With the Olympics drawing to a close tomorrow, it is time for cariocas – residents of Rio de Janeiro – to sit back and take stock of the successes and failures of the event and its long term legacy for the city.
And that includes members of Rio’s Irish expat community.
“I’m against the corruption that surrounded the building of the golf course, and how communities like Vila Autódromo were demolished despite people not wanting their homes to be knocked down,” says 37-year-old Pat Fitzgerald, from Abbeyfeale, Limerick.
Although Fitzgerald believes the Olympics will provide some long-term benefits for Rio, such as improvements to the city’s public transport system and the redevelopment of the neglected port area, he questions the decision to host an expensive sporting mega-event in a region beset by financial difficulties and social problems.
“There are schools that have been occupied by their pupils, demanding a better education system, and you hear stories about the healthcare and public security situations, and you can see that more things needed to be done here before spending billions upon billions on a two-week Olympic Games,” he says.
Perhaps unusually for an expat, Fitzgerald lives in one of Rio’s favelas, often portrayed in the media as vipers’ nests of violence, poverty and drug trafficking. Yet he was impressed by the warmth and friendliness of his neighbours from the outset.
“People here look after each other,” he says. “It kind of reminds me of Ireland when I was young. The richer neighbourhoods don’t have the same sense of community.” Not that Fitzgerald, who teaches English to middle-class Brazilians and in a community project in his own neighbourhood, is likely to underestimate Rio’s notorious urban violence. Two weeks ago he was robbed when the driver of the taxi he was travelling in put a gun to his head and demanded his wallet and cell phone.
As for local interest in the Olympics, he suggests that away from the arenas themselves, which are largely populated by well-off Brazilians who can afford the relatively expensive tickets, many Rio residents feel removed from the event.
“The Sunday after the Olympics started we had a football tournament and a barbecue afterwards,” he says.
“There were about 40 or 50 people there, drinking beer and eating. It was two days after the opening ceremony, yet the Olympics weren’t mentioned once.
And when I went down to my local bar when Brazil were playing Argentina at volleyball the TV was switched to another channel.”
Another Carioca-Irlandês, 36-year- old, Draiochta Lundberg from Dublin, believes Brazilians’ sporting mentality is one reason behind the rows of empty seats at some Olympic events.
“Unfortunately, it’s part of Brazilian culture to only support people when they’re winning, they don’t like second place,” he says. “When the women’s football team won 5-1 in their first game everyone was saying Martha was better than Neymar and the men’s team was crap, but then they lost and now it’s back to Neymar.”
Like Pat Fitzgerald, Lundberg, who is married to a Brazilian and has two young children, has no plans to return to Ireland anytime soon.
“Anyone who comes to Rio is probably going to want to come back again, unless they have a bad experience,” he says, citing the weather, beaches and food as some of the positives of life in Brazil.
A third Irish émigré to the Cidade Maravilhosa, 36-year-old Ballymena man Kevin Fyfe, has been to over 20 Olympic events and has been impressed by how Brazil has organised the Games.
“From my own experiences it’s been superb. There was a massive queue to get in on the first day, but after that it was fine,” explains Fyfe, who has lived in Rio since November last year and admits to missing watching GAA matches at Croke Park.
All three men have mixed feelings about Ireland’s efforts at the Games, expressing disappointment over the defeats of Michael Conlan and Katie Taylor but praising the country’s newest sporting folk heroes, the O’Donovan brothers.
“People forget that we’re a small country. Anytime we get a medal we’re doing well.”
Unfortunately, however, it may be that the arrest of OCI president Pat Hickey has made a bigger impression on locals than any of Ireland’s sporting achievements.
“The Brazilians are definitely aware of it,” says Fitzgerald. “A few of them have been saying “ah, the Irish guy is in trouble” and they’ve been ribbing me.
“I told them they don’t have a monopoly on shenanigans and dodgy dealings.
“We have a fair bit of history at it ourselves.”
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