In Rio de Janeiro, the locals are trying to find positives in lavish spending on the Olympic Games while the city is mired in corruption and economic recession. By Max Opray.

Life in Rio de Janeiro as the Olympics arrive

Andre Felix, a resident of Rocinha, a Rio de Janeiro favela.
Andre Felix, a resident of Rocinha, a Rio de Janeiro favela.
Credit: Max Opray

Needing a break from the hustle of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest hillside favela, Andre Felix scales right to the top. From there the 25-year-old gazes eastward, briefly glaring at the elite international school bordering his community before lifting his eyes to the distant ivory towers of Ipanema and, beyond that, Copacabana. That’s where the Olympic beach volleyball will be, but as much as he’d like to go, Felix can’t afford a ticket.

“The Olympic Games is not an event for poor guys, it’s for rich guys,” he says.

Felix turns to the west, where looms the dramatic peak of Pedra da Gávea, behind which lies the epicentre of the Olympics – the sprawling gated communities and shopping malls of Barra da Tijuca, transformed by property tycoon Carlos Carvalho into, as he described it last year, an enclave of “good taste” and “noble housing, not housing for the poor”.

Barra is where most of the Olympics construction frenzy has been taking place. Fourteen of the 31 venues, the athletes’ village, and a new metro line have been completed just days before the start of competition.

Felix works in Barra, at a five-star restaurant. “The customers don’t treat us so good,” he says.

“People from outside Brazil will see how the people are within the Games, but not the reality – the government are applying social make-up.

“It is not real. People are without jobs, people are not too happy receiving the Olympic Games – a lot of bad things are happening.”

Across Rio de Janeiro, more than 75,000 residents, mostly from the poor favela communities, have been forcibly relocated to make way for Olympics infrastructure, a number exceeded by those tasked with protecting this three-week party – 85,000 police and military are patrolling the streets to safeguard visitors from the extraordinary violence that plagues this city.

According to the official figures from the Institute of Public Security, the Rio de Janeiro state homicide rate has risen this year to an average of 411 deaths a month, or about 14 a day, up 17 per cent on a year ago. There was also a 68 per cent increase in homicides resulting from police operations in June compared with the same month last year. It is a reversal of what over the past half-decade had been a downward trend in the murder rate, a decline largely attributed to the favela pacification program that saw the police invade and occupy communities previously controlled by gangs.  

The athletes and their fans had best hope the security forces remain on the job. In late June, police and other emergency services officers protested against unpaid wages by greeting tourists at the airport with “Welcome to hell” signs.

“Police and firefighters don’t get paid – whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe,” the banners warned.

Emergency services employees aren’t the only ones striking: teachers have been hitting the streets en masse over unpaid wages as Brazil grapples with its worst economic crisis in generations.

Mired in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and enduring the country’s biggest corruption scandal, locals increasingly view the $21 billion price tag of the Olympics as a wasteful extravagance at a time when the state of Rio de Janeiro has declared a state of fiscal emergency.

A recent Folha newspaper poll showed 50 per cent of Brazilians now oppose the Olympics and just 40 per cent approve, down from 64 per cent approval three years ago.  

Receptionist Clara Sousa is one of the many Cariocas, as residents of Rio are called, finding it difficult to get into the Olympic spirit, given her university studies have been derailed indefinitely due to the lack of professors in attendance.

“They have not been paid in months yet there are still billions for the Olimpíadas,” she says, expressing frustration that her life has been put on hold.

It’s one thing for the budget for the Games having been spent on sporting infrastructure increasingly viewed by the public as superfluous, but what has enraged Rio residents further is the corruption scandal that has so far led to the impeachment of a president and resignations of ministers is now threatening to envelop the Games as well. The five engineering companies that secured the bulk of the event’s infrastructure work are all under investigation by federal prosecutors.  

Taxi driver Marcelo Reis believes his country simply doesn’t have the financial capacity to put on an Olympics.

“The government won’t be able to protect the population and the people coming here to play sport,” he says. “If the athletes have to visit the hospitals [they’ll see] everything is horrible.”

International athletes have already had some confronting moments, such as the mugging at gunpoint of Australian Paralympian Leisl Tesch near Flamengo Beach in June, preceded by another hold-up of three Spanish athletes in May.

However significant the threat is to visitors, the largesse of an Olympics is certainly more difficult to enjoy when set amid Rio’s darker offerings, such as mutilated body parts that washed up on Copacabana Beach in front of the volleyball arena last week, and more recently in Guanabara Bay where the sailing and windsurfing will take place. There it is the water itself that is causing fear, with the target of cleaning up 80 per cent of the waste of Guanabara Bay in time for the Olympics not even close to being reached, meaning those competing in water-based events will do so with foul-smelling raw sewage flowing down from favelas yet to be provided with basic sanitation.

Just as at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, protests are escalating in Rio de Janeiro in the lead-up to the Olympics, but the focus goes well beyond this latest big-spending sporting event to the broader social issues plaguing the nation: the governmental corruption and the vast inequality between those who live in the favelas and those who live “on the asphalt” in the formal city.

Several protests are timed to coincide with the opening ceremony, such as “The Big Act Against the Olympics of Corruption”, the Facebook page that has more than 13,000 people who have registered their interest or signalled they will attend. One of the organisers, who did not wish to be named, says the goal of the protest is to raise awareness that Brazilian society “preaches inequality and prejudice”.

“A poor state that has no money to pay for teachers, hospitals, or the retired, and makes the Olympics for tourists to watch,” is his description of modern Brazil.

In the upper-middle-class residential neighbourhood of Laranjeiras, the predominantly young people in attendance at one of Praça São Salvador’s regular samba performances are eager to express sympathy towards the plight of those bearing the brunt of the government budget cuts and lack of basic services.

The communal musical performances might lend this austere square a warmly democratic vibe, but attendee Bruno Rodrigues Pereira, an economist on a sabbatical year, says goodwill only goes so far. He gestures around the plaza and says those enjoying the music might well attend protests against inequality, but he doesn’t believe they would really do what it takes to change how Brazil functions.

“There is a big difference between saying you want change compared to actually doing it,” he says.

“You see all these people here, every one of them would have a worker in their home. They might protest on the streets, but would they really act to change the circumstances that give them their privilege?” 

Rodrigues Pereira is, however, optimistic about what the Olympics could do for the spirit of the city.

“I’m very enthusiastic to see the Games, although I never believed that our city would be prepared for such a task,” he says.

“I believe that if we don’t have a catastrophe – like terrorism or an arena collapsing – the Games can be a success because of the people. We really know how to party.”

Back in Rocinha, Felix concedes that there are some positives to be gleaned from being the Olympic host city, such as the hundreds of thousands of tourists predicted to descend upon Rio, and the boost to construction work that has sheltered the local economy from the stagnation suffered by the rest of the country.

“I think it will help economically maybe until the end of the year, but we know what is important is not an event,” he says. “We could make things better for the population.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "Rio window".

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.

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