Brazil government could buy up poorly selling Olympic tickets

Basketball players for Brazil and Australia compete at an Olympics test event in January 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - Brazil's government sounded the alarm on Saturday over poor sales of Olympic tickets just five months before Rio hosts South America's first Summer Games.

With worries about the Zika virus, high crime and a major political crisis already overshadowing the Aug 5 opening ceremony, Brazil now faces the embarrassing prospect of empty stadiums.

Only 50 per cent of tickets to the Olympics have been sold so far, Rio 2016 organising committee spokesman Phil Wilkinson told AFP on Saturday.

For the Paralympics, which follow the main Games, the figure is far worse: only 12 per cent sold.

Ricardo Leyser, who this week replaced George Hilton as Brazil's minister of sport, said in an interview with Folha newspaper that he was working on a plan to boost purchases.

One measure could be the government buying up unsold tickets, particularly for the Paralympics, and distributing them among schools.

"There is a perception that the Brazilian population has not yet woken up for the Games. We are going to work energetically on this because it's still not in people's heads. We need to sound an alert so that people remember this event and go and buy tickets," he said.

Brazil has suffered a barrage of negative news in the run-up to the Olympics, which were awarded to Rio in 2009 when Brazil was politically stable and in a prolonged spurt of economic growth.

The country is now in deep recession, leading to Olympic budget cuts, and the government is paralysed by a battle to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, who claims she is victim of a coup.

A corruption probe has revealed that politicians and businessmen at the highest levels took part in a massive embezzlement scheme for years under Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is himself fighting criminal charges.

And an outbreak of Zika, a mosquito-transmitted virus that is believed to potentially cause serious birth defects if contracted by pregnant women, has sparked numerous travel warnings.

Leyser told Folha that he and his ministry were focused on the job of getting the Olympics ready and would not be distracted by the political battles in the capital Brasilia.

"The ministry is extremely busy with day today activities. We have to complete works - we don't have time to think about impeachment," he said. "The ministry is working and ready."

Leyser called security preparations "critical," especially in the wake of Islamist gun and bomb attacks on crowded targets in Paris and Brussels.

In addition to terrorism fears, security officials are also working to try and secure Rio from the city's notorious street criminals, many of whom are armed.

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