Rio 2016: 100 days to go… and a million things to do

When you initially set foot in this city, you realize there's something about Rio de Janeiro that sparks the imagination. 

At first glance, it's one of the world's most spectacular destinations.

The 2016 Olympic host community boasts Copacabana Beach, Sugarloaf Mountain and is presided over by the iconic statue of "Christ the Redeemer." This is a magnificent place, startling and stimulating to the senses.

It will also stage the first Olympics ever held in South America.

When we landed, we went to see Brazil's most decorated Olympian, Torben Grael. His family has sent three generations of sailors to the Games. He's won five medals at six Olympic appearances, including gold in 1996 in Atlanta and again in Athens in 2004 where he carried his country's flag into the Opening Ceremony.

'Troubled times'

Here in Rio de Janeiro, he'll be coaching the Brazilian sailing team – which includes his son and daughter.

"I think it's a nice venue even though it's been a bit of troubled times for us unfortunately," Grael said while working on his boat at Guanabara Bay which will host the sailing competitions this summer.

"I think that most of the work is done and I hope the Games go smoothly. Of course anybody who is involved with the Olympic Games, to be able to sail or compete in your own country, that's huge.

"I didn't have that pleasure, but my kids will so I'm looking forward to it."

The lingering doubt for Grael arises when he considers the water quality in Rio. Debris floats visibly around the boats in his beloved Guanabara Bay.

"I don't think you're going to get sick…it just looks horrible," Grael winced. "I think they're going to be careful collecting garbage in the racing areas but that's just for the Games and after the Games it will be back to what we know.

"We thought we were going to have some change, some legacy there. But it's not going to happen, unfortunately."

Pan Am legacy

Over at the main Barra Olympic Park, the sporting facilities are impressive and mostly ready to go; a living reminder of the successful Pan American Games Rio staged in 2007. Aquatics and diving have been fully tested, the tennis centre is complete, and gymnastics needs an exterior cleanup, but it's primed for competition.

Across the city at the Athletics Stadium, the finishing touches have been put on the synthetic track. The rubber-like smell wafts through the bowl of the 60,000-seat home to track and field. It's still hard hat territory for visitors, but the stadium is 80 per cent done.

For some Canadian athletes getting their first look at Rio this week at a fencing test event, there's a lot to think about.

As sabres and foils rattled in the gleaming new Carioca Arena, Joseph Polossifakis of Montreal took it all in. He won two silver medals at the Pan American Games in Toronto last summer in Sabre competition and has already qualified for his first Olympics here in Rio.

"It's funny because as soon as I got into that venue, I got goosebumps because this is an actual Olympic venue," Polossifakis marveled. "It's a feeling that's been 15 years in the making for me. So it's very emotional."

But, as Rio races towards hosting the world's largest party, there are other feelings that have come into play.

Challenging times ahead

The economy is in a deep recession that's forced a 30 per cent cutback to the original Games budget. The cycling velodrome is not yet finished although organizers claim the Siberian pine track will be in place in plenty of time.

With the eyes of the world on Brazil now, the president is facing impeachment because of suspected corruption. The deadly collapse of a $12 million US bike lane along the coast on April 21 has raised concerns over shoddy construction. The mass transit system, the biggest legacy of the Games, won't be complete in time.

Add to all of this the Zika virus threat that won't go away.

For new Sports Minister Ricardo Leyser, barely a month into the job, these are challenging times.

"Because of 2007 and the Pan American Games, if you look only at the works and the preparations for the Olympics, it was easier than expected," Leyser claimed.

"In the political way, no, it's been very difficult, more difficult than we planned. But that's how life works. You think something will be very smooth and we have problems. And yet other things you believe will be difficult but they are easier than you think."

In the end, time is quickly racing by and Rio is under a microscope.  Athletes and potential visitors have expectations, worries and a vast array of questions about the fitness of the host city. It's been this way at every Olympics in the modern era and all of Brazil is feeling the burden with just over three months remaining.

"The concerns are there for a reason and they are not completely fabricated," reckoned Polssifakis. "But from my point of view, if you take the right precautions, and you measure out the amount of risk you're willing to take, I don't think it's as bad as it may seem. If you take the right measures then everything should be OK."

For Torben Grael, that's cold comfort – but also a challenge to organizers as they enter the final phase of preparations.

"I think all the news that's been going on is so bad that I think everybody who is going to come will be prepared for the worst," he shrugged. "But I think we'll leave a good impression. I think the people from Brazil are quite warm and friendly, quite good hosts, and they'll love to have the Olympics here and they will do their best to make sure that everyone has a warm welcome.

"I'm hopeful that it's going to be good."

In the street there isn't yet an Olympic buzz. But Rio has this ever-present rhythm which might be described as upbeat, perhaps even optimistic.

Even though with 100 days to go, the beleaguered Olympic city has a million things left to do.

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