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Don’t worry. Rio Games have problems, but so have other Olympics

Copacabana Beach
A view of Copacabana Beach and the Olympic beach volleyball complex in Rio de Janeiro.
(Marcelo Sayao / European Pressphoto Agency)

The reporters crowding around Mario Andrada all wanted to know the same thing: Are the 2016 Summer Olympics headed for disaster?

They asked about the Zika virus outbreak and Brazil’s failing economy. They mentioned the host country’s political turmoil and the raw sewage still flowing into Guanabara Bay, where sailors and open-water swimmers will compete.

“We have a job to do,” Andrada said. “That’s really clear.”

So why was the spokesman for the upcoming Games in Rio de Janeiro smiling?

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“Brazilians are laid-back and they trust themselves,” Andrada told the media at an impromptu briefing. “They do believe God is Brazilian, so they do believe that God is going to help them in the last moment.”

Divine intervention notwithstanding, embattled Rio organizers might have something else working in their favor.

From Antwerp in 1920 to Sochi in 2014, host cities have often wrestled with potential calamity in the months leading up to the opening ceremony. So far, they have all pulled through.

“When you have a monstrous event, a huge logistic puzzle, you’re going to have issues,” says Jules Boykoff, a political science professor at Pacific University in Oregon who spent five months in Brazil watching preparations. “Each Olympics has its problems.”

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Construction delays are so common,  they could qualify as an unofficial Olympic sport.

Piles of lumber, pipe and fencing that lay around venues in Sochi, Russia, two years ago were reminiscent of the chaos leading up to the 2004 Athens Games and Montreal’s unfinished stadium in 1976.

A half-century earlier in Antwerp, Belgium, organizers worried they would not be ready. Athletes ended up sleeping on cots in cramped dorms and workers continued banging away at the stadium after the opening ceremony.

At least Belgian officials had justification — they took the Games on short notice, soon after World War I. Modern hosts are selected well in advance.

“These cities have seven years to prepare,” said David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian and author. “There’s no excuse to not get it done right.”

Economics can get in the way. Brazil was booming in 2009 when it won the right to host the Games, promising to spend billions in preparation. Now, the country has slipped into its deepest recession since the 1930s.

This predicament is not new — London agreed to host the 1948 Summer Olympics shortly after World War II, with its populace still suffering through shortages and rationing.

“A lot of people in England were angry,” Wallechinsky said. “They were saying, ‘We’re not even recovered yet and you’re throwing a big festival.’”

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Of all the uncertainties that host cities face, weather is the biggest wild card.

In 1998, skiers had good reason to fret about the unpredictable climate in Nagano, Japan — whiteout conditions caused repeated delays in marquee events.

Vancouver suffered the opposite problem in 2010, when an unseasonably warm January left bare patches on the mountains above the city. Organizers trucked in snow to cover the ground.

There were fears about Atlanta’s heat in 1996 and Beijing’s smog in 2008. Critics wondered if both searing temperatures and pollution might ruin the 1984 Los Angeles Games, which ended up being an unprecedented success.

More recently, threats of terrorism have clouded the run-up to every Olympics.

Rio seems different from its predecessors in a significant way: These Games are facing crises on multiple fronts, a greatest hits of troubles that have befallen previous hosts.

The recession has forced about $500 million in last-minute cuts — athletes might not see changes in competition, but there will be less spectator seating at some venues, fewer volunteers crucial to a successful Olympics and fewer amenities in the athletes village.

Construction delays might be most apparent with roads and railways — Rio could end up rivaling Atlanta for traffic jams.

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Work at Guanabara Bay has also fallen hopelessly behind,  with the government acknowledging it cannot meet a goal of cutting 80% of the sewage draining into those waters. Athletes have reported falling ill after recent test events.

Most problematic is the continuing spread of Zika. Brazil has been particularly hard hit by the mosquito-borne virus linked in rare cases to neurological disorders and, when pregnant women are infected, birth defects.

The World Health Organization predicts the outbreak will subside by August — the Southern Hemisphere’s winter — as the mosquito count decreases. But a group of 150 doctors, scientists and professors recently published an open letter calling for the Games to be postponed or moved.

“There are so many potential taints on these Olympics,” says Bill Smith, an international studies professor at the University of Idaho who specializes in global sport. “It’s hard to decide if one more will be the tipping point.”

Organizers have remained doggedly optimistic, insisting that nothing — not even the impeachment trial of President Dilma Rousseff — will hamper preparations. Sluggish advance ticket sales, they say, are typical for their country.

“Brazilians are late buyers,” Andrada said. “So far, you don’t have enough experience to understand that.”

Though a cycling velodrome is still under construction, most other venues appear ready. After watching the buildup, Boykoff said: “If the goal is to set up these safe enclaves where athletes can compete and fans can watch … they can achieve that.”

Even the 2004 Athens Games —  a benchmark for snafus and confusion —  looked good on television.

By that standard, experts say, Brazil needs only to survive the next  eight weeks without any more bad news. The opening ceremony at Maracana Stadium is scheduled for Aug. 5.

“Generally speaking, the day competition begins, all the problems fall by the wayside and we focus on the athletes,” Wallechinsky said. “The Games move forward.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

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