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Land dispute threatens Olympic course

Organisers for the 2016 Rio Games are facing an unexpected challenge to deliver the first Olympic golf tournament in more than 100 years because of a legal dispute about the land where the course is supposed to be built.

The dispute could force city officials to find a new location for the course, meaning the project would have to start from scratch and organisers could have problems ensuring it is ready in time for test events in 2015 as initially planned.

The Rio Olympics will mark golf's return to the games for the first time since it was dropped after the 1904 St. Louis Games.

City officials said they have just become aware of the situation and are still working out what needs to be done.

"The city of Rio became aware of the legal matter involving the land where the golf course for the Rio 2016 Games will be built on Thursday," the city said Friday in a statement responding to The Associated Press. "The city of Rio is evaluating the measures it will take in relation to the case."

It is the first time the city has officially recognised there could be an issue about the land, having previously dismissed a legal dispute about it and downplaying any problems affecting the course construction.

American designer Gil Hanse will build the course. He told The AP on Thursday that he hadn't yet been notified by city officials about the land dispute - and says he thinks that's a good sign.

"If it was important they would probably bring it up," Hanse said over the phone. "We've been selected to do that particular job and we feel comfortable with the time frame that we have."

Hanse said he isn't worried but acknowledges that any changes now could affect the project, which is 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 dispute is currently before Brazil's Higher Court of Justice. The lawyer from the company disputing ownership, Elmway Participacoes, said that he will ask next week for the suspension of the city's contracts with the other company that claims to own the property in the posh Barra da Tijuca neighborhood.

Elmway won a court battle that was later reversed, but company lawyer Sergio Antunes Lima Jr. said there is "more than enough" evidence available to prove that the area belongs to his client.

"They shouldn't be allowed to anything there until there is a decision about who actually owns the land," Lima Jr. said.

Lima Jr. doesn't know whether his client wants to negotiate with the city should they win the decision.

"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 the land for the past three years. The other claiming ownership, entrepreneur Pasquale Mauro, has several properties in the region and has won many similar disputes in the past.

A message was left at the law office of Mauro's lawyer, Roberta Mauro Medina Maia, but it was not immediately returned.

A legal dispute about another of Mauro's properties caused problems for the Brazilian football federation a few years ago after having purchased an area to build a new headquarters. The legal dispute caused a delay that made it impossible for the project to be completed before the 2014 World Cup as initially planned.

A final decision on who owns the golf course land could take months or several years. There are ownership disputes throughout the Barra neighborhood and few are resolved quickly.

The city currently has the right to build on the land, but a judge could rule at any time that work stops until a final decision 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 Getulio Vargas University in Sao Paulo. "They are probably very confident that they will win this battle."

Barra is where most Olympic venues will be located in 2016. The course is set to be built at the Reserva de Marapendi, about 5 kilometres (3 miles) from the athletes' village and 7 kilometres (4 miles) from the main press centre and the international broadcast centre.

The International Golf Federation said construction is expected to start about October and the golf course should be ready for test events at the beginning of 2015. IGF vice president Ty Votaw said the federation won't comment on the dispute because it's a matter for the city of Rio.

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 St. Louis Games. It was reinstated in a vote by the International Olympic Committee in 2009 and has a guaranteed spot for 2020, but a good impression in Rio would be critical in keeping the sport beyond that. Another IOC vote on adding or removing sports is scheduled for 2017.

Local organisers 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 work as a tool for youth transformation through sport. It will be used as a public facility after the 2016 Games.


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