RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — IOC President Thomas Bach came to Rio de Janeiro to laud the city’s progress in getting ready for the 2016 Olympics. On Saturday, he came up against another side of the games — activists bursting into his hotel lobby to protest what they call environmental destruction brought on by the games.
As Bach and his executive board were wrapping up a 2 ½-day meeting in Rio, a small group of protesters gathered outside the luxury hotel at Copacabana Beach holding signs that read “Thomas Bach is a nature killer” and “The city is not for sale.”
At least two women pushed their way into the lobby, with one blowing a loud whistle, shouting slogans and trying to grab an Olympic flag. Security guards tried to restrain the woman as she tussled with them and screamed, “The thieves are upstairs,” referring to the IOC leaders meeting on another floor.
The scene was witnessed and recorded by about 100 journalists who were in the lobby waiting for the start of a Bach news conference.
The protesters were seeking to call attention to the numerous ecological issues associated with the games, including the construction of a golf course in what had been a nature reserve, and the severe water pollution in Guanabara Bay, the venue for Olympic sailing.
“We are open for a dialogue with everybody,” Bach said later at the news conference, where he praised Brazilian organizers in their preparations for the games, and defended their record on the environment.
“All of this without the games would not have happened,” Bach said. “So, again, it’s clear evidence what a positive legacy these games are leaving in the infrastructure, the social, and in the environmental areas.”
Activist Jean Carlos Novaes, who eventually reached the hotel lobby, said he represented the environmental group “Golf for Whom.” Other protesters said they represented a group called “Occupy Golf,” and “Occupy Marina da Gloria,” where the sailing will be held.
IOC communications director Mark Adams came down to the lobby to speak through an interpreter with the woman leading the protest, who identified herself only as Sandra, and said she was a teacher.
“We’re not against the Olympic Games,” she said. “This is about the golf course. We have two golf courses. We don’t need a third.”
Adams offered to be in contact with her. As Bach was leaving the hotel later, the protesters shouted “environmental killer” as he got into a car to attend a fencing event.
Rio state authorities have repeatedly acknowledged they would not be able to make good on the Olympic promise to treat 80 percent of the sewage entering Guanabara Bay. But Bach said Brazilian authorities told him the goal would be met.
On a separate issue, Bach said the water being used to irrigate the golf course — during the worst drought in southeastern Brazil in 80 years — is not coming from the city’s drinking water reserves. He also said no taxpayer’s money was going toward the $20 million construction of the course, which is being financed privately, and stressed it will be the first golf course open to the public in Rio.
Construction of the golf course has been embroiled in controversy, overshadowing the sport’s return to the Olympics after a 112-year absence.
Rio is spending about $14 billion for the Olympics, an expenditure that looms large as Brazil teeters on the brink of recession.
Less than a year ago, the IOC warned that the Rio Games were at risk because of severe delays. The IOC implemented several emergency measures to get preparations on track, including sending veteran administrator Gilbert Felli to work with local organizers.
“We have many reasons to be confident, but we also have no reason to be complacent because we all know there is not a single moment to lose in the preparations,” Bach said on Saturday.
Bach said he made a bet with Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes that when he arrives for the opening ceremony on Aug. 5, 2016, he’ll be thanking workers still doing the finishing touches at the last minute.
“That would be the only bet that I would be happy to lose,” Bach said.
Associated Press Writer Jenny Barchfield contributed to this report.