SAO PAULO – A land dispute is threatening construction of the golf course for the 2016 Summer Games, when the sport is to be played at the Olympics for the first time since 1904.
City officials might have to find a new site, meaning the project would start from scratch and possibly not be ready on time for test events in 2015.
The city said in response to The Associated Press it just became aware of the situation Thursday and is "evaluating the measures it will take."
It was the first time the city officially recognized there could be an issue involving the land. It had been dismissing the prospect a legal dispute and downplaying problems affecting the course.
A final decision on who owns the golf course land could take months or several years. There are ownership disputes throughout the posh Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, and few are resolved quickly.
American designer Gil Hanse, who will build the course, told the AP on Thursday he had not yet been notified by city officials about the dispute.
"If it was important, they would probably bring it up," Hanse said by phone. "We've been selected to do that particular job and we feel comfortable with the time frame that we have."
Hanse said he was not worried, but acknowledged that any changes now could affect the project, which was based entirely on the land under dispute.
"If they decided for whatever reason to make changes, you would have to start all over again," he said. "Our design is specifically for that site. You can't just put it someplace else."
The matter is in the hands of Brazil's Higher Court of Justice. The lawyer from the company disputing the ownership, Elmway Participacoes, says that next week he will ask for the suspension of the city's contracts with the other company that claimed to own the property before it came under the control of the city.
Elmway has won a court battle that was later reversed, but company lawyer Sergio Antunes Lima Jr. says there is "more than enough" evidence available to prove the area belongs to his client.
He said he doesn't know whether his client would want to negotiate with the city if the land ownership eventually goes his way.
"My client can do whatever he wants with the land, I don't think it ever crossed his mind to build a golf course there," Lima Jr. said. "Maybe he will want to negotiate with the city, but we don't know yet."
Elmway Participacoes has been trying to claim ownership of the land for the past three years. The other alleged owner, entrepreneur Pasquale Mauro, has several properties in the region and has won many similar disputes.
A message was left at the law office of Mauro's lawyer, Roberta Mauro Medina Maia, but it was not immediately returned.
Another legal dispute over one of Mauro's lands caused problems for the Brazilian soccer federation a few years ago when it purchased an area from him to build the entity's new headquarters. The delay caused by the dispute at the time made it impossible for the project to be completed before the 2014 World Cup.
Barra is where most Olympic venues will be located in 2016. The course is to be built at the Reserva de Marapendi, about 3 miles from the athletes' village and 4 miles from the main press center and the international broadcast center.
The city currently has the right to build on the land, but at any time a judge could rule that work can't be done until a final decision on the ownership is reached.
"It's a risk that the city, the Olympic committee and the constructors have to evaluate if it's worth taking," said Marcos Rolim Fernandes Fontes, a law professor at the renowned Getulio Vargas University in Sao Paulo. "They are probably very confident that they will win this battle."
The International Golf Federation said construction on the golf course is expected to start around October, and it should be ready for test events in the beginning of 2015. IGF Vice President Ty Votaw said the federation would not comment on the land dispute because it was a matter handled by the city.
The International Olympic Committee and the Rio 2016 committee didn't immediately answer requests for comment.
Golf made its debut at the second modern Olympics in Paris in 1900 but was removed after the 1904 St. Louis Games. It was reinstated in a vote by the International Olympic Committee in 2009 and has a spot guaranteed in 2020, but a good impression in Rio will be critical in keeping the sport in the games beyond that. Another IOC vote on adding or deleting sports is scheduled for 2017.
Local organizers had considered using existing golf courses in Rio, but eventually decided to build a new one because the renovation projects would likely be too complex and expensive. The Rio 2016 committee wants the venue to become a legacy to the city and serve as a tool for bettering youngsters through sports. It will be used as a public facility after the 2016 Games.
Follow Tales Azzoni at http://twitter.com/tazzoni