Rio: A city in turmoil as Olympics looms large

Today marks 100 days to the commencement of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janerio. But it is a city, and in a country, in turmoil

Last Thursday in Rio de Janeiro, as cyclists made their way along a new bike path that follows the craggy coastline, a large wave hit and swept away a 50-metre stretch of the elevated route, killing two people. Coming with a price tag of €11m, not that costs can excuse cut corners and lost lives, it was seen as one of the major legacy projects of the upcoming Olympics. But rather than a tragic demonstration of what those Games might have in store for the wider world, it instead offered up a gruesome representation of the country right now.

Brazil is in freefall.

Less than a week on, and today the nation is supposed to be marking 100 days to the Olympics while the rest of the world questions the readiness. And it’s been that way for some time now for journalists here, be it a call from a radio station in Australia, an email from a newspaper in England, a message from a website in the United States all looking to pick holes in terms of what the Games might offer athletes and fans. Last year, it was about whether every nail would be hammered in, this year it’s been about water quality. But how do you answer such a question against the reality?

In terms of the sport, the truth is that just like the hyperbolic panic ahead of a World Cup subsequently considered one of the greatest, this summer will be no different. Brazilians leave it late but there’ll be another last-minute rush before the locals pull off a party. But the real question from an oft overlooked moral perspective is should they be doing everything to pull off that party?

Just two years ago, Fifa officials were here speaking of how the investment in their premier competition would be a boon for Brazil while the country fell into a recession that has gotten deeper ever since. Right now it’s the turn of International Olympic Committee blazers to prod and poke, to land in and kick tyres but never take into consideration what’s happening all around what amounts to little more than a vanity project for them, but not paid for by them. Indeed, if Brazil needs to take stock of its priorities, this is the latest example of how all stakeholders in the sporting world need to take stock of the bloated demands around major events.

Consider the backdrop to these Games in terms of people and places. There’s a favela here, one of the 600 slums housing 1.3 million people in grotesque poverty, where the local drug baron was tired of police pinpointing the houses of his dealers and working their way through the labyrinth based on landmark shacks. So, he bought everyone in the neighbourhood a bucket of white paint and ordered them to grab a brush. Thus, with everything uniform, authorities could no longer pick paths.

Areas like that you’ll never see but the external results are witnessed downtown beside the beautiful and multicoloured steps of Escadaria Selarón in Santa Teresa. Just a bunny hop from the main bar and restaurant district, even in daytime five-star tourists will need to prepare themselves for, while relatively safe, the surrounds are a wall of zombied addicts, lying on pathways and in trolleys.

Then again, wealth often stays away, spending their time in the south zone but if Mohammad won’t go to the mountain... It was earlier this year a string of robberies occurred on the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Even by the city’s standards, some were taken aback by the brazen nature of openly grabbing bags before taking off. The playboys of the upper middle class took matters into their own hands over the following days, stopping buses coming from the slums and dragging black children off, refusing them access to their own seaside because of race and upbringing. Humiliated before they knew their colour and class, but for no other reason than colour and class.

Rio de Janeiro can of course be as glorious as vile, as fascinating as disturbing, as stunning as ugly, as enjoyable as saddening. It’s what makes it such mind-blowing place in both a positive and negative sense and somewhere worth visiting for reasons far beyond the usual box-ticking of photo opportunity destinations. Yet such stories only pick at the surface of its underbelly, as if picking at a railway sleeper with a toothpick. Yet now life is getting worse in Rio and across Brazil, via a combination of corruption and the Chinese slowdown, and all the while its political class is humiliating itself but not helping its people.

Last month a committee voted to pass the impeachment process surrounding socialist president Dilma Rousseff onto the senate after claims she had used the money from state-owned banks to prop up budget figures, a shady but not uncommon practice. Yet 37 of the 38 on that committee are under investigation for far worse corruption. And by the time the process reached the senate 10 days ago, one politician dedicated his ‘yes’ vote to the military colonel that had tortured Dilma for three years during the dictatorship while other congressmen held up placards that read, “See ya, sweetie”.

That impeachment process has been passed into the upper house next month but these are the politicians that will likely replace Dilma should she be removed. The man that would take over, Michel Temer, could well be impeached himself over corruption allegations and next in line could be house speaker Eduardo Cunha who is trying to cut a deal with Temer at the moment to make the investigation into what some say to be €34m in kickbacks go away.

But this game and these Games go on amidst inflation that has recently been joined in double figures by unemployment and a country that has been split in two.

Indeed if the Confederations Cup protests of 2013 united many sectors of society, now Brazil is in a very different place. The financial collapse and subsequent political collapse have resulted in old divisions again bubbling to the surface, roughly based around race, class, and location. Even wearing the wrong colour on the wrong day has resulted in trouble on the streets. The Brazilian colours symbolise the opposition that tend to be wealthy and white, the red of Dilma’s party signalling her supporters. But of late there’s been intimidation and violence because of your inadvertent t-shirt choice.

The drip down affect of the political incompetence has been cuts in education with some state universities simply telling students to go home, hospitals that were already overburdened are crippled, and public servants are awaiting pay. And no amount of sporting facilities are going to change that, rather they are simply a drain on funds that are desperately needed elsewhere.

After it’s stint in the spotlight from Confederations Cup to World Cup to these Olympics, Brazil is nearly finished with the big-business world of major sport and is worse off than before it began. This time it’s the IOC demanding what the nation doesn’t have to give, but it’s an organisation that began with Baron Pierre de Coubertin saying of their creed, stronger, faster, higher, that “these three words represent a programme of moral beauty. The aesthetics of sport are intangible”.

With 100 days to go to the Olympics, some 92 years on from that speech, it’s clear those words have been lost and long forgotten.


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