RIO DE JANEIRO — When Michael Phelps lifts the American flag to lead the United States team into the 2016 Olympics today, he’ll help kick off a 16-day athletic competition that organizers hope will wipe away more than a year of public concern over the Zika virus, security, doping and the host city’s economic instability.
Phelps, swimming in his fifth Olympics and already the most prolific medal winner in history, is among a group of American stars who are likely to command international headlines and dominate NBC’s 2,084 hours of television coverage over 11 networks.
They include familiar faces such as Katie Ledecky, already the best female swimmer in the world at age 19, and Carmelo Anthony, who is seeking his third gold medal in men’s basketball.
There will also be new American stars such as Simone Biles, who’s expected to bring a dazzling degree of difficulty to women’s gymnastics.
“My emotion is going to be 10 times what it’s ever been,” said Phelps, who did not walk in an opening ceremony at his previous four Olympics.
Olympic officials certainly hope the athletes who’ve converged on Rio will overshadow the difficulties and controversies that have marred the build-up.
“I think we’re all looking forward to (today’s) opening ceremony, then finally the athletes and the sport are taking over,” said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee. “We also had to address some last-minute challenges as it is normal just before an Olympic Games. But I have to say the cooperation with the organizing committee and with the city is going very, very well.
“Therefore, I’m very confident that these issues will be addressed and then we will have a really great Olympic Games here in Rio de Janeiro.”
More than any superstar athlete, Rio itself has been the main character in the run-up to these Olympics.
It’s a city of lush green hills and stunning ocean views but also of traffic-choked roads and cramped favelas plagued by some of the worst poverty in the world. The famed Art-Deco statue of Christ the Redeemer looks down from its perch in Tijuca Forest National Park, but on the ground, a different sort of art — graffiti — covers many surfaces, from the inside walls of highway tunnels to the facade of an abandoned church.
For more than a year, critics of the Rio Games have cited the city’s polluted waters, economic decline and lagging construction efforts. Local police have warned that the city is ill-prepared for the event, while visitors have been greeted at the airport with signs reading: “Welcome to hell.”
Some of the world’s top golfers and tennis players aren’t coming because of concerns over the Zika virus and catastrophic birth defects associated with it. Even in the last week, Australian athletes faced a slew of problems in their Olympic Village tower, from faulty plumbing to a fire to a robbery. When the Olympic torch arrived in a suburb of Rio on Wednesday, protesters attempted to block the path, and police used tear gas to disperse them.
With concerns swirling about local crime and international terrorism, the security presence here is palpable. At the airport and around the entrance to the athletes’ village, federal police, clad in camouflage, mill about toting machine guns. About 85,000 police, soldiers and other security officials will patrol the city during the Games.
Bach called the myriad troubles a “stress test I hope we will not have to withstand in the future.”
“There were health challenges, environmental challenges, wherever you look, there were huge, huge challenges, if not a deep crisis,” the IOC president said. “Nevertheless, you see this country, this city, this organizing committee has managed to transform a city and put an Olympic Games on stage.”
Aside from questions about Rio, the specter of doping has also hovered over these Olympics, with more than 100 Russian athletes banned because of alleged state-sponsored drug use and 271 more waiting until Thursday for approval to compete from the International Olympic Committee.
Phelps is among the prominent athletes who’ve expressed frustration with a perceived lack of enforcement.
“It’s very concerning to me that our governing bodies have dropped the ball in many ways on this,” said his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, who’s also head of the U.S. men’s swimming team. “The system is broken and it has to be fixed.”
And yet the show is set to go on tonight at the Maracana soccer stadium.
American athletes have been kind in their initial assessments of the host city.
Missy Franklin is so upbeat she could probably put a positive spin on the apocalypse. But she also praised the set-up.
“Honestly, I feel so taken care of,” she said. “Brazil did a great job, the best that they could. Everything is super convenient.”