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After successful World Cup, spotlight turns to Rio's Olympic woes

By Paulo Prada

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - After a month of scintillating soccer and few of the logistical nightmares that many feared would mar the World Cup, Brazil is touting its success and promising the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will be just as good.

To hear Brazilian officials in recent days, the hand-wringing before the World Cup, which ended on Sunday with Germany beating Argentina in the final, was unjustified.

"The only tragedy of the World Cup was that Brazil was beaten," Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, said on Friday, referring to the national team's drubbing by Germany earlier in the week.

That is, of course, if you don't count a concrete overpass, one of many unfinished infrastructure projects that were supposed to have been completed before the tournament, that collapsed and killed two people in Belo Horizonte, one of the 12 host cities, days before a semi-final match there.

Or the fact that many problems were averted only because Brazil essentially shut down during the tournament. In a country where public services and infrastructure routinely buckle, officials avoided the usual traffic jams, overpacked trains and airport chaos by declaring holidays around most games.

Despite a smooth ride for visiting soccer fans, the approach prompts many in Brazil to argue that the World Cup, rather than showcasing progress, has revealed age-old habits of slipshod and improvisation that make it impossible to deliver quality social services or fast, sustained economic growth.

"It's always about minimizing risk here, not building the type of facilities and services that can handle the actual needs of the country," says Paulo Fleury, an infrastructure and logistics expert at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. "There's no effort to really improve overall capacity. You just tell people to stay home and make way for the visitors."

Instead of leading to vast improvements of the sort that the government promised when Brazil won the right to host the World Cup, delivering the "legacy" benefits to justify the $11 billion price tag of hosting it, many now fear the perceived success of the past month will merely endorse Brazil's knack for doing just enough – not all that it could.

In the case of the World Cup, it spent more than $3 billion to build or remodel 12 stadiums, at least four of which many fear will become white elephants because they are in cities, like the Amazon port of Manaus and the farm belt capital of Cuiaba, that lie far from the major sports and concert circuits.

The 2016 Olympics, expected to cost about $17 billion in public and private investment, are already a race against the clock for everything from building venues and fixing roads to at least partially decontaminating the city's severely polluted bay, where Olympic sailors are worried about health risks.

Rio's verdant landscape offers a superb backdrop for the Olympics but hosting them in the often chaotic city poses a vastly different set of challenges from the World Cup.

A prolonged series of multiple competitions means a bigger and more concentrated crush of athletes and visitors.

Whereas the World Cup brought fewer than 750 players from 32 countries, and an expected 600,000 foreign fans spread across 12 host cities, the Olympics will attract some 15,000 athletes from 200 countries and as many as 800,000 foreign spectators, all to Rio.

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With its annual Carnival and New Year's celebrations, Rio authorities say they are used to accommodating far more people.

And after the relative calm of the World Cup, a year after mass demonstrations raised fears of huge protests during the tournament, officials hope to avoid any unrest over the massive spending and disruptions required for the Olympics.

Still, preparations have been criticized by everyone from the International Olympic Committee to the Rio locals whose homes have been displaced by roadways and other construction projects for the Games.

So delayed is some of the building, especially in a northern Rio area meant to host some of the field sports, that an IOC official this year called the city's planning the "worst ever" for an Olympics.

Last week, Thomas Bach, the IOC president, toned down the criticism somewhat, noting "great progress" after a visit to some of the sites and a meeting with President Dilma Rousseff.

Rio officials say it is wrong to compare the state of preparations with what other host cities looked like before previous Olympics, especially in richer countries.

"We won the Olympics because of our problems," said Paes, citing the infrastructure projects that helped its "legacy" plan beat out other candidates, including Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo, where the Olympics would have meant less of a "transformation".

Never mind that the any transformation has little to do with the most-needed public works in Rio, like better schools, hospitals, and water and sewerage services. Indeed, plenty of local opposition remains, especially over the nature of much of the infrastructure work.

In addition to residents of some slums and poor areas who have had to make way for roads and venues, or are challenging the projects, urban planners and transportation experts are questioning the long-term need for some of the work.

Rapid bus lanes and a metro extension now being built are designed to connect prosperous southern districts, where most of Rio's hotels are, with the airport and a distant beachside area where the Olympics village will be.

While that will benefit wealthy residents and many companies whose offices lie nearby, it will do little to alleviate the sclerotic traffic that working-class commuters face daily.

"You are basically just connecting the affluent areas," says Erick Omena, a former professor of urban planning from Rio now at Oxford Brookes University in England. "That might help with traffic during the Olympics and with real estate speculation in those parts of the city, but it does nothing to fix the big problems in Rio."

(Editing by Kieran Murray)

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