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Troubles Besetting Olympics Are A Window Into Long-term Crises Facing Brazil

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Rio de Janeiro has made headlines again for all the wrong reasons. It happened this past Friday. The governor of Rio declared a state of calamity. Yes, that's a real thing. In an unprecedented announcement, he said Rio was bankrupt and the shortfall was so large it could, quote, "cause the total collapse of public security, health care, education, urban mobility and environmental management during the Olympics."

NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro sat down with Rio's mayor to ask him about the problems he and his city are facing.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: After Friday's announcement, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, immediately started tweeting, saying that while the state by the same name may be broke, the city run by him will be able to make all of its commitments to the games. And that's characteristic of his approach to all of the troubles besetting the Olympics.

EDUARDO PAES: Why did we win the bid against cities like Chicago, like Madrid, like Tokyo? It is not because we have better infrastructure than they have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Mayor Paes before the latest round of bad news in an interview with me. He's become the Olympics' main cheerleader and most visible face. His line about the challenges facing the Olympics here is that it's actually a good thing.

PAES: I always say that to foreigners that come here. I mean, don't come expecting see a First World city. We're not. And the Olympic Games did not solve all of our problems. We still face lots of problems. But to be fair, you have to compare Rio to Rio.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He rattles off a practice list of improvements to the city, so-called legacy works.

PAES: It'd be 150 kilometers of BRT, 18 kilometers of subway.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: New transportation bus lanes, a metro extension, renovation projects. Paes is a lawyer by training, and his political career started in Barra da Tijuca, the part of Rio where the main site of the Olympics is located. The Zika virus, the dirty waters of the bay and lagoon, a crime surge and an impeachment trial of Brazil's suspended president would be enough to cause problems for any mayor overseeing a mega event in his city. But Paes, up until recently, was seen as a presidential hopeful who remained relatively untouched by the scandals engulfing the country. No more.

What is your feeling about some of these allegations?

PAES: Tell me one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are actually several. I detailed them. A list was discovered in the country's largest construction company, Odebrecht, which is at the center of a massive corruption scandal. In it, it detailed payments to politicians, including Paes, whose codename in the list was The Nervous One. He maintains they were legal.

PAES: It was formal donations allowed by the law and approved by the law.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is also another investigation, one which predates his period as mayor. Perhaps the most damaging, however, are new probes into corruption with the Olympics venues. He had promised that unlike the World Cup, there would be no graft under his watch at the Olympics. He says one company is suspected of overcharging and has not been paid, pending a city sanctioned investigation.

PAES: And this is the control systems of Brazil working. So there's no overprice in any Olympic delivery. Not at all. They are all finished at the same price.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Meanwhile though, whoever is to blame, his city is in crisis. Hospitals are struggling. Unemployment is high. Crime is surging. It's unclear how successful Rio's Olympics under these conditions will be. Even so, he ended our interview characteristically, on a positive note.

PAES: Obviously, the economic and political crisis is not the best environment to deliver the games. But again, this is a country that in spite of all the crisis, the political crisis, I mean, it's going - I think it's going through great change, you know? Maybe this is a bad moment, but sometimes to have better days you have to have bad moments.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then when the microphone was turned off, he quipped, I think I'm paying for all of the sins in my past life right now. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.