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Rio legacy: White elephants and graft

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach (Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach (Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) – The Rio de Janeiro Olympics was a world class party, but a year later, there’s no end in sight to the painful hangover gripping Latin America’s biggest country.

Brazilians have got used to public officials’ incompetence and corruption. After all, the country has spent the last three years mired in a historic graft probe reaching to the top of politics and business.

But even hardened Brazil watchers are cringing as details emerge of the thieving that marked the run-up to the first ever Summer Games held in South America.

While ordinary Brazilians were suffering through the country’s deepest recession on record, Rio state and city’s leaders treated the Olympic buildup as a personal cash machine. It was a corruption ”trampoline,” as prosecutor Fabiana Schneider puts it.

At the head of the feeding frenzy was state governor Sergio Cabral, sentenced in June to 14 years prison for taking kickbacks from construction companies working in the city.

Although he left office in 2014, the Games were awarded in 2009, meaning he had a steering hand in numerous projects, including refurbishment of the iconic Maracana football stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies were held in 2016.

Prosecutors say Brazil’s Olympics leadership planned what amounted to major robbery from the start, by bribing the International Olympic Committee to choose Rio over Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo.

On Sept. 5, Brazilian police, accompanied by French investigators, took Brazilian Olympic Committee chief Carlos Nuzman in for questioning and searched his house.

He has not been charged but is suspected of having been part of a plot by a Brazilian businessman to buy the influential vote of Senegalese IOC member Lamine Diack, Schneider said.

The Games – showcasing moving ceremonies, the exploits of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and US swimming superman Michael Phelps and Brazilian fans’ enthusiasm – went smoothly.

But as soon as the athletes packed their bags and cameras stopped rolling, barely hidden problems erupted around Brazil’s second city.

Eduardo Paes, Rio’s mayor during the Olympics, said he had made the city, boosted by the temporary deployment of 50,000 troops, ”the safest place in the world.”