OlympicsJune 9, 2016

Rio isn't ready for its Olympic closeup

Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- It's 23 miles from the Olympic Golf Course in Barra da Tijuca, outside Rio, to the international airport just north of the city. Riding in one of Rio's tiny yellow cabs, I ask the driver how long it will take me to get back and catch my flight Friday night—going against the worst of the rush hour and weekend traffic. He whistles and holds up three fingers.

Sometimes you don't need a translation.

The Zika virus has been the most popular "scary Rio" story leading up to the Olympics—and it's certainly something to be cautious about. But you can buy 100-percent DEET bug spray (thank you, Bass Pro Shops) and lay off most of that risk.

It's the less-sexy "scary Rio" stories—traffic, infrastructure, street crime (serious and petty)—that could make it a nightmare for anybody who decides to visit in August.

I'll say it upfront: Rio could be the most visually spectacular city in the world. It's my second trip (15 years apart), and the beaches and mountains are stunning in a totally different way than the man-made architecture of a classic European city.

Much of the promised construction in Rio associated with the Olympics has yet to be completed. (Getty Images)

But the city's footprint is also at the core of the problems you'll have if you want to watch Rory McIlroy play on that beautiful new course.

The mountains separate Rio into distinct neighborhoods, geographically and by wealth. And only a few main roads connect, say, the downtown beach areas with Barra da Tijuca (where the course and the Olympic village are) or Maracana, the neighborhood that holds the famous soccer stadium.

That means traffic. And not I-95-in-Connecticut or Washington Beltway traffic. It's 14 miles from the airport to Copacabana, where many of the top hotels line the beach. You'll spend two hours crawling along an elevated road to make that trip, with motorbikes shooting the gaps between cars and dozens of snack sellers offering bags of chips and nuts. They stand right in the middle of traffic with no fear, because it's hard to get hurt by a car that isn't moving.

The grand plan was to build a new subway system that would connect the downtown area with the Olympic center in the west. It's a great idea, but if you've ever spent any time in Brazil, it was easy to predict what would come next. They haven't finished construction yet, although everybody promises it will be done by Aug. 4, the day before the Olympics start.

It's dangerous to walk around. The water is essentially untreated sewage. The threat from Zika is small but real. Brazil is in the middle of its worst economic downturn in 30 years, and the people just impeached their president for corruption.

The international airport got a head start for the 2014 World Cup, with expanded terminals and more passport processing lanes. But breeze through Customs and you'll still find water pouring through holes in the roof and tiny rental-car kiosks with single employees gamely trying to process transactions and send people down the unmarked dirt road to the car corral.

And the crime?

I'm no alarmist. I grew up in a tough Rust Belt city, and I live in the part of Connecticut where hedge-fund families won't take their kids. I didn't get off the plane expecting to see Zurich, or even Minneapolis.

Rio is one of the most genuinely dangerous places you can go. They say 10,000 Brazilian soldiers will be policing the Games, and that's great because they'll need them. More than half the city is made up of shanty villages called favelas, where the poorest live. The people in those areas haven't seen much of a benefit from the Olympics coming to Rio—to start, only one of the five sewage-processing plants promised in the bid has been built—so there's plenty of justifiable anger. Mix that with crime syndicates that are using the Games as a strategic lever (Leave us alone and we won't attack the tourists), and you get straight talk from the concierge at the hotel. Walk across the street to the beach, and you're lucky if you only lose your phone. Police and one of the gangs had a shootout yesterday that ended with a city bus getting set on fire. It wasn't even news.

The best part of the Rio Olympics for the golfers who'll be competing? The course, shown here in February. (Getty Images)

It's dangerous to walk around. The water is essentially untreated sewage. The threat from Zika is small but real. Brazil is in the middle of its worst economic downturn in 30 years, and the people just impeached their president for corruption.

But, hey, the exchange rate is terrific. And the golf course? A work of art, transformed from a swampy waste pit by a hundred determined workers trained from scratch by superintendent Neil Cleverly.

It will look amazing on television. Stay home and watch.

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