The Paralympics leadership hoped Rio de Janeiro would build on the success of London. Instead, it’s about limiting any damage.
When the curtain comes up for 4,300 athletes at Wednesday’s opening ceremony, almost everything will be scaled back: venues, seating, and staffing. Paralympic officials say that no sports or nations have been cut out, but the “athlete experience” could suffer.
Only a last-minute Brazilian government bailout has helped save the event from a shortfall in the local, privately funded operating budget.
“This is the worst situation that we’ve ever found ourselves in at Paralympic movement,” Philip Craven, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, told The Associated Press. “We were aware of difficulties, but we weren’t aware it was as critical as this.”
Rio organizers limped through the troubled Olympics, buffeted by empty seats, green water in swimming pools, and the absence of an Olympic “feel.” Behind the scenes there were no-show volunteers, street crime and traffic chaos.
Craven said he’s been assured there are “sufficient resources to put on a very good games.”
Here’s a look at the Sept. 7-18 Paralympics featuring athletes from 161 nations, and an added refugee team:
The Rio Olympic organizing committee promised to use only private money in its 7.4 billion real ($2.3 billion) operating budget. But Craven said local organizers didn’t tell him until about 5 1/2 weeks ago that there was no money left to run the Paralympics.
They blamed it on slow ticket and sponsorship sales, and the rising cost to run the Olympics.
“That’s been a problem with the organizing committee – not knowing information,” Craven said.
To salvage the event, the Rio city government came up with 150 million reals ($46.3 million) in financing, and the federal government has guaranteed another 100 million reals ($30.7 million). This comes in the form of “sponsorships” from three state-run entities including the scandal-plagued oil company Petrobras.
A local prosecutor argued unsuccessfully that the privately-run organizing committee needed to open its books to justify the government bailout.
The influx of public money is still less than half of the $170 million that Rio organizers promised for Paralympic funding in their 2009 bid to the International Olympic Committee.
The bailout comes as Rio hospitals are understaffed, and some school classes have been suspended because teachers are staying away to protest delayed payments.
The Brazilian newspaper Estadao reported last month that the top eight executives of the Rio organizing committee were each paid an average of $25,000 per month in 2015.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach flatly denied public money was being used to patch up the local budget.
“There is no public money in the organization of these Olympic Games,” Bach said the day before the Olympics closed – and a day after the city hall financing was announced. “The budget of the organizing committee is privately financed. There is no public funding for this.”
No sports cut
Paralympic organizers say there have been no cuts to the sports, all will be contested as planned, and no delegations were forced to drop out.
“All the teams will be here,” Craven said.
All of Russia’s disabled athletes have been banned from the Paralympics for alleged involvement in Russia’s doping scandal. The ruling was upheld by the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Paralympic organizers originally planned for 4,350 athletes. Paralympic spokesman Craig Spence said all of the 267 slots allotted to Russian athletes could not be filled, dropping the athlete total to 4,300.
He said athletes were “ring-fenced” from the cuts, but acknowledged they’ll still feel them.
“The service levels will be the same, but probably the athlete experience compared to previous games will suffer a little bit,” Spence said.
Organizers hope to sell just over 2 million of the 2.5 million tickets available. Tickets are priced at 10 reals ($3), with some fans buying tickets as a cheap way to see the Olympic Park with no guarantee they will actually attend a sports events.
Organizers say sales have soared in the last two weeks with sales best for track and field, swimming, wheelchair basketball, five-a-side football, and seated volleyball.
Most of the events will be held in the Olympic Park in suburban Barra da Tijuca. The second Olympic cluster in Deodoro has been scaled back and will host only three sports – shooting, seven-player football and equestrian events. Wheelchair fencing has been moved from Deodoro to the Olympic Park.
Paralympic officials say if 1.8 million are sold it would be the second-best selling Paralympics after London four years ago. Beijing eight years ago drew 3.3 million, but only 1.7 million tickets were sold.
“There are not going to be empty stadiums,” Craven said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Here are some to watch.
Two visually impaired athletes – Jason Smyth of Ireland and Omara Durand of Cuba – are likely to be the fastest man and woman over 100 meters. American Tatyana McFadden is hoping to become the first track and field athlete to win seven golds at one Paralympic Games. 74-year-old Libby Kosmala of Australia is competing in her 12th Paralympics; Jonas Jacobsson, 51, of Sweden in his 10th – both in shooting. Siamand Rahman of Iran will try to become the first Paralympian to lift 300 kilos in powerlifting. Zahra Nemati, who was the flagbearer for Iran in the Rio Olympics, is the first Iranian woman to win gold in either the Olympics or Paralympics – she won gold in archery in London’s Paralympics. Brazilian swimmer Daniel Dias, who is seen as the Michael Phelps of the Paralympics, won four gold medals in Beijing and six in London, where he also set four world records. American Matt Stutzman is an armless archer who holds a world record for long-distance accuracy.