predicted Rio will lay on an "excellent" Games and Brazil's Sports Minister Ricardo Leyser insisted that the political crisis will have "no effect at all".

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes told journalists that the warring politicians "all share the same desire" for a successful Games. However, setting up the world's biggest sporting event in a city battered by decades of under-investment in infrastructure and in a country riven by a giant corruption scandal has been full of difficulties.

Rio authorities admitted this week that 11 people died over the past three years on Olympics-related construction projects. "It's a frightening number," said Robson Leite, inspector for the labor office in Rio de Janeiro state, who said only eight workers were killed during construction of sites for the whole 2014 World Cup.

Another two people were confirmed killed when a much-touted new bicycle path collapsed last week.

Still, authorities hope that the Olympic flame relay will spark the so-far lacklustre domestic interest in the Games. It arrives on May 3 in the capital Brasilia after a short stopover in Switzerland, and then is to be carried through Brazilian towns and cities until the opening ceremony at Rio's Maracana football stadium.