Rio 2016: Threats to the Games

2016-07-26 21:30

Cape Town - When the Rio 2016 Olympic Games opening ceremony gets underway at the Maracana Stadium on August 5, expect to be mesmerised by extravagant pomp and show. It promises to be a typically colourful and breathtaking display steeped in rich Brazilian culture. A carnival atmosphere will sweep through the host city and beyond, marking the start of a three-week period of sporting excellence and public revelry. Yet the palpable euphoria will betray a country’s collective apprehension occasioned by the numerous threats casting a pall over the Games.

The Zika virus

The World Health Organisation’s preliminary determination that health fears over the Zika virus were overstated and that there was no public health justification for rethinking the hosting of the Games was met with widespread outrage and incredulity. Public health care experts criticised the verdict as irresponsible, forcing WHO to make a u-turn last month and promise to conduct another assessment closer to time. 

With over 500 000 visitors expected in Rio de Janeiro, experts warn of the risk of travellers contracting the mosquito-borne virus and seeding new epidemics when they return to their home countries after the Games.

Assurances by Brazilian authorities that the epidemic has been contained have done very little to allay fears. The Zika virus may be receding as a threat, thanks to some medical breakthroughs, but the risk remains. 

It is understandable therefore that in deciding whether or not to go to Rio some have chosen to err on the side of caution. Unwilling to take the risk, some high profile athletes have already pulled out of the event, among them golfers Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Adam Scott and Jordan Spieth. A few celebrity sports enthusiasts, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, have also succumbed to fears over the Zika virus and decided that they, too, would rather stay at home.

The scourge of terrorism

It is a sign of the times that despite Brazil not having suffered any terrorist attacks in recent history, Rio 2016 organisers regard terrorism as the biggest threat to the Games. In fact, Brazil only passed its first terrorism law this year.

Terrorism is omnipresent, a clear and present danger holding the whole world hostage. These days the privilege of hosting a major event automatically transforms the host country into a potential terrorist target. Rio 2016 is no exception.

Intelligence organizations reported recently that ISIS had published instructions for its followers in multiple languages, including Portuguese, on how to attack airports and public transport networks during the Olympics. The online manuals also included instructions on how to take hostages using an array of unconventional weapons.

There is no doubt terrorism imperils the Games. Brazilian authorities are treating the threats seriously and taking preemptive and preventative action. They have already arrested several suspects on allegations of plotting attacks during the Olympics.

Home-grown violence

The Olympics are taking place against the backdrop of an economic meltdown. Brazil’s crippling financial crisis has implications for the country’s capacity to guarantee the safety and security of visitors to the Games. A significantly reduced budget means law enforcement agencies are not only underfunded, but also poorly remunerated. Police morale is at its lowest possible ebb. On the eve of the Games, the grim reality is that the safety and security of visitors is entrusted to poorly motivated police who are threatening to go on strike over unpaid wages.

It also doesn’t inspire confidence that those charged with policing are themselves living in perpetual fear of their lives. The lead up to the games has seen a rise in gang violence and drug turf wars. The shantytowns, popularly known as favelas, home to Brazil’s poorest communities, are teeming with violent gangs, the protagonists in daily running gun battles with the police.

Hopes of the Olympics leaving behind a holistic crime prevention legacy that would benefit the favela communities are fast receding. In fact, the locals are bracing themselves for an escalation in violence during the Games with many warning that visitors will be soft targets.

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