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Three months before Olympics, Brazil suddenly has a lot to resolve

Three months before Olympics, Brazil suddenly has a lot to resolve
Health workers spray insecticide at Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome to kill mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus. (Leo Correa / Associated Press)

The XXXI Olympiad begins in less than three months and the host country is facing a devastating recession, a Zika epidemic and more political turbulence now that the president has been suspended and replaced by a right-wing government.

Brazil has a lot to resolve before it puts on the competition it promised the world back in 2009, when the booming country beat out President Obama-backed Chicago to host the games in Rio de Janeiro.

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But with some luck, athletes and experts are hoping that Latin America's largest country will be able to pull off an event that goes mostly fine for fans and competitors, even if locals see promises for long-term improvements broken by their politicians, and travelers run the risk of contributing to the global spread of Zika.

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"In terms of the venues and preparations for the Olympics, themselves, Brazil is not so far off where most countries historically are at this point," says Jules Boykoff, author of "Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics" and professor of political science at Pacific University in Oregon. "What is unique in the recent history of the Olympics is the political mayhem that is gyrating in Brazil right now."

It is not, however, the kind of political mayhem that would likely affect the Olympiad itself.

Organizers say 98% of the Olympic Park itself is finished, but the velodrome, used for bicycle competitions, and a major subway extension remain incomplete.

It's not clear who will be president when the opening ceremony takes place on Aug. 5, but Rio de Janeiro is not depending on the federal government to make the Games happen. And the tumult in Brazil pales in comparison to the 1968 Games in Mexico City, which were preceded by a massacre of protesters by just 10 days before the Games started.

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Brazil's warring political factions are more likely to use the spotlight of the Olympics to battle for international legitimacy, with opponents of the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff seeking to paint interim President Michel Timer as the leader of a treacherous coup. He, meanwhile, will try to establish that he is the rightful leader of the nation, Boykoff says.

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Ticket sales have been slow so far, but for those who do make it to Rio, it's quite possible the political tumult won't directly affect their experiences. Protesters during the 2014 World Cup went out of their way to not punish visitors for their own problems, and most tourists gave Brazilians rave reviews for their hospitality.

For the people of the suffering city of Rio, however, the legacy of the Games will likely be quite different. Most obviously, there's no chance the city will clean up polluted Guanabara Bay in time for the Games, as was guaranteed, and crucial upgrades to public works have often been lacking.

"They've delivered practically nothing so far. The public projects have got in the way of our lives, but it seems we won't be able to enjoy their fruits — that's for those who are coming. Then there's the bike path," says Carol Gomes, 27, who works at an advertising agency in Rio, referring to the new structure which collapsed last month, killing two. "The World Cup was fine, and I imagine this will be fine too, but they missed an opportunity to make a long-term difference."

Authorities announced Thursday that a special subway extension will only be open for the Olympics, then will close immediately for more work.

The bike path has been linked to Brazil's sprawling corruption problem, and the suspicion, voiced by hundreds of thousands of protesters in 2013 and 2014, that the construction of World Cup stadiums was tainted by graft. That suspicion was later proven correct by enterprising investigators.

Political crisis, corruption and recession are not new for Brazil, but the country has been thrown a curveball by the explosion of the epidemic of the Zika virus, which has been linked to an outbreak of infant microcephaly.

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August is winter in Rio, when mosquitoes are less active. But Zika can also be spread sexually, and an article recently published in the Harvard Public Health Review argued that the Rio Olympics should not proceed, as just a small number of infections could cause Zika to spread around the world.

"It cannot possibly help when an estimated 500,000 foreign tourists flock into Rio for the Games, potentially becoming infected, and returning to their homes," it said. "A few viral introductions ... in a few countries, or maybe continents, would make a full-blown global health disaster.

But major changes are unlikely this close to the event, and organizers said they will take special precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

"The Olympic and Paralympic venues will be inspected on a daily basis during the Rio 2016 Games. ... We will continue to monitor the issue closely and follow guidance from the Brazilian Ministry of Health," said a spokesman for the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee. "Now it is time to focus on fine-tuning the operation of the Games."

The World Health Organization is urging athletes and visitors to protect themselves from mosquito bites by using insect repellent and wearing clothing, preferably light-colored, that covers as much of the body as possible. The organization also recommends choosing air-conditioned accommodation, avoiding impoverished and overcrowded areas with no piped water and poor sanitation, and practicing safe sex while in Brazil and for at least four weeks after their return.

Pregnant women are being advised not to visit areas with ongoing Zika transmission, including Rio.

But the recent turmoil and the concerns have not changed how one Olympian views the games.

"The last thing on my mind is Brazil's politics," said Tony Azevedo, captain of the U.S. water polo team, who was born in Rio and grew up in Long Beach. "Both I and my Brazilian friends are looking forward to these Games as a momentous occasion for the country. Corruption is finally being held to account, and South America will be able to host the Olympics for the first time."

Bevins is a special correspondent.

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