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After Rio Olympics, Gutted Venues, Broken Promises


For the athletes, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio were full of triumph and defeat, victory laps and tears, all the usual themes. But the legacy of those games for the host city...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The Rio Olympic organizers have a $40 million debt for setting up Olympic facilities that are now in decay.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A brand new velodrome built at huge expense, barely used, its track already water-damaged.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's put the spotlight back on Olympic organizers, who pledged that the venues would be repurposed to benefit the city and its residents.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last week, a federal prosecutor investigating mismanagement of the Olympics in Brazil gave a brutal assessment. Today on Out Of Bounds, we look at what might be a cautionary tale for countries looking to host future Olympic Games. Our guest is Olympic historian David Wallechinsky.

David, welcome.

DAVID WALLECHINKSY: Good morning to you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: David, I saw you during the games there in Rio when I was reporting there. We've heard now reports of gutted venues, broken promises. Are you surprised by the reports that you're hearing?

WALLECHINSKY: I'm not at all surprised by the unfortunate reports of venues falling apart and money being wasted because even during the games, it just appeared obvious that this was a waste of money, that the whole organization and construction of the Rio Games had been corrupt. You could just see this coming all the way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brazil promised that these were going to be the legacy games. One of the arenas was going to be transformed into schools. Instead, as you say, many of them are crumbling. Why did this happen in your view? How did we get here?

WALLECHINSKY: Well, first of all, I would say whenever I talk to somebody who's from a city that's thinking of hosting the games and they talk about legacy, I always tell them your first legacy is going to be debt because this happens frequently. And if there's anything that needs to be built, you're going to have a problem. So what's interesting right now is that we're in the midst of the bidding to see who's going to host the 2024 games. And it's - right now, it's between Los Angeles and Paris.

And here we have a completely different situation. The IOC - the International Olympic Committee's actually lucky this time because you've got two cities that are really well on the way to being prepared. This is not a Rio situation. It's not a Sochi situation, which was also riddled with corruption. So in a sense, the Olympic movement has a breather that they're probably going to have a pretty well-organized games coming up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are an Olympic historian. Put this in perspective for us. How challenging were the Rio Games compared to other Olympics that you have covered or read about?

WALLECHINSKY: I've attended 17 Olympics - summer and winter. These were on the level of Atlanta, which was also incredibly poorly organized. And there were two good things about the Rio games. One is, as badly organized as they were, they did organize the situation well for the athletes themselves. And let's face it, if you're going to please anybody, it better be the athletes. And Rio pulled that off.

The other good thing about Rio was that the people of Rio were just wonderful. But unfortunately, the volunteers were not well-trained because the organizing committee ran out of money before they could train anybody. And people generally couldn't answer your question. They wanted to, but they couldn't. You know, can you please help me find my seat? No. (Laughter) You know, and so you're kind of on your own.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess the broader question when you look at a place like Brazil and Rio is that right now they are in debt. The city is bankrupt. Is it really worth it for any city, even a prosperous city, to put on the Olympic Games anymore?

WALLECHINSKY: You know, as I say, if you're going to organize the games, you have to be prepared for financial surprises - I'll put it politely - and debt. But it can be done. And, you know, it has been done. You know, the London Games didn't lose money. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics made a profit, and in fact, that profit has been put to wonderful use. It's still, you know, being put to good use more than three decades later. So it's not impossible to organize the games and do them well and avoid corruption, but it's certainly true that there aren't that many cities and countries who can pull it off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was David Wallechinsky. He's president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. Thank you so much.

WALLECHINSKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.