RIO DE JANEIRO — Rio de Janeiro launched on Wednesday the 100-day countdown to the Olympic Games, with the government and sports leaders insisting it will be a landmark occasion, despite chaotic preparations and Brazil’s political meltdown.
Countdown events were held around the world, and Rio organisers took over the Olympic flame in Athens to start the journey to South America’s first Olympics.
New Zealand athletes staged a traditional haka dance on an Auckland beach to mark the day. Britain unveiled its Olympic uniform, designed by Stella McCartney.
But while the Brazilian government and International Olympic Committee (IOC) insist there is no turning back from the road to Rio, storm clouds remain, both at home and abroad.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff could be turfed out of office through impeachment before the Games. Even her vice-president, Michel Temer, who would normally take over, could face action.
The economy is shrinking for the second consecutive year, unemployment has shot up to 10.2%, and Olympic organisers have had to slash budgets.
They say that the stadiums are 98% ready, however.
With crime also rising, Brazil’s record came in for a new spotlight when Amnesty International demanded action be taken over rising police killings, particularly in Rio’s favela shanty towns.
The rights group said 11 people had been killed in police shootings in Rio in the past month, and at least 307 people had been killed by police in the city last year.
“Despite the promised legacy of a safe city for hosting the Olympic Games, killings by the police have been steadily increasing over the past few years in Rio,” said Atila Roque, head of Amnesty International Brazil.
Rio authorities also admitted that 11 people had died in the past three years on Rio Olympics construction projects. “It’s a frightening number,” said Robson Leite, inspector for the labour office in the Rio de Janeiro state, who compared the toll in a single city to the eight killed during construction of sites for the whole World Soccer Cup in Brazil in 2014.
But IOC president Thomas Bach has predicted Rio will lay on an “excellent” Games, and Brazil’s Sports Minister Ricardo Leyser insisted the political crisis would have no effect on the event.
“From the point of view of preparing the Games, the crisis has no effect at all,” Leyser said, declaring himself “at ease” with the remaining duties.
“The main expenses have been met, and now we are starting to deal with thousands of smaller issues. Our planning and execution plan was truly very good.”
Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Rio 2016 organising committee chairman Carlos Nuzman attended the handing over of the Olympic flame in Athens.
The flame will make a short stopover in Switzerland, including at the Olympic museum in Lausanne, before arriving in Brasilia on Tuesday.
About 12,000 torchbearers will then carry the flame through scores of Brazilian towns and cities ahead of the opening of the Games at Rio’s Maracana stadium on August 5.
Last Tuesday, Ibrahim al-Hussein, a Syrian swimmer who lost part of his leg in a bombing, carried the torch through Eleonas camp in Athens, where about 1,600 asylum seekers are being given temporary shelter.
But sporting storm clouds abroad also hang over the Olympics. Russian athletics, facing one of the biggest doping scandals in sporting history, is suspended from competition, and is uncertain to be reinstated for Rio.
Russia’s women’s Olympic high jump champion Anna Chicherova is training without knowing whether she will go to Rio. And she acknowledged the strain.
“There are times when you don’t know where you’re going; when you lose sight of the goal,” Chicherova said. “I have experienced many things on an emotional level from this situation, from desperation to not understanding what is going on.”
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) suspended Russia in November after a World Anti-Doping Agency commission said there was “state-sponsored” doping and widespread corruption in Russian sport.
The IAAF will not decide on whether Russia can return for the Rio Olympics until June.