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Ahead Of Rio Games, Olympic Historian Says Terror Attacks Are A Concern

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is with us all week. She's our Brazil correspondent. Lourdes, how do you like it there?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Well, you know, Steve, the president's being impeached, the economy's in a freefall, you've Zika, oh, and the Olympics are coming up.

INSKEEP: Just a little bit of news, and just tell me what happened with this Olympic bike path collapse over the weekend.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, it was an Olympic legacy work, and a section collapsed, and two people were killed.

INSKEEP: Ouch, is this worse than normal when a company gets - when a country, rather, gets ready for the Olympics?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, that's what I wondered, so I called Olympics historian David Wallechinsky.

DAVID WALLECHINSKY: It's an Olympic tradition to complain about all the things that might go wrong. Unfortunately, however, occasionally, these criticisms are correct. And with the real Olympic situation, there are some major concerns.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the thing that's most worrying to you looking at it if, as you say, there is a real concern about these Olympics?

WALLECHINSKY: Well, obviously, we're always, always concerned about the prospect of a terrorist attack.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because of course, ISIS has already threatened Brazil. It's not traditionally a country that has had to deal with these kinds of external security threats. So is that something that you really see as deeply concerning to you, the security?

WALLECHINSKY: Brazil doesn't have a history of being subjected to terrorist attacks. So for example, when the Olympics were in London in 2012, there was a serious terrorist threat. I mean, they'd had terrorist attacks. But because they'd had multiple terrorist attacks, they had a defense plan, and Brazil doesn't really have that background.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When we talk about this idea of there might be problems, what does that mean practically speaking? Is the worry that the venues won't be ready? Is the worry that because of Zika, we won't see athletes arriving?

WALLECHINSKY: I would say that, you know, the thing that would be a nightmare for Brazilians would be if athletes really do start to become ill. I'm greatly concerned about the water events, particularly the sailing events. When I was down in Rio two years ago, people who were involved in sailing complained to me (laughter), you're involved in the Olympics. Why don't you tell them to move these sailing events up the coast?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The issue, of course, with the water is that when it's been tested, it's equivalent to raw sewage, and it's not...

WALLECHINSKY: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Fit for...

WALLECHINSKY: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Either human consumption or anything else. Adding to all this, let's talk a little bit about Zika. Is this something that really people should be thinking about?

WALLECHINSKY: My own doctor said, well, I would advise you not to go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ha.

WALLECHINSKY: And he said all the presses about the, you know, pregnant women, he said that's not the problem. The problem for the larger public is the Guillain-Barre syndrome.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right, Guillain-Barre syndrome causes paralysis.

WALLECHINSKY: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he told you not to come.

WALLECHINSKY: He told me not to come. I said I'm going anyway.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Final question - I'm going to ask you a prediction - success or abject failure, Rio 2016, what do you say?

WALLECHINSKY: (Laughter) First of all, the way that most of the world will perceive what happens at Rio 2016 is what they see on television. Consequently, you will not necessarily see what's going on. So we could have problems in transportation, we could have venues breaking down, and you may never see it if you're watching on television.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And therefore might not matter to the rest of the world.

WALLECHINSKY: Exactly. Usually, in fact, overwhelmingly, the minute that the competitions start, the media shift away from what's wrong, and they just talk about the athletes and the competitions, unless something goes really wrong, like the terrorist attack in 1996...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Atlanta.

WALLECHINSKY: ...Where suddenly you have to talk about it. And that's legitimate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: David Wallechinsky is the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.