Rio set to prove its worth on international sports scene

Updated: July 12, 2007, 6:17 PM ET
Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- The Pan American Games are giving Rio citizens yet another reason to be proud of their city.

On the eve of Friday's opening ceremony of the Olympics-style event, the 'Cariocas,' as Rio natives are called, are upbeat and confident the competition will go off without major glitches and boost the city's image abroad.

"This is the best thing that has happened to the city," said Marcia Tavares, a 26-year-old physiotherapist. "Things are running smoothly. They got things done in time and this is only going to make Rio a better city."

Not that Rio needed much of a boost, with its famous beaches, the Sugarloaf mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue -- newly crowned a world wonder -- in the background.

The hemisphere-wide games are seen as a test for Brazil to prove it's capable of hosting major international sporting events, including the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. But nearly $2 billion were spent to prepare the city for the games, more than eight times original projections, and many analysts and local media criticized such spending for a single sporting competition -- even one as large as the Pan Ams.

The Cariocas seem satisfied with the final results.

"It's all looking great," said 35-year-old construction worker Beto Roberto. "All the stadiums are ready, the city is looking good and now we can just sit back and enjoy the games."

More than 800,000 tickets had been sold for the games by Thursday, according to organizers.

Things didn't look good just a few months before the competition's start, though. Construction at several venues was yet to be completed, and it appeared major sites would not be done in time.

Organizers apparently pulled it off, even though some finishing touches remained and minor problems were not likely to be solved before the competition's beginning.

"This is a great victory for us in Rio," said 23-year-old student Priscila Sampaio. "We are being able to show to everyone how great this city is."

The venues, including Maracana and the major stadiums built for swimming and athletics, were mostly ready. Workers remained on the scene mainly for final arrangements outside the venues, setting up promotional tents and cleaning up the sites.

"It would be embarrassing if they had failed, but it looks like everything is ready, they just need to finish a couple of things here and there," said 43-year-old car mechanic Adail Fialho.

Organizers also were satisfied.

"I think Rio 2007 will be the best the Pan American Games ever," Mario Vazquez Rana, president of the Pan American Sports Organization, said earlier in the week.

Lack of proper infrastructure was still an issue, with traffic likely to cause most of the headaches to fans and the media covering the more than 5,000 athletes competing in 34 sports throughout Rio. Lanes were set up exclusively for credentialed personnel across the city of 6 million, but few drivers were respecting the corridor.

On Wednesday, strong winds and rainstorms displaced parts of the plastic roof at the baseball and softball stadium, but the damage was already being repaired. The storms also caused problems at the cycling venue, which had water leaking from parts of the roof.

At Joao Havelange Stadium -- which reportedly cost nearly $211 million -- the press working area was not completed and reporters had to be accommodated in a different section.

"The soccer matches are being played earlier than originally scheduled, that caused some problems to us,'' said Carlos Roberto Osorio, secretary-general of Rio's Pan American Games organizing committee. "Everything else is great. Now we just need to hope it won't rain tomorrow (Friday) during the opening ceremonies.''

Police and officers with the army's national security force were seen near the venues and on the main avenues connecting them.

There were no major outbreaks of violence, a concern for authorities in a city with one of the world's highest homicide rates at around 50 per 100,000 residents, where stray bullets kill or injure an average of one person per day. Ahead of the competition, police fought a battle with drug gangs in a large slum complex that claimed at least 23 lives and injured some 67 people in about 50 days.

Nearly 500,000 tourists were expected in Rio for the games.

The Pan Ams officially begin Friday, but four women's soccer matches were scheduled for Thursday. The earlier the better for the Cariocas.

"I'm so proud to be part of this," said Sampaio. "It's definitely a story I will want to tell my grandchildren some day."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press