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Paralympics Beset With Funding Problems, Poor Ticket Sales

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The 2016 Paralympics in Rio are in trouble, and they haven't even started yet. Rio 2016, the local organizing committee for the Olympics and Paralympics, is millions of dollars short on funds. It's late on grant payments to help teams get to the games, and ticket sales are dismal. Around 12 percent have been sold.

Now all this has led the committee to ask the Brazilian government for more money, but there's a catch. Here to tell us more is Stephanie Nolen. She's covering this story for The Globe and Mail. She joins us now from Rio. Welcome to the program.

STEPHANIE NOLEN: Hi there. Thanks for calling.

CORNISH: OK, how did we get to this point where Rio 2016 has this deficit and is in a fight to get more money?

NOLEN: Well, we don't actually know because Rio 2016 doesn't make their books public. In fact we don't even have their confirmation that they have a deficit. The big source of information on this are individual Paralympic committees around the world who normally, when they're sending teams to Paralympic Games, get a travel grant. Those grants altogether total about $8 million, and it's money that's sent to Paralympic committees in every country that sends athletes to pay for their flights.

Normally they would have had that money a long time ago. They don't have it yet. They haven't been told when they're going to get it. The International Paralympic Committee has been pleading with the federal government of Brazil and this government of the city of Rio to inject some emergency funding into staging their games.

CORNISH: So who's fighting it, and why?

NOLEN: Well, public prosecutors in Brazil are fighting it at this point because they say if there's going to be any public funds from Brazil put into these games, then Rio 2016 has to open up their books, reveal how they got to the point of needing this money in the first place and what they're going to do with any additional public funds they get.

CORNISH: So what about the International Paralympic Committee itself? They're looking around at these teams who are saying, hey, where are our travel grants? What are they saying about what's happening?

NOLEN: Well, they really took the gloves off this week. I guess they have reached the point of deciding that they needed to go public and try and embarrass Rio 2016 into stepping up with some money. So they're saying outright that they are worried about the future of the games. They've gone to the federal government and to the city government in Rio to say, you have to give us the cash to make this happen.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what happens to the athletes? I mean, will teams, say, from smaller countries even be able to go?

NOLEN: No, if they don't get those travel grants. In the last couple of days I've spoken with organizing committees for Paralympians in small countries with really limited resources such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, El Salvador, Honduras. And they say flat out, there's no way. They're only planning to send a few athletes, but they certainly can't pay for it themselves.

And for example, the Zimbabwean said to me, it's not as if given the economic crisis in Zimbabwe we can go to our government and ask them to pay for this.

CORNISH: What happens next? What should we be looking for?

NOLEN: Well, if - as anybody who's been watching Brazil's political crisis will know, you can't possibly predict what a Brazilian court will do. So there's now two injunctions in place on giving any money to Rio 2016 before they make their books public. I've just spoken with the chief spokesperson for the committee. He has reiterated that they are not going to do that. So there seems to be a stalemate there.

I think there is a serious question about whether the Paralympics will happen. I mean I think the event in some form I suppose will happen, but who will actually be there, and what will it look like even if they get athletes here? What kind of money do they have to spend on anything else related to staging those games? I think that's all an open question at this point.

CORNISH: Reporter Stephanie Nolen of The Globe and Mail. She spoke to us from Rio. Thanks so much.

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