By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Brazilian Minister of Sports George Hilton says everything is on track for the 2016 Rio Games, including the host country's goal of a top-10 finish in the medals table for Brazil's best ever Olympics haul.
Hilton told Reuters that all venues are now on schedule, pollution problems are being addressed, environmental concerns answered, legacy initiatives in place and that he is confident the Games will be produced within the $13 billion budget.
After navigating questions about hiccups that had raised concerns about preparations, the sports minister's eyes sparkled when asked about Brazil's medals aim at the 2016 Summer Olympics, the first to be hosted by a South American country.
"We have a goal, oh yes," Hilton said through an interpreter in an interview at Reuters' offices on Wednesday.
"We expect that for the Olympics they will be in the top 10 in the medals table and for the Paralympics, top five."
Brazil has never finished in the top 10 in the medals table, ranking 22nd at the 2012 London Olympics with three gold, five silver and nine bronze, and 23rd at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Hilton said he was optimistic about Brazil's chances in judo, volleyball, basketball, track and field and handball, and predicted the home country would surprise people in archery and kayaking.
He said a special goal for Brazil was to claim their first Olympic gold in soccer, a result that would surely delight the soccer-mad nation.
Worrisome to those involved in rowing and sailing were the 37 tons of dead fish floating on the water earlier this month at the rowing venue, and reports of high bacteria levels and debris in Guanabara Bay where the sailing event will be staged.
"When we bid to host the Games, we noted that the government of the state of Rio de Janeiro would be responsible for cleaning up the pollution," Hilton said.
"The government is working very hard to clean the pollution of the waters and we just found out that they built 14 additional eco-barriers in order to prevent pollution so we are assured that the government of Rio de Janeiro will do its job."
Stadiums built for last year's soccer World Cup have gone unused, leading some to question the legacy factor for the Olympics.
"Differently from the World Cup, we are leaving a legacy," Hilton said. "We will be constructing training areas all over the country so we're not only building venues for these athletes but also for any beginner who wants to be an athlete.
"The events are in Rio de Janeiro but the way it's going to resonate, it will be all over the country.
"We are creating what we call sports initiation centers, which are gymnasiums where children will be able to learn up to 20 different sports ... so that children from impoverished areas can come and learn sports."
Hilton, painting a rosy picture of preparations and expectations, said Brazilians were excited about the Olympics.
"The Brazilian population is very enthusiastic," he said.
"We expect to sell more than seven million tickets for the Games so the Brazilian people are really looking forward to it and the interchange, the sharing of experiences, of having other nationalities and other cultures coming to our country.
"Brazilians are great hosts. It's in our nature and Brazilians are really looking forward to the Olympics."
(Story refiled to make clear that Hilton spoke through an interpreter)
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)