‘Please fix my toilet': Olympic teams suffer through problems at Rio’s Athletes’ Village

The Summer Olympics are just days from opening, and organizers have been forced to mount a “massive operation” to fix a deluge of plumbing and electricity problems at the Athletes' Village in Rio.

It was the latest upset for an Olympics taking place amid a severe economic recession, a Zika epidemic, the impeachment process of suspended president Dilma Rousseff and a spike in crime in Rio state — which is so broke it needed a government bailout to pay police salaries in arrears.

The latest crisis began on Sunday, when the Australian team said its building in the Athletes' Village was uninhabitable because of problems with plumbing and electricity.

Now, with those issues resolved, the Australians have moved in. But other teams have complained about conditions in many of their apartments. The Argentine committee said that two of the five floors of its building were uninhabitable, and it had to rent apartments nearby for some of its technical staff. The Belarus Olympic committee published photos of dirty windows and blocked drains on its official page. Egyptian athletes had no hot water and their toilets did not flush, while a Kenyan wrote "Please fix my toilet" on a notice board in the Olympic Village.

A squad of 600 plumbers and electricians has been scrambling to repair everything.

“It is a massive operation and a massive undertaking to fix everything in such a way that we don’t disturb the athletes and we don’t compromise the security,” Mario Andrada, Rio 2016’s communications director, told The Washington Post. The operation was on course to finish by Thursday night, he said.

But even that operation has run into trouble.

On Wednesday, officials from Brazil's Ministry of Work inspected laborers' conditions and found the emergency team had been contracted informally, without the proper documentation. Fines could be levied if the subcontractors who hired the workers don't produce the necessary documents, the ministry said in a statement published on its website.

A spokeswoman for Rio 2016, speaking on condition of anonymity because of internal regulations, said organizers had presented the necessary documentation to the ministry.

But questions remain: How bad were the problems, and why wasn’t the village ready when athletes began moving in on Sunday?

On July 26, TV Globo’s nightly news program, Jornal Nacional, said one company contracted to fix the issues found problems in 57 out of the 272 apartments it was working on, including a lack of power and showers that did not work.

Filmed in shadow, an unidentified engineer working there said he believed the defects stemmed from the construction of the complex, built by a real estate consortium with plans to eventually sell the units. Rio 2016 is renting the complex of 3,604 apartments from Ilha Pura.

“I believe they had deadlines. They had to deliver the works on the date, and they delivered it the way it was,” the engineer said.

Ilha Pura, or Pure Island, the real estate developer that built the complex, said the company had delivered the apartments in pristine condition.

“The construction work was 100 percent finished,” a spokeswoman said in an email. “No kind of structural problem was found.” She spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing internal regulations.

Ilha Pura supplied technical teams to help finish the work, the spokeswoman said, and its priority was to offer athletes “the best hospitality infrastructure.”

That was not what the Australian team found when it conducted a “stress test” of the apartments on Saturday — turning on toilets and taps on several floors at the same time.

“The system failed. Water came down walls, there was a strong smell of gas in some apartments and there was 'shorting' in the electrical wiring,” delegation chief Kitty Chiller said in a statement. “In our mind, our building is not habitable,” she later told reporters.

Andrada, the spokesman for Rio 2016, said the complex had been turned over to organizers at the end of May but water and electricity were connected in June.

“The main cause for the delay was that water and electricity were connected too late" and there was no time to check the units before they were handed to the national Olympic committees, he said.

Andrada said it was not clear whose fault that was.

“Ilha Pura could maybe have delivered some of the apartments in better condition,” he said. “We should have done better testing. But we are not discussing this now.”

“Now the focus is on the resolution of the problem, not the cause of the problem,” he said.

On Wednesday evening, some athletes described the problems they found. Shimaa Hashad, a member of the Egyptian shooting team, had no hot water when she arrived at her apartment earlier that day, and her toilet did not flush. "We told them and they fixed it," she said. "My friends from other countries told me about the same problems."

The Dutch team brought two technicians of its own after facing similar issues at Olympic Villages in London and in the Russian city of Sochi. But Rio was worse, said spokesman John van Vliet. Dutch field hockey player Mink Van Der Weerden said those efforts meant his apartment was in good condition when he arrived.

"They did a bit of work," he said. "And now it's all good."

Kiton Muca, an administration assistant for the Albanian team, said its members had faced some small issues on arriving, such as toilets that didn't flush, but these had been resolved. "For each Olympic Games, this is the situation," he said. Rio is his third.

Others faced more serious issues. The Argentine Olympic committee rented apartments in a nearby condominium for some of its technical staff because two of the five floors were "uninhabitable", its president, Gerardo Werthein, told reporters in Buenos Aires on Monday.

"It was very bad but it is being repaired," Eduardo Moyano, the team's communications director, told the Post, adding that the problems would probably be resolved in two or three days.