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Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba, Getty Images

Olympic-Sized Threats

This month, 10,500 athletes from 206 countries and half a million tourists will arrive in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the 2016 Summer Olympics and the Paralympics. For 17 days, athletes and visitors alike will navigate the vast and varied streets to attend the 28 sporting events held at 32 different venues. The scope of the Olympic games is much larger than the 2014 World Cup, which took place in cities throughout Brazil. 

All eyes are on the Olympics this month, not only to view the feats of the world’s best athletes but also to see whether the games will serve as a tempting target for terrorist groups. In the wake of large-scale, soft-target terrorist attacks, including attacks on sports venues in Paris and Iraq, security leaders in Brazil and around the world are relying on shared intelligence to stay a step ahead of ISIS and other terrorist groups. But experts say that there are other more pressing threats to those visiting Rio de Janeiro’s beautiful coastlines and charming vistas.  

“I can’t imagine a more scenic backdrop for the Olympics,” said U.S. State Department Supervisory Special Agent Robert Weitzel, who is assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia. He spoke at ASIS NYC in April. “Down at street level, though, there are a lot of things to be concerned about.” 

Starting upon arrival at the city’s airport and continuing during travel the four main zones that host the 32 Olympic venues, Rio de Janeiro is a complex city with potential for trouble at every turn. Dangerous neighborhoods and slums, known as favelas, are mere blocks away from high-income communities, such as Copacabana and Ipanema, explains Abbott Matthews, an intelligence analyst with risk management firm iJet International.  

“That’s concerning because you’re going to have lots of tourist travelers on the streets not familiar with the area,” Matthews explains. “They become more of a target in that situation, especially if they’re displaying signs of being tourists.” 

Rio de Janeiro has a well-established underworld of gangs, which accounts for the high crime rate throughout the city, notes Rafael Saliés, the director of Brazilian operations at Southern Pulse, a strategic advisory firm. One of the biggest hot spots for clashes between police and criminals is along the main route to and from the international airport, near a favela complex.  

“Clashes between police and drug dealers tend to shut down that area every few months; people have to get out of their cars or drive against traffic to escape,” Saliés says. “This is a risk that may actually happen at the Olympics, and it means people can’t get from the international airport to the city or from the city to the airport. This is likely something that law enforcement is looking at closely, but at the same time there’s only so much they can do in advance.” 

Once inside the city, visitors will be susceptible to petty theft and other crimes typical for large tourist areas. Although there are competing organized crime groups running communities throughout Rio de Janeiro, Saliés predicts they won’t be aggressive during the events. 

“These groups do have an incentive to stop confronting police during the Olympics, because there are windfalls in drug sales during these major events,” Saliés says. “A lot of new clients are going to be in the city, and they want to make sure that the clients will be buying. It’s just as much a business opportunity for them as it is for the whole sales sector.” 

Approximately 85,000 security personnel will be deployed during this year’s Olympics—that’s twice as many as were used during London’s summer Olympics four years ago. Forty-one percent of forces will be public, and 59 percent will be private security. The national military police force will come to Rio de Janeiro to patrol the streets and work as first responders. Civil police are responsible for investigations and serving arrest warrants. A national guard force will provide security at Olympic venues, and the Brazilian army will be on standby, as well.  

Weitzel noted that during the London games, technology was used as a force multiplier, but Rio de Janeiro is relying heavily on boots on the ground. He questioned the city’s ability to provide food and housing for thousands of security personnel.  

“The infrastructure of the games does include airports and hotels, but at the end of the day police can’t be everywhere at the same time,” Weitzel said. “There’s the fan fest and watch party areas. Corporate sponsors have houses where they have retained private security, and will do what they can with what they have.” 

Saliés notes that the security officers will almost certainly face poor working conditions, which could lead to a strike. “These men and women are going to be deployed 24/7 throughout the city, working double shifts, often working shifts without pay, and often in poor working conditions. Before the Olympics start, there’s the risk  of a military police strike.” 

Before the World Cup in 2014, a number of military police forces throughout the country threatened to go on strike to achieve better working conditions—and it worked. “The Olympics is their last opportunity for leverage with the government to get increases in salaries, improve working conditions, et cetera. Rio de Janeiro’s police didn’t strike in 2014, and they might think they missed out on the opportunity, so this is their last chance,” Saliés explains.  

Matthews tells Security Management that she believes if any security forces go on strike, it would be the civil police. It’s easier for important civil servants to form unions and go on strikes, which could delay legal processes, such as investigations into crimes or helping a tourist track down a stolen passport. “The threat of strike is a little higher due to the economic situation in the country,” according to Matthews. “Rio state has been suffering economically and has had to take budget cuts, and those types of events create an environment a little riper for a civil servant strike.” 

If military police forces go on strike, “it will be nothing short of a disaster,” Saliés says. “They are the ones on patrol, the ones familiar with criminals because they are always on the streets, they do proactive operations against drug gangs. If they are off the streets, the civil police don’t have the manpower to do it.” If the police do go on strike, a national police force of about 15,000 men will be called in from throughout Brazil, along with the army. 

Police forces aren’t the only group experts worry might not be present during the games. President Dilma Rousseff is facing impeachment for money laundering and will most likely be on trial during the Olympics. A number of other senior government officials are being investigated for corruption, as well. Matthews says the scandal has stirred up a lot of tension and anger in Brazil, and will probably spur a large number of protests that could shut down public services and disrupt transportation of athletes and visitors to Olympic venues. 

Municipal elections will also be taking place in October, and Saliés says campaigning by grassroots leftist groups will be in full swing during the games. “This adds to the number of people on the streets, the number of protesters, and the level of overall physical risk,” he says. 

Many of the Olympic venues are hard to access, with just one train or other form of public transportation running to some of them. Although this will certainly be a challenge for athletes and visitors to navigate, Saliés says it’s a good thing in terms of corralling protesters. “It’s easy for the police to block entrances to specific modes of public transportation that are needed to get to the events. It’s easier for police to corral protesters once they get out of a metro station, which makes law enforcement’s life easier, and makes it harder for 50 people to show up and create a problem.” 

Much like in previous Olympic games, concerns have been raised about the rapidly-constructed venues and supporting infrastructure. Weitzel said that the venues themselves will be satisfactorily completed in time for the events, but the city’s infrastructure may not be up to snuff. There are only a handful of thoroughfares throughout the city, and Weitzel suggested newly-built transportation systems may not be completed by August. 

Matthews agrees. She points to a bike path, built along the coast between Barra da Tijuca and Ipanema and lauded as an Olympic legacy project. It was completed and inaugurated in January, but during a storm in April, a large wave struck a portion of the path, causing it to collapse and kill two people. After an investigation, it was revealed that the construction company had not accounted for the force of the wave. Corrupt engineering firms also tend to carry out projects on the cheap to collect the leftover money, she says.  

“I think it’s concerning because you just don’t know how safe a structure is,” Matthews says. “I don’t think it’s likely that a large stadium will collapse, but there are smaller issues like the bike path or these side legacy projects that might be experiencing  a little more lack of attention.” 

When it comes to concerns about the Zika virus, which is spread via mosquitoes and is linked to birth defects, experts agree that the threat is a small one. Saliés says he’d suggest men or women who are trying to conceive should stay home from the games, but otherwise diseases like dengue are much more prevalent—and deadly.  

Another low-probability, high-impact threat is a terrorist attack during the games. Weitzel explained that officials are concerned that the Olympics are a tempting symbolic target for terrorists. “Any attack in Brazil would not be directly against Brazil, but an attack against the world, because the world is on Brazil’s stage for the Olympics.”   

Saliés says that intelligence analysts have been studying the operational capability of different extremist groups and whether they have a basic infrastructure in the region. The only terrorist group with an established support network in Brazil is Hezbollah, but Saliés says the network is primarily for financing and money laundering. However, Hezbollah probably would not risk losing their financial base by organizing an attack, Saliés adds.  

Matthews says that an antiterrorism integrated center has been established in Rio de Janeiro, which involves local, national, and international leaders, as well as Olympics officials and intelligence analysts.  

“They are taking great steps to hopefully deter any type of attack, if there were to be one,” she says. 

All three experts agree that crime will still be the largest threat at the Olympics, and nobody is immune—just a few months ago, three members of the Spanish Olympic sailing team were robbed at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro.