Rio Olympics organizers defend naming stadium after former corrupt soccer president Havelange

Martin Rogers
Brazilian former Olympic athlete and a member of the International Olympic Committee Joao Havelange (REUTERS)

LONDON – The first controversy of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics erupted this weekend before London 2012 was even complete.

Rio organizing committee chiefs had hoped to give a glowing account of their progress at a press conference here in front of the world's media, but instead they were forced to defend the highly questionable decision to name the main stadium after a corrupt former soccer administrator.

Rio's showpiece arena is named in honor of Joao Havelange, the ex-president of FIFA, soccer's world governing body. Havelange, now 96, was found by a Swiss court to have accepted nearly $1 million in bribes from a marketing company in the 1990s.

Despite the obvious negative connotations of having links with Havelange, whose reputation in soccer is beyond repair after the revelations about his abuses of power, Rio 2016 CEO Leonardo Gryner defended him.

"We are very proud of what Mr. Havelange has done worldwide and for sport in Brazil in particular," Gryner said at the press conference. "As far as I know, he did wrong and was punished so he paid for that. I am still very comfortable. He is a great legend in our sport."

However, despite his words of support for Havelange, Gryner was swift to point out that the naming saga was the result of a choice by the city of Rio itself, rather than the organizers of the Games.

[ Related: London's best and worst Olympic venues ]

At the end of the 2016 Olympics, the track stadium will revert to the city, which retains ownership of it and is free to name it however it likes. That ownership is part of a legacy program designed to ensure Rio enjoys a long-term benefit from hosting the Games.

The stadium Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Getty Images)

"I don't think that naming a stadium after Joao Havelange will damage the Games in Rio," Gryner added. "The organizing committee does not name stadiums. We just use the stadiums that are named by the owners of the stadium, which in this case is the city, so it is not up to us to change the name."

The names of Olympic venues are often changed for branding purposes. For example, London's O2 Arena, sponsored by a telecommunications company, has been referred to as the North Greenwich Arena throughout the Games.

However, that will not apply in Rio. Changes will be made only when a company name creates a conflict of interest with an official Olympic sponsor.

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