Six residents, from the city’s mayor to a favela dweller, give their verdict on the impact of South America’s first Games. Brazil’s tempestuous World Cup-Olympics doubleheader draws to a close at the Maracanã stadium on Sunday night, but the debate on whether it was all worthwhile looks set to run on long beyond the official finish.
For politicians and administrators who have staked their careers on these Games, there were no shortage of reasons to declare them a success: tourist numbers were reasonably high (in excess of the 500,000 target, according to the government), sales goals were reached, the infrastructure remained standing, Zika fears proved unfounded and Brazil won more medals than at any previous Games.
But there was also plenty of evidence for critics who say the bloated mega-event causes more harm than good: massive spending on stadiums at a time when the government can barely afford wages for doctors and teachers, a huge security presence that protected rich foreigners at the expense of poor residents, dismal crowds that suggested most locals were uninterested in most sports, and massive inequality between the £700 a day payments to International Olympic Committee executives and the £10 a day earnings of cleaners in the Olympic village.
For residents of Rio de Janeiro – which has spent more than 10 years bidding, building and hosting amid economic decline and political upheaval – the passing of the Olympic torch to Tokyo in Sunday’s closing ceremony is likely to be both an anti-climax and a relief.
There is only so long a host can tolerate requisitioned public spaces, commandeered motorway lanes and frequent military patrols. But many Cariocas are also already looking back at the past two weeks as a welcome distraction from the economic recession and political battles caused by the ongoing impeachment of the president, Dilma Rousseff.
“It’s been amazing. The Olympics brought people together despite the crisis and the divisions over impeachment. Rio emerged from this with pride,” enthused Julia Guimarães, one of an army of volunteers.
However, political turmoil was never far from the sport. From a disrupted torch relay in which the Olympic flame was extinguished on multiple occasions to spectators booing interim president Michel Temer at the opening ceremony and holding “Fora Temer” (Temer Out!) banners inside the stadiums or trying to impede women marathon runners, there was no shortage of incidents.
Economic problems have also been evident in the volunteer system, which was hit by funding shortfalls and a lack of commitment by some of those who signed up. Guimaraes estimates that about 5% to 10% of volunteers failed to show up, which sometimes left those that did show up feeling stressed.
But, like many residents, she felt media criticism of the host was exaggerated. “There was zero problem with Zika and I would say barely 10% of the other prophecies of doom proved to be accurate,” she said. The widely held feeling that Brazil is unfairly denigrated by foreigners was reinforced by US swimmer Ryan Lochte, whose fabrication of a story about an armed robbery has dominated front pages for much of the Games. In other cases, crime fears have proven well justified. There have been numerous attempted muggings of dignitaries, though Rio’s thieves often came off worst. Two were shot dead: the first after rashly attempting to rob the head of security at the opening ceremony; the second after struggling with a 60-year-old jiu-jitsu expert who told police he was part of the Russian diplomatic delegation (subsequently denied by Russian authorities). Another mugger ended up in a tussle with Belgian judo bronze medallist Dirk Van Tichelt. A Portuguese minister was robbed at knifepoint in Ipanema, though locals helped police catch the thief.
The favela resident
With Rio flooded with 85,000 police and military personnel, foreign athletes and visitors in the wealthy parts of the city were relatively well protected. The negative impact was – as usual – on poor favela communities which saw dozens of shootouts between police and drug trafficking gangs. One national guard trooper, Helio Andrade, was killed when his vehicle mistakenly entered gang territory in the Complexo do Maré. In the hunt for those responsible, police killed five residents. Altogether at least 14 people have been killed in confrontations between gangs and police in Rio during the Olympics – an average of a death each day.
“Things have become worse because of the Olympics,” said Barbara Assis, a resident of Maré, who believes investment has been skewed towards the wealthier south and west sides of the city. Although the organisers promised to give free tickets to poor communities, she said none had been offered to anyone that she knew. “It’s a great shame that the stadiums were so empty. They didn’t give any to us. Instead, they gave them to the families of the volunteers – and there weren’t many of them from the favelas.”
In other ways, however, the Olympics challenged some of the prejudices common in Brazilian society, notably when the host’s first gold medal was won by judoka Rafaela Silva — a black lesbian who was born in the Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela. Four years earlier, she was the subject of racist abuse when she was disqualified from the London Games. This time, her victory brought adulation and rare positive coverage of the community where she grew up. Silva told the Observer that she would return there as soon as her Olympic obligations are over: “I’ve received so many messages, people are happy,” she said. “I think the Olympics are helping the kids a lot.” She believes the Games helped Brazilians to become aware of a greater diversity of sport beyond the usual staple of football. The last two weeks have brought far more attention to women athletes.
The armed forces have also been big winners in these Olympics by playing a prominent role inside and outside the Games. As a result of a scheme to support elite athletes with military training and medical facilities, eight of the host’s nine medals have been won by competitors from the army, navy or air force. Their salutes on the podium reinforce a propaganda campaign of metro station posters lauding the armed services for protecting the Games and the nation. For those with memories of the country’s long military dictatorship, this stirs up mixed feelings.
But most people are simply delighted that the host nation has enjoyed a reasonable degree of success in competitions and avoided a complete catastrophe in organisation. The medal haul is already the best in the nation’s history though it looks likely to fall somewhat short of the Brazilian Olympic Committee’s target of a top-10 finish. The running of the Games, on the other hand, had problems – particularly the largely empty stadiums, swimming pool discolouration and shortages of food stalls for visitors – but none were calamitous.
Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, said he felt a sense of accomplishment in staging an event that will leave a long-term legacy of transport infrastructure. “It was a wonderful event. Of course we had some problems, as all Games have issues, but we reacted quickly and strived to solve them. I think we were very successful in these first Olympics in South America.”
His proudest boast was the Olympic Boulevard near Praça Maua – the revamped port area, which thronged with visitors, food trucks and street artists. It was a remarkable transformation from the ugly overhead expressway that once dominated a district known for crime.
But the boulevard also flanks the biggest failed promise of this Olympics, Guanabara Bay, which was supposed to have been cleared up ahead of the Games. The pollution did not appear to have influenced many results. There were a few reports of competitors falling sick, but not so many to suggest anything out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, the poor quality of the water was an embarrassment to the hosts that was raised even by the Brazilian sailing gold medalist Kahena Kunze. “Rio de Janeiro is wonderful and we are all enjoying it, but imagine if the water were clean,” she said after her victory.
Conservationist Mario Moscatelli spent the Olympics trying to rebuild mangrove swamps that can naturally clean the bay and the lagoons near the Olympic Park. The money spent on one stadium, he calculated, would have been enough to recuperate these damaged habitats and build wastewater treatment plants to ensure local populations do not contaminate them again. Instead, however, it went on a stage for a two-week event that is now almost over.
“For the Bay, there is little left other than unkept promises,” he said. “This, where – according to the Brazilian authorities – everything was supposed to be much better thanks to the legacy of the Olympics. But for the environment, it just didn’t happen.”
Global attention on this and other problems will move on along with the Olympic torch, Rio and Brazil will be left far more to their own devices, and life should return to something approaching normality. After mega-events, recession and impeachment, however, you have to wonder if anyone remembers what “normal” is.
For Agberto Guimarães, a three-time Olympian and executive director of sport on the Rio 2016 organising committee, that will mean finally getting some sleep and being able to spend more time with his family after long nights dealing with the green diving pool and making sure tracks, courts, pitches, lagoons and training groups were ready for competitors.
“It has been very, very tough, I can’t deny that, but it was rewarding when we see what happened,” he says. “I won’t feel relief when the Games have gone. I will feel emptiness. For seven years, life has been busy. In the last two months, it has been very busy and in the last few weeks I have been lucky to get four hours sleep a night. But after all this over, I will be left with a sense of ‘now what?’”
Published by ” The Guardian “