Pan Am Games Challenge Brazil

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The 15th Pan American Games get under way in Rio de Janeiro. More than 5,000 athletes from 42 Western Hemisphere countries are competing. The run-up to the quadrennial Games has been marred by violence, cost overruns, and chaos at Brazil's airports. But the city is determined to demonstrate that it's worthy of this world-class sporting event.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And in Rio de Janeiro today, the Pan American games begin. More than 5,000 athletes are competing for more than 40 countries in the Western Hemisphere. But the run-up the games has been marred by bad news - violence, cost overruns and chaos at Brazil's airports. So the city is determined to demonstrate that it's worthy of this world-class sporting event.

Here is NPR's Julie McCarthy with the story.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Musicians backing from (unintelligible) to Rio de Janeiro's seaside promenade.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Rio's famous beaches and its newly designated world wonder, the Christ Statue that towers over the city, form the back draft for the games. Organizers hope to make Brazilian natural beauty and (unintelligible), the lasting impression of spectator and athlete alike.

But locals jokingly refer to the Pan Am games as the Pandemonium; events leading up to the 17-day sports extravaganza suggest at least confusion. Police have been deployed to protect airline counter clerks after passengers, angered by flight delays, began taking their frustration out on airline staff - in some cases, with their fists.

The nation's air traffic controllers threatened to publicize their grievances until the government stepped in and averted a walkout. Even Rio's civil police spoke of going on strike during the games while state police wage war on the city's powerful drug gangs in gun battles that have killed scores of suspects and bystanders.

Nonetheless, Rio de Janeiro's Mayor Cesar Maia says he's satisfied that the games will proceed unmolested. He says the venue was isolated and that Rio is no stranger to large gatherings.

Mayor CESAR MAIA (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Rio de Janeiro is a city of big events, he says. Every year, New Year's brings together 3 million people, then carnival draws 2 million more. And we've never had any conflict of these events, the mayor says. Adding, which makes us confident that the games will be peaceful.

But federal troops, military police and city beat cops are out in force. The only incident so far has been diplomatic. A member of the American delegation scrawled a remark on a whiteboard in a media center that drew howls of protests. It read: Welcome to the Congo.

Brazilians complained it was demeaning and offensive to both Brazil and the Congo. The Americans apologized and sent a delegation member home. With a billion and a half dollars in new stadiums and state of the art facilities, organizers are sensitive to criticism that they have fallen short. These games are supposed to showcase Rio's upcoming bid for the Olympics in 2016.

Analyst Domecio Frowensa(ph) suspects that Rio will make a good accounting of itself.

Mr. DOMECIO FROWENSA: Like the theater, everything is unpromising. But in the end it all works well. No one really knows how. It does. Successful, quiet games, that's I hope is going to happen here.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve is back on Monday. I'm Renee Montagne.

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