Olympic Games uncover contrasting sides of Rio
Rio de Janeiro — Copacabana Beach is an Olympic construction site. The beach volleyball venue is going up, broadcast studios rise on scaffolding above the sand and a mammoth tent is jammed with thousands of pricey souvenirs.
But there are few signs across town in crumbling, working-class areas that the Rio Games open next month.
Promises that hosting the Games would remake even Rio’s most ramshackle neighborhoods have been eclipsed by myriad problems: security threats and soaring violence, the Zika virus, slow ticket sales, and water pollution in venues for sailing, rowing and distance swimming.
Hanging over it all is the impeachment trial of President Dilma Rousseff, expected to start days after the Olympics end.
“Where I live, we don’t see changes like these,” said Julia Alves, an 18-year-old student speaking in the city’s renovated port area. She was among almost a dozen people asked by the Associated Press how the games would change the city — or individual lives — in interviews at the port, outside the Olympic Park and on the streets in a working-class neighborhood.
“They are things for foreigners,” Alves added.
Rio’s organizers have budgeted about $2 billion for operations. In addition, another $10 billion-$12 billion in public and private money is being spent on urban transportation projects driven by the Olympics.
Rio has installed new high-speed buses and a light-rail system to serve downtown. And there’s a still-unfinished $3 billion subway line extension to connect the upscale Copacabana and Ipanema beach areas with the western suburb of Barra da Tijuca — site of the Olympic Park. It’s unclear if the subway line will be running when the Summer Games open on Aug. 5.
The public-works splurge has generated civic pride, suspicion and some anger.
“The Olympics are bringing an incomparable legacy, in regard to the changes in the city’s infrastructure,” said Marco Araujo, a 48-year-old badminton coach speaking outside the Olympic Park. “We are still working on these projects. But I think that once they are completed, these projects will benefit the population.”
A bike lane, suspended high above the sea and built as an Olympic legacy project, collapsed in April and killed two.
The Olympics touch mostly the wealthy areas south and west of the city, where the real estate market was booming until a few years ago. Rio’s northern favelas, the city’s infamous slums, feel only a ripple, underscoring the vast gap between the rich and poor — the white, brown and black, in a divided city.
Maria da Penha is bitter. Her home in a favela abutting the Olympic Park, known as Vila Autodromo, was demolished to make way for new construction.
“For me the Olympics were awful,” said the 53-year-old, who led a yearlong eminent-domain battle against Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes. “They destroyed my life, my dream. I had my own house and I won’t have it anymore.”
Then she added: “But it (Olympics) is a very cool event. Brazilians are athletic. We like sports. I just didn’t imagine that the Olympics in my country would be so expensive. The truth is I think my country was not prepared to host the Olympics. That is the great truth.”
Raquel Oliveira, a 25-year-old publicist, spoke while waiting for a bus on a busy road in front of the Olympic Park. She complained bus routes have been changed, reportedly a security move to make it difficult for criminal gangs to access upscale areas.
“In reality, it didn’t change for the best because a lot of bus lines got cut,” she said. “I have to wait for hours and I live in front of the Olympic Park. I really hope things will improve with the express-bus system or something like that.”
In a poll published Sunday in the Rio newspaper O Globo, 49 percent of Rio residents said they were in favor of the Olympics, and 61 percent said they would be successful. Asked what could make the games a failure, 85 percent said “the lack of security.”
The poll size was 2,400, but the newspaper did not give the margin of error.
Wolfgang Maennig, an Olympic gold-medal rower who studies the economics of the games at Hamburg University, said the Olympics usually produce a “feel-good factor” when they get going. But he was unsure about Rio.
“For 17 days, it’s normally a honeymoon,” he said. “But you never know what will happen in the case of Rio. I’m not sure it will be a typical Brazilian Samba or Carnival atmosphere, but I’m sure it will be better than normal, or better than now.”
Gustavo Nascimento, Rio’s venue management director, promises everything will be ready. He said a massive cleanup of the venues is set for July 15, and athletes are to have access to the venues on July 24.
He also said ticket sales are slow.
“There are still tickets available, very, very high-quality tickets,” he said.
About 10,500 athletes and up to 500,000 foreigner visitors are expected for the games.
Few will see the real Rio, where the poor are being pummeled by Brazil’s worst recession since the 1930s, soaring crime and unemployment over 10 percent. Most can’t afford an Olympic ticket or a $100 souvenir soccer ball emblazoned with the Olympic logo.
Australia and several countries have instructed their athletes to stay away from favelas.
Mayor Eduardo Paes, who initially bragged about using the games to push pet projects, has backed away from those promises.
“You can’t expect the Olympics to solve all the social problems here,” he said. “We are not a city like London or Chicago. You can’t expect as much from us.”
IOC member Carlos Nuzman, the president of the organizing committee, has stuck to his guns, saying repeatedly: “Rio will be the Olympic city with the greatest transformation.” He said residents “are the ones who will get the most from the games.”
Oliver Stuenkel, who teaches international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation — a Brazilian university — said politicians view the games as “an amazing place to gain visibility and bolster their careers.”
“If it’s not a catastrophe, the Olympics could provide Brazil with greater legitimacy,” Stuenkel told the AP. “You bring in a lot of people from around the world. You have heads of state coming in. It puts you on the map, and if you’re doing well, it could have a tremendously positive impact. But it will require a lot to compensate for the negative press that is inevitably going to be out before, during and after the Olympics.”
Brazilians are also wary of public-works projects, which typically produce only embezzlement and empty promises.
“People are not against the Olympics, but most people I know are indifferent to the event, or at least very, very skeptical that it will have any tangible effect beyond simply short-term visibility,” Stuenkel said.