IOC on Rio: 'Progress,' but games entering 'intense' period ahead of opening in 2016

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RIO DE JANEIRO — The head of the IOC inspection team wrapping up a three-day tour of venues for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro said Wednesday her team was encouraged by progress ahead of South America's first Olympics.

Just under a year ago, a vice president of the International Olympic Committee had described Rio's preparations as the "worst" in memory.

"We were impressed by the progress being made on the venues," said Nawal El Moutawakel, head of the inspection team.

But she cautioned that the crunch is coming with 21 test events set for this year and 44 in all before the games open Aug. 5, 2016.

"Rio is entering the most intense period of preparations, a period where Rio must reach a new level of detail in its planning," she said.

El Moutawakel singled out the new Olympic golf course, a velodrome and an equestrian site as venues that face tight deadlines.

Despite delays, all venues are almost certain to be ready.

However, other games-related projects may not be.

This also happened with last year's World Cup. Stadiums were finished, but dozens of other projects were incomplete, and many still are — with funds running out.

Rio is spending about $14 billion on the games, a mixture of private and public money. Brazil spent $12 billion on the World Cup.

Just moments before El Moutawakel spoke, Rio de Janeiro's state environmental agency confirmed it was investigating a fish die-off that left thousands of carcasses floating in Guanabara Bay, the venue for Olympic sailing.

State environmental officials have repeatedly said they will not be able to reach a goal of treating 80 percent of the sewage that flows in the bay by the Olympics. Fifty percent is the figure they have used.

In addition to raw sewage, the bay is awash with floating rubbish, plastic bags and household goods like bloated sofas and rusted televisions.

Part of Rio's commitment when winning the games in 2009 was to clean the bay, which looks and smells like a sewer in many spots.

El Moutawakel offered no specifics, but said she has been reassured by government officials that the problem was being tackled.

"We want every single venue to be ready for the athletes to compete in a secure and safe manner," she said. "We have been given reassurances that all the venues will meet the level ... so athletes can compete."

She also said Rio would be safe.

Five policemen were killed last weekend and last month at least five people were killed by stray bullets, caught in crossfire between warring gangs in the Rio area.

"Security is at the top of the agenda in this country, so that the games can be hosted and organized in a safe and secure environment," El Moutawakel said. "We really hope that at the games nothing will happen — and even before and after."

Christophe Dubi, Olympic Games Executive Director, said a subway line extension was back on schedule. It had been delayed by tough drilling through a mountainside, but could be finished a few months before the games open.

"The delivery as far as we are concerned at this point in time is not at risk," he said.

However, the pledge of getting 68 new hotels built for Rio might be.

El Moutawakel said a task force was to meet later Wednesday "so that every spectator, athlete and stakeholder can have a room in time for the Olympics."

Organizing committee head Carlos Nuzman said there "had been no discussion" of having two Olympic flames.

The opening ceremony will be at the Maracana stadium, where the flame is likely to be. However, track and field will be held at another stadium, used by Rio football team Botafogo.

The stadium for the Olympic opening ceremony, and the venue for track and field events, have usually been the same.

IOC President Thomas Bach, who met separately with a group of 100 students on Wednesday, was pressed about severe water shortages during a town hall meeting.

Bach was asked repeatedly to justify building a golf course and a canoeing venue.

Southeastern Brazil, which includes Rio, is going through the worst drought in 80 years.

Bach said he'd been told by Rio Olympic officials that heavy rain this month had resolved the problem, and he seemed surprised to hear otherwise.

"This (water problem) seems to be a major concern for all of you, and also for us," Bach said. "My impression so far was ... that the water crisis is (not) and will not be a permanent crisis."

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Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP

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