The most crisis-ridden Olympic Games in history opened on 5th August with Rio organizers hoping to draw a line under a turbulent seven-year build-up to the greatest sporting show on Earth.
Football legend Pele was tipped to ignite the Olympic flame at Rio’s iconic Maracana Stadium in yesterday’s’s opening ceremony, as the four-yearly celebration of sporting endeavour arrives in South America for the first time.
Olympic chiefs hoped that the ceremony marks the start of a 17-day carnival of sport, a feast of drama framed by a Rio backdrop of breath-taking natural beauty.
Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt will compete under the gaze of the Christ the Redeemer statue, sailors will duel in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain, while the golden sands of Copacabana will host the spiritual homecoming of the beach volleyball tournament.
Yet the sporting spectacle comes after a frequently chaotic build-up which at times has threatened to leave the city nursing a nasty hangover before the party even starts.
When Rio successfully won the race for the Games in 2009, the 2016 Olympics looked set to be the crowning glory of a dynamic, newly-confident Brazil.
But a brutal recession, double-digit unemployment, fears about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, embarrassing infrastructure stumbles and a political crisis that led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff have all but extinguished the euphoria that greeted the vote victory.
More than one million tickets, or 20% of the total, including for coveted events such as the men’s 100-metre final, remain unsold.
“In a way the Olympics is good for Brazil to help us develop, but the country is very sad, full of violence and unemployment,” Carlos Roberto, 56, a dockyard worker told AFP. “You go into a hospital and can’t find a doctor or medicines.”
Several ambitious plans to transform Rio have long since been abandoned, including a pledge to clean up the city’s filthy Guanabara Bay.
That failure means athletes in Olympic sailing and windsurfing events will be forced to compete in a toxic soup of raw sewage from half of the city’s population.
The Zika virus — which can cause serious birth defects if pregnant mothers are infected — has prompted the world’s top four golfers to withdraw from the games.
Brazilian officials insist that the threat of infection is near zero in what is one of the coolest times of the year.
A vast security blanket of 85,000 military personnel and police — twice the number on duty at the 2012 London Games — will be draped over the city to ward off the threat of terror attacks.
Not even the beefed-up security, however, is likely to offer total protection against Rio’s long-running problems with high crime.
Danish, Chinese and Australian delegations have already reported thefts from team members since arriving in Brazil, while in May members of Spain’s sailing team were mugged at gunpoint.