The 15th Pan American Games, a multi-sport Olympic style competition for the Western Hemisphere, open Friday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As VOA's David Byrd reports, the games are part of Rio's plan to bid for the 2016 Olympics.
The Pan American Games feature more than 5,500 athletes from 42 countries and territories, and are meant to serve as a showcase for Rio de Janeiro.
The city has gone all out in preparing for these games, spending more than $2 billion to build new facilities, including the gleaming, 45,000 seat Joao Havelange Stadium and a new athletes' village.
That spending has drawn criticism in a city where some children cannot go to school because of a lack of teachers, where police are fighting an ongoing war with drug lords in the slums, and where traffic is notoriously clogged because of infrastructure problems.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said he thinks the money was well spent.
"The only comment I can make is on the legacy," he said. "I am not going to comment on the budget, because this is not my responsibility. But I can say one thing having seen the infrastructure. This will leave a tremendous legacy for Rio not just for the 16 days of competition, but for decades to come, for many generations who will benefit from this legacy. And I think in this aspect is it socially warranted and responsible."
Part of the legacy of the Pan American Games could come when Brazil hosts the 2014 World Cup football tournament. The International Football Federation's rotation system has the tournament in South America, and the CONMEBOL federation has chosen Brazil as the only candidate.
Rio was in danger of not being ready to host the Pan American Games, because of construction backlogs and infrastructure problems, but now only finishing touches are needed. Brazilian Olympic Committee President Carlos Arthur Nuzman, speaking at a news conference Thursday, downplayed questions on whether the venues would be ready in time.
"The information that I have is that everything is ready for the TV," he noted. "The last adjustments are being made for the lights for the television broadcasters."
The Pan Am games are also part of Rio's campaign to host the 2016 Olympics. In addition to the Brazilian city, Madrid, Spain, Chicago, Illinois, Tokyo, Japan, and Baku, Azerbaijan are bidding. Other cities could also enter the race.
With the 2008 Olympics in Asia, the 2010 Winter Games in North America, and the 2012 summer and 2014 Winter Games in Europe, Pan Am Organizers believe that Rio has an excellent chance of winning the 2016 bid. The IOC will choose the 2016 host city in October of 2009.