Analysis: In Rio, a false start amid all the games

Luxury condominiums overlook the area, on left, where the Rio 2016 Olympic golf course is planned to be built in Rio de Janeiro's Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, Brazil. Rio 2016 organizers faced an unexpected challenge to deliver the first Olympic golf tournament in more than 100 years because of a legal dispute over the land where the historic course is supposed to be built.

Luxury condominiums overlook the area, on left, where the Rio 2016 Olympic golf course is planned to be built in Rio de Janeiro's Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, Brazil. Rio 2016 organizers faced an unexpected challenge to deliver the first Olympic golf tournament in more than 100 years because of a legal dispute over the land where the historic course is supposed to be built.

Nobody thought getting Rio de Janeiro ready for the 2016 Olympic Games would be easy, least of all for golf.

After a closely-watched public bid to award design of the proposed championship venue went to American course architect Gil Hanse last month, Rio 2016, the committee responsible for building the course (and other sports venues), has yet to move forward. It doesn’t own the land that has been identified as the course site, and the committee can’t persuade the city to come up with the money to acquire the land and build the course.

The 220-acre site in the Barra district southwest of downtown Rio and near the proposed Olympic Village is intended not only to serve as venue for the 2016 golf competition, the first in the Olympics in more than 100 years, but is planned as a public-access “legacy” course to help promote golf development in a city with no other daily-fee course. The city doesn’t own the land and has been forced to negotiate with the title holder, entrepreneur Pasquale Mauro.

The city is reluctant to seize the land by eminent domain. It would prove too politically sensitive to claim private land for such a matter, especially in an election year for Mayor Eduardo Pacs. He and his administration already have their hands full getting soccer stadiums ready for the 2014 World Cup. In some cases, they have reverted to bulldozing Rio’s notorious favela shantytowns to clear land for stadium development.

Besides, golf course development funds are lacking. Federal sources turned down Pacs’ subsidy requests, so city officials have been forced to rely upon land owner Mauro to undertake development of the property into a golf course in conjunction with the entrepreneurial firm RJZ Cyrela at their private expense. In a deal worked out earlier this year, Mauro has agreed to spend up to 60 million reals ($32 million) for the golf course, teaching facility, clubhouse and infrastructure. In a quid pro quo for this deal, Mauro/RJZ Cyrela was granted zoning variance on several high-rise apartment buildings on the northeast side of the golf site and assured of development rights to an adjoining parcel.

The public-private arrangement raises new issues for a golf course project that was intended at the outset as a post-Olympics public legacy for Brazil's daily-fee golfers. Day-to-day management of the golf course also would be in the hands of the developer, not Rio 2016. Based on the agreement between the city and the developer, the course must remain public for 25 years. But it’s not at all clear what oversight mechanisms would be in place, nor what would prevent a private developer or golf course manager from selling off some tee times or even some private memberships as a way of recouping development costs and of enhancing the value of surrounding real estate.

The deal has been subject to a lawsuit in conjunction with a land-ownership challenge that is now in court and threatening to delay the start of golf course construction. A spokesman for Rio 2016 downplayed recent reports of the dispute having any serious consequences for development of the golf course. “We know who owns the land,” he told Golfweek.

That sentiment is echoed by Ty Votaw, PGA Tour executive vice president for international affairs and a leading member of the International Golf Federation that served as an adviser to the Rio 2016 architecture-selection team. “You shouldn’t believe everything you read,” Votaw wrote in an email to Golfweek. “As of now there is not a delay. Just a land dispute that has been known about.”

For now, the timetable is to have the golf course readied in time for a dry run of an international golf championship in 2015, a year before the Olympics. To achieve that, construction would have to start by early 2013, according to industry observers. Hanse is about to sign a contract with Rio 2016 for design of the golf course at a fee of $300,000 that was locked in through the original request for proposals. But the contract that counts is his subsequent arrangement with the developer for actual day-to-day supervision of the project. Right now, that’s a ways off from being signed, or even negotiated.

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