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Paralympic Games Set To Begin In Rio After Brazilian Government Bailout

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Thanks to a Brazilian government bailout, the Paralympics will go on. They begin tomorrow. They were in trouble after the real Olympic organizing committee admitted to running out of money.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After weeks of legal wrangling and a search for more sponsorships, the Brazilian government and the city of Rio came up with a combined total of about $80 million to help make up the shortfall. So the games are set to get underway, albeit scaled back. Craig Spence is the spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee, and he told us via Skype from Rio what that means.

CRAIG SPENCE: We've had to reduce some of the venue capacities. So for example, our swimming venue originally takes 17,000 seats. Part of the cuts that have been made here to balance the budget is that Rio 2016 has reduced its workforce significantly. Because of that, we can't fill all 17,000 seats safely, because there isn't enough staff there to look after the spectators. So the swimming venue is now a 9,000-seat-capacity venue. And thankfully, we've sold out every single evening session of swimming for these games.

CORNISH: We know some 4,300 athletes are scheduled to participate. And we understand at one point, the budget problems actually threatened the travel grants that would help poorer countries. I know that some of those grants have come through, but have any countries or athletes had to drop out because of this?

SPENCE: Well, the travel grants have yet to be paid. The money should be received today by the International Paralympic Committee, and then we will pay the nations immediately. We did have 10 countries who we thought might struggle to get to the games because of these late grant payments. The IPC has worked with them to either secure a short-term loan from their governments or the IPC themselves have lent them the money.

CORNISH: Now, your boss, Philip Craven, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, has called this, quote, "the worst situation that we've ever found ourselves in at Paralympic movement." Can you expand on that? I mean, how bad is it?

SPENCE: Well, I think he said it was inprecedented (ph) circumstances in the 56-year history of the games as well. And what we've done since then, though, is we've worked hard with the organizing committee, who basically have no money to organize the Paralympic Games. We've...

CORNISH: ...Well, they had money. They ran out of money, right? I mean, the accusation is that they'd spent all the money on the Olympics and didn't have enough left for the Paralympics.

SPENCE: Well, they had received a lot of money from the Olympics, including $1.5 billion from the IOC, but that money wasn't there ready for the Paralympics. So what we've had to do is make the most of what we've got.

CORNISH: Going forward, does this feel like what happened with Rio is a kind of fluke or particular to Rio and its economic circumstances? Or is there anything that the International Paralympic Committee can do going forward to make sure they don't end up in this situation again?

SPENCE: Well, there's various things here that are key learnings for us. I mean, you've got to admit that Brazil is facing its worst economic crisis probably in its history, and it's had some political uncertainty in recent years as well. In terms of the budget, yes, maybe the organizing committee could've brought in more Paralympic sponsors in the same way that in London 2012 you could only become a sponsor of the Olympic Games if you also sponsored the Paralympics. So that's a key learning that we'll take forward to Tokyo, who's already following the London model.

CORNISH: That's Craig Spence. He's a spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee. Thank you for speaking with us.

SPENCE: You're welcome. Thank you.

CORNISH: Stephanie Nolen has been trying to follow the missing money. She's South America bureau chief for The Globe and Mail. And she says while organizers are trying to stay upbeat, there are still many challenges.

STEPHANIE NOLEN: Off the record, people are complaining about terrible catering services, about bad transport or the total absence of transport. I think we won't know if it's bad - and if so, how bad - until things really start to happen.

CORNISH: Heading into this, British Paralympic sprinter Jonnie Peacock was very critical of the treatment of athletes going into these games, saying that he felt disrespected by the way these budget issues went down. Is that something that's being felt or expressed by other athletes?

NOLEN: I haven't heard it from athletes. I have heard it from other people in the Paralympic movement who you can tell are at pains to not come right out and say, you know, we should not be the tacked-on little sibling event. There was supposed to be a budget for this. Where did our money go? I think there is, and quite legitimately, the feeling among everybody associated with the Paralympics that they have really been given short shrift here.

CORNISH: Is there any sense of who's to blame here? Are we any closer to understanding just what happened to this money?

NOLEN: We're not. I spent a lot of time today having new versions of that conversation with people associated with Rio 2016. At this point, they are blaming the whole budget shortfall on the fact that ticket sales were very, very slow and indeed only started to pick up in the last week or so, and also on the fact that sponsorship money was very late to come because of Brazil's economic crisis.

You know, the problem with that explanation, of course, is that the travel grants, for example - that's been a budgeted cost since 2009, when Rio won the right to host these games. They knew they were going to have to pay for that all along. So where was that money? The most recent explanation that I got today from Rio 2016 is that the transfer of that money got interrupted with the political crisis in Brazil and the change in presidents and administrations and their commitment of what they would pay, which, again, doesn't really make sense to me because, you know, they knew this was coming.

Regardless of who the president was, they were going to have 161 national delegations to fly here. Regrettably, Rio 2016 is not obliged to be transparent about any of this. And still, we don't know how big the deficit is and what else they don't have money for. But that may become clear in the next two weeks.

CORNISH: Stephanie Nolen is the South America bureau chief for The Globe and Mail. We reached her by Skype in Rio. Thanks for speaking with us.

NOLEN: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.