Should we panic about Rio Olympics? Get real

Story highlights

  • Amy Bass: Time to panic about Rio? Snafus in preparation and political chaos make it seem so
  • But Olympics are rarely free of big problems, she says
  • Bass: The Brazilians will be the ones left to clean up the mess afterward

Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, is the author of "Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete." As the supervisor of NBC's Olympic Research Room, she is a veteran of eight Olympics, with an Emmy win in 2012. Follow her on Twitter @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)When is it time to panic about the Olympics?

It's true, things are not pretty in Rio de Janeiro, even as the Olympic torch arrived Tuesday in Brazil, with three months until the opening ceremony of the Games.
    There's the raw sewage in Guanabara Bay, slated for sailing events. The doubts over whether the subway line connecting the Olympic venues will be finished in time. The horror of the collapse of a recently built $12 million seaside bike path (two dead, three injured), calling into question the integrity of the other structures the city has built for the Games -- for which, by the way, ticket sales are still hovering at only about 62%.
    Amy Bass
    But panic? Well, the Zika virus is spreading, with some delegations debuting "Zika-proof" uniforms. The city's notorious crime rate looms large, and Amnesty International has called attention to the death toll from police crackdowns in the favelas, or shantytowns.
    All this while the country remains embroiled in economic recession, a corruption scandal and political drama, most notably impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff.
    But let's pause a moment.
    It has become tradition to sound alarm bells in the months leading up to an Olympic Games. Before the last go-round, Sochi for example, cries of crisis came often: Venues built on protected lands. Swollen budgets tied to crime syndicates. Illegal dumping and contaminated water. Anti-gay legislation and hate crimes. Pussy Riot. And stray dogs, everywhere.
    But good luck finding an example of a truly noble Olympics. Politics take a toll because the Olympics are never free and clear of their political moment.
    Berlin, of course, stands out because, well, Hitler. In 1956, teams such as Egypt and Lebanon boycotted the Olympics in Melbourne because of the Suez Crisis, while an already rough water polo match between two political foes -- it was famously dubbed "Blood in the Water" -- got ugly when Soviet Valentin Prokopov punched Hungarian Ervin Zador. (The latter's team won 4-0.)
    In 1980, more than 60 national delegations, including the United States, stayed home to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, a favor the Soviets -- and 14 of their closest friends -- returned four years later at the Los Angeles Olympics.
    But boycotts aren't the only kinds of Olympic crisis. In Munich in 1972, after terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes, International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage declared, "The Games must go on"; he was trying to strike some sort of impossible balance between tragedy and sport. Montreal, which had its own share of boycotts in 1976, had to deal with decades of debt and a stadium with a balky retractable roof.
    As with Sochi, human rights issues have dotted the Olympic landscape. In 1996, Atlanta had to grapple with the Confederate symbolism embedded in the Georgia state flag, while its archery venue sat on the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan and featured a bas-relief sculpture of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson.
    More recently, Beijing's successful Olympic bids -- summer and winter -- have raised the question just how important a country's human rights record really is to the International Olympic Committee.
    And safety concerns are nothing new to the Olympics. Atlanta saw a bombing in Centennial Olympic Park that killed one -- another person later died of a heart attack -- and injured many. The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice run in Vancouver in 2010 fueled rumors that the sledding venue at the Whistler Sliding Center was too fast and dangerous. In London in 2012, terrorist threats from all directions were blamed for keeping spectators away.
    And those sagging ticket sales? In 2004, Athens, which also dealt with venue construction delays and infrastructure problems, had sold only about a third of its offerings with a little more than a month to go.
    Turmoil in Brazil may jeopardize the Olympic games
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    This is not to say that there aren't legitimate concerns about the Rio Olympics. We'll soon see whether these concerns will take a back seat once the cauldron is lit and athletes such as Neymar, Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Emily Seebohm and Usain Bolt make their mark.
    Once that cauldron is extinguished, "the inconvenience of an incomplete metro line, or of pickpockets, will be lost in the shuffle of events," predicts Joshua Nadel, who teaches Latin American and Caribbean history at North Carolina Central University.
    "The people who have a right to panic, and to be upset, and who will be left with a mess to clean up are the Brazilians," Nadel told me. "They have paid -- and will pay -- for the bloat."
    (Note: This version has a corrected figure for ticket sales for the Olympic Games.)