Rio 2016: sporting showpiece threatens to become emblem of Brazils chaos

When the city bid for the Games in 2009 it could have foreseen the ramshackle preparations coupled with a political and economic crisis and the threat of Zika

After more than than a decade of bidding, building, wishing and dreading, Rio de Janeiro is finally about to step into the full Olympic glare on Friday, but the host does not yet appear to have convinced its own people that it is ready or willing for the attention.

Cariocas as Rios residents are known were initially promised that the 2016 Games would mark Brazils long-anticipated arrival as a global power, but a final run-in of protests, bomb scares, political turmoil and financial woes, would leave many satisfied for the city to simply emerge with its reputation unscathed.

The mixed feelings were all too evident in Nova Iguau, where close to a thousand people had gathered outside the city hall and shopping mall to await the arrival of the Olympic torch at this long-neglected suburb.

Schools had organised a welcome. Parents brought their children. Some held aloft promotional gifts from the sponsors: inflatable plastic torches from a Brazilian bank, red and white waving mittens from a global drinks company.

I wanted my son to see this. He loves sport and weve never had an event like this here before, said Silene dos Santos, who had come with her 13-year-old boy.

There were also about 50 protesters, who were taking the opportunity of the relay to raise a plethora of grievances.

Give up the torch. Wed rather have the money for health and education, they chanted.

Some were teachers and school administrators who carried banners demanding payment of salaries, which have been held up for weeks because the Rio state government is almost bankrupt.

Others held up signs saying Fora Temer (Temer Out!) addressed to the interim president, Michel Temer, who has taken power during the ongoing impeachment of the Workers party leader, Dilma Rousseff.

Rio is in debt. The Olympics have made things worse, said Josy Louzada, a librarian. We dont have the money for this. We dont have enough books in our schools. When it rains, the ceiling leaks and drips on to the students.

Despite such frustrations, the demonstration was good natured.

Police, who have also suffered salary delays until an emergency infusion of cash from federal coffers to ensure Olympic security, kept their distance. They will have their own protest on Friday, said Louzada.

Elsewhere, however, the protests on Wednesday night were proving more disruptive and the security forces more violent. At Duque de Caxias, which borders Rio, military police used teargas to disperse crowds and fired rubber bullets at bystanders, hurting a 10-year-old girl.

The torch was extinguished at least three times as it has been on several occasions throughout the relay. A few days earlier in Angra dos Reis, striking teachers seized the torch and used it to run their own brief protest relay.

In Nova Iguau, the delays left the crowds waiting long after the the torch was scheduled to arrive. They were briefly entertained by a local wag who earned ironic cheers as he ran past with a poor peoples torch made from a stick of wood and some rags.

Two middle-aged men were dressed up as superheroes: Batman and The Flash. Batman carried what he called A Torch of Shame with painted blood dripping down the side.

The billions spent on the Olympics are not for the benefit of Cariocas [Rio residents]. We need health and education, he said. Like many of those present, he had participated in the huge protests ahead of the 2014 World Cup and was echoing many of the same complaints. There has been no progress since then, he lamented.

By midnight, the number of demonstators and those who had come to cheer the torch had dwindled by more than half.

Then, after a five-hour delay, came the announcement that the relay had been diverted on security grounds: the torch would not arrive after all.

Thats Brazil, lamented Jlio Cesar de Santos, who had arrived with a national flag draped around his shoulders. We are not ready for this.

The torchs chaotic arrival in Rio encapsulates all the reasons why the XXXI Olympiad could go down as one of the least-loved in the 120-year history of the modern Games.


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Brazilians wait for the torch arrival in Rios North Zone. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Rio 2016, critics say, has come to fruition against a backdrop of mixed public emotions and a dire economic and political landscape; its organisation has been plagued by delays and security concerns, and ultimately it will provide little benefit to poor communities.

Rather than excitement, Laerte Coutinho, a cartoonist who participated in the torch relay last week, feels what she describes as a painful link between the Olympics and the Brazil of today. Although the sport will bring benefits for the young, she says that it best serves as an opportunity to reflect on social issues. particularly inequality. The Olympics should not mask these problems. We need to keep our eyes open, she says.

Marianne Eduardo, who runs a tourist company that has benefited from the influx of Olympic visitors, said she welcomed the development and international attention that the event has brought to the west zone of the city, but she said the mood is more muted than it was before the World Cup in 2014.

I see my friends divided: the ones that are more politically engaged arent excited about the Olympics because it magics up a whole apparatus ambulances, police, and construction works that should always be in place. But other friends are excited. After all, when will there be another Olympics here in Rio? We have to make the most of it.

Enthusiasm may be more evident nearer the venues. On Thursday, the torch will pass along the coast near the main Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca, which has been lavishly unpgraded with new stadiums, hotels, roads and a rapid bus system. In the evening it will reach the tourist resorts of Ipanema and Copacabana, where a giant beach volleyball stadium has been erected on the sands. Closer to the city centre, the iconic Lapa arches have been whitewashed, a giant athletics-themed art installation has been erected above an apartment block in Flamengo and the once-dingy port area has been transformed into a cultural hub with futuristic new museums, up-market restaurants and live music.

This might normally be considered cause for celebration, but the timing could hardly be worse.

The Games take place in a country wrestling with a profound political crisis, a sprawling corruption investigation, an outbreak of Zika virus and the worst economic downturn in decades. But there was no way of predicting any of that when Rio was awarded the Olympics in 2009.

Followings Beijing spectacularly impressive Games the previous year, it seemed logical that emerging economies which seemed to have avoided the worst of the global financial crisis would play a greater role in world affairs, taking up the international mega-events that had previously been held mostly in rich nations.

When the decision was announced, the then president Luiz Inio Lula da Silva then one of the most popular statesmen in the world hugged Pel arguably the greatest footballer of all time in celebration.

It seemed Brazils time had finally come.

Now, however, the Olympics are in danger of being remembered as the low point in a miserable collapse of political stability, economic strength and national confidence.

Neither Lula nor his successor Rousseff will be at the opening ceremony because their Workers party was forced out of power in May by the vote to suspend Rousseff. Rousseffs impeachment trial confirmed at Senate committee stage on Thursday will drag on until a week or two after the Games.


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Brazils interim president, Michel Temer, second right, opens Rios new metro line: two years late, 100% over budget and 10km short. Photograph: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

Lula, meanwhile, faces a criminal trial over his alleged involvement in the huge corruption scandal at the state-run oil company Petrobras. Rousseff and Lulas supporters plan more than a dozen protests on Friday to oppose the presence at the ceremony of the interim president, Michel Temer, who ousted his former running mate.

As well as chants outside the Maracan, there are likely to be boos inside. Temers latest approval rating is just 14%. The Olympics fare better, but are still supported by just 40% of the population.

Almost a fifth of tickets remain unsold. This tepid interest is partly because Brazil is far more obsessed with football than any other sport.

Communities across the country staged street parties for the World Cup, but it is hard to find any that are doing the same in the coming weeks.

I guess we will show the ceremony, but we dont have any special plans for the Olympics, said the manager of a bar on Rua Benjamin Constant that organised mass public viewing for Brazils matches in 2014.

A bigger factor is the miserable economy, which is deep in recession and on course to shrink by almost 10% since the World Cup.

This is likely to be evident in the low-budget opening ceremony directed by Fernando Meirelles who will have to rely less on special effects and more on a strong message about climate change, favela life and the tried and trusted rhythms of carnival drummers.

The film-maker, best known for City of God, has said it would be wrong to lavish money on the ceremony when funds are scarce for schools and hospitals.

The budget, he says, will be a tenth of the London Games which was in turn far below that of Beijings.

The comparison with China is painfully unflattering in economic terms. Beijings coming out party in 2008 was a national project pushed through by a one-party state at a time of spectacular growth: the countrys economy had grown by 250% in per capita dollar terms over the previous five years. Ahead of the Games, China built a new airport, three new subway lines, dozens of new stadiums and revamped close to a third of the city mostly on time.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> A samba dance group perform on the street while waiting for the arrival of the Olympic torch in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Brazil, meanwhile, has seen its per capita income fall by 35% over the past five years and has struggled to align the priorities of the federal, state and city governments, not least because political turmoil has meant three changes of sports minister in half a year.

Corruption, inefficiency and delays have plagued construction projects across the country. Although the stadiums have been built on time and to budget by the city and its private sector partners, the state government has made a total mess of the metro extension.

The new subway all six stations of it opened on Monday more than two years late, 10km short of the Olympic park and almost 100% over budget. Auditors said this week that more than a quarter of the 8.4bn reais ($2.6bn) cost may have been illegally inflated.

On top of these, are the usual Olympic problems of heavy traffic, the requisitioning of public spaces for hospitality houses and an overbearing security presence. The government has drafted in 22,000 troops, as well as drones, aircraft and warships, to bolster the police.

Fears of terrorism usually absent in Brazil have made the authorities jumpy, prompting more than 20 bomb scares in the past two weeks. Of more real concern is the flood of military police into favela communities, where residents complain the Games have brought more shoot-outs and tension.

The threat of Zika, meanwhile, seems to have faded as new studies show the disease will be far less of a risk at the Games than initially feared.

At this weeks meeting of the International Olympic Committee, the Rio 2016 organisers came in for heavy criticism. In an op-ed response to this and other complaints, Carlos Nuzman, the president of the organising committee, admitted the problems Brazil now faces were hard to imagine when it won the bid in 2009.

If asked then to describe the worst-case scenario for the country in terms of political and economic crises combined with a global health scare, you would arrive at todays scenario, he wrote.

But he countered that test events had proved successful, transport systems had been improved, hotel accommodation expanded and the city would be left with a legacy of top-quality sports infrastructure.

It appears to have become an Olympic sport in recent years for media to take a pessimistic tone and place a microscopic lens on host cities problems prior to sporting mega events, he notes.

We strongly believe that the Games can be the antidote to the doom and gloom. The Games can lift the national mood, unite the population behind the outstanding exploits of the athletes and show the very best of Brazil.

A protester dressed as Batman awaits the torch relay on Copacabana Beach boulevard. Photograph: Barbara Walton/EPA
Predictions of calamity precede every major world sporting event and usually they prove exaggerated. Brazils 2014 World Cup was plagued by far greater delays and budget overruns during the buildup, yet the tournament itself was widely considered a success.

The best of Rio is very different from the best of London or Beijing. It does not have the wealth of a first world nation. Nor does it have the powers of an authoritarian state to censor inconvenient facts, quash dissent and ram through construction projects (even the maximum estimate of 66,000 relocations for this Olympics is dwarfed by the million-plus people who were moved in Beijing ahead of 2008).

But it will provide a far more beautiful setting than its predecessors, a greater propensity to party and a knack of muddling through that has been honed over the many previous crises faced by this developing democracy.

Over the next two weeks, we will find out whether this is enough to make the 2016 Games memorable for all the right reasons.

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