Should we panic about Rio Olympics? Get real

Updated 2:51 PM EDT, Wed May 4, 2016

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

Editor’s Note: 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
Rodney Bedsole
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.