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Rio de Janeiro’s sprint to prepare for the 2016 Olympics begins

With the five-ringed Olympic flag now planted in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro — host of the 2016 Summer Games — is on the clock.

Suddenly four years doesn’t seem like much time to untangle the city’s chronically snarled traffic grid, shore up an inadequate public transportation system, make it easier to get to and from the airport and spiff up a decrepit downtown waterfront.

Then there is the national goal of prepping Brazil’s athletes to crack the top 10 in the medal count, a considerable leap.

“Time is an adversary but time is on our side. We are on time and going according to schedule,’’ Leonardo Gryner, the chief executive of the Rio 2016 organizing committee, said at a news conference before leaving the London Olympics.

But at home there are still concerns about potential cost-overruns, whether the city will get long-term benefits from the Olympics, and about people who are being evicted to make way for projects for the Games as well as the 2014 World Cup, which also will be held in Brazil.

Brazil got a bit of a head-start because it hosted the 2007 Pan American Games and more than half of the sports facilities that will be used for the Olympics are already in place — although some, such as the aquatics center, will need costly renovations.

The biggest challenge is expected to be getting the city — with its spectacular mix of sea views and lofty peaks — ready to handle hundreds of thousands of people for the Aug. 5-21, 2016 Olympics and the Sept. 7-18, 2016 Summer Paralympics.

Some 8,000 rooms of the three-star category and above are under construction and 9,000 more rooms are on the drawing board or in various stages of approval, but Rio is still expected to have a hotel deficit when the Games roll around.

Plans are being made to use cruise ships docked at the downtown port, which is slated for a massive renovation, to handle some visitors.

By 2016, Brazil is expected to be the fifth largest economy in the world and it desperately wants the Games to be a coming-of-age party for the emerging nation.

Although city officials have seized on the Games as an opportunity to attack long-term urban problems, there has been criticism of the billions of dollars that will be spent readying for the sporting events. The Olympics and Paralympics are expected to require a $14.4 billion budget, including $11.6 billion in public investments.

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes says the city wants legacy projects that will continue to benefit the city long after the soccer balls and swimming goggles have been packed up.

“We know we can’t turn this Olympiad into a tear-down here and a white elephant there,’’ Paes said at a London news conference.

Among the projects that Rio hopes to have ready for the Olympics:

•  Transportation — Some 124 miles of public transportation lines are expected to be built over the next six years. Four Bus Rapid Transit corridors that would connect the four main Olympic venues, the airport and a new Ipanema subway link running to Barra da Tijuca, site of the Olympic village, are expected to be done by 2016. The Transoeste BRT, which began operating in June, has already won high marks from workers for reducing long commute times.

A light rail system also is slated to be built. It will connect the new port zone, Santos Dumont Airport — a domestic airport near Rio’s famed Sugarloaf Mountain, and a new tourist hub that is being developed in the city center.

•  Porto Maravilha — Some $4 billion in investments are slated to begin to transform the gritty downtown port into a showcase that will include shops, restaurants, renovated historic buildings, hotels and The Museum of Tomorrow, a project designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava that is expected to stretch out into Guanabara Bay along the Píer Mauá.

•  Airports — Brazil is in the process of granting concessions to private investors to renovate and manage key airports. The airport upgrades are pressing because they need to be ready for the World Cup, which will open on June 12, 2014. Sixty-four matches will be played in 12 cities. Currently many of Brazil’s airports are barely up to handling growing domestic traffic.

While Brazil begins the sprint toward finishing its massive infrastructure projects, Miami is preparing to benefit from both the Olympics and World Cup.

“Since we’re a crossroads destination, we’ll be able to cross-promote the World Cup and the Olympics with a visit to Miami,’’ said Bill Talbert, president and chief executive of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“This is good for our business — and without a doubt good for Miami,’’ said Art Torno, American Airlines’ vice president for Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America.

American currently serves seven Brazilian cities from Miami and by the end of the year will be offering 102 flights a week between Brazil and Miami, New York and Dallas, he said. Seventy-three of those flights will be to or from Miami.

American officials expect many U.S. sports fans to fly through Miami. “I think these Games will attract such a huge number of people, we’ll see travelers who haven’t been to Miami or Latin America. This will showcase Miami and that sets us up for future travel,’’ said Torno. “We’ll be the front door for travel to Brazil.’’

Brazil also will be devoting major efforts to preparing its athletes for 2016 and trying to break its soccer curse. Although Brazil has won a record five World Cup titles, it has never won Olympic gold in its national sport.

With 17 medals, including three gold, Brazil’s London performance was only marginally better than its 15-medal haul in Beijing, and Brazilian athletes made fewer finals (35) in 2012 than they did in 2008 (41).

To reach its goal of a Top 10 finish in 2016, Marcus Vinicius Freire, a former Olympic volleyball medalist and an executive on the Brazilian Olympic Committee, says Brazil will need 25 medals in sports where it traditionally has been strong — volleyball, soccer, swimming, sailing, judo, track, basketball, equestrian and taekwondo and five in other sports where it hasn’t previously excelled, such as gymnastics.

It took a step in that direction when Arthur Nabarrete Zanetti picked up Brazil’s first gymnastics gold ever with a win in the rings. But in general the Brazilian press was underwhelmed by Team Brazil in London.

Brazil tied for 14th place in the medal count with Spain and Hungary but eight of Hungary’s medals were gold.

Paes and other top officials brought the Olympic flag with them on their return trip from London. To get the Rio party started, the flag will be carried on a tour through the city on Wednesday.