Survival of the fittest at the Rio Olympics
Armed criminals and zika mosquitoes: welcome to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
It might sound like a demented real-life version of the Hunger Games, but Olympic athletes will be expected to confront some very real dangers this summer in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. Thoughts of the beachfront city may conjure visions of blazing sunshine, samba and caipirinhas on the sand, but the reality of daily life has been different for many years.
Crime in Rio and its impoverished favelas has been an issue since long before the International Olympic Committee awarded the city this year’s games in 2009. Concerns were raised at the time, but officials were confident that they could get the issue under control.
After a 2013 trip to Rio an attempted robbery left me in no doubt that the city still had a problem with crime. Read as many hand-wringing thought pieces as you want about the rampant inequality in Brazil, but nothing rams the point home like a cracked-out kid sidling up to you with a rusty machete to demand your valuables.
Instead of getting better, it seems that things have only got worse. Inviting hundreds of thousands of visitors to a city that seems to be tearing itself apart sounds more like the plot of a dystopian novel than the reality of 2016.
Despite the best attempts of the government to hide evidence of the violence that rules the city, shootouts are a common occurrence even on major roads. The main route from the airport to the Olympic Village has been dubbed the “Highway of Terror,” and videos continue to surface showing drivers lying behind their stationary vehicles to shelter from the shots fired by rival gang members.
Every athlete and attendee of this summer Olympic Games will have to pass down that route. Far from getting locals to buy into the Olympic dream, the government has made them more determined to expose just how bad life is for many cariocas, as residents of Rio are known. With the eyes of the world on Rio, the stage is set for an almighty showdown both inside and outside the stadiums. Cariocas upset at the “cleansing” of poorer neighbourhoods are refusing to be silenced, with activists complaining that the Olympics won’t benefit ordinary Brazilians.
“A lot of money will come in, but whose pockets will it go into?” said Lucia Cabral, a community activist in the Alemao favela during an interview with CNN.
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Restive locals worried about the impact of major sporting events are not uncommon. The mindblowing thing about Rio is the attitude of armed criminal groups towards the event and the people that will attend it. Far from pacifying the gangs that run many areas of the city, the government has apparently poked the hornet’s nest. It’s not just a question of staying out of dodgy areas, because the gangs are setting out to show how fragile government control of the city really is.
“The violence will increase because [the traffickers] want to use this global event to exert pressure on the police to retreat,” Liliane Sabio, a teacher who works in a library in a favela in Rio’s Santa Teresa neighbourhood, told CNN. No one wants to be used as a bargaining chip in any situation, let alone in such a violent high-stakes game.
In the face of these challenges you might expect renewed efforts from the government, but ongoing political unrest has led to shortages and public sector wages going unpaid. In late June, police and firefighters greeted tourists at the airport with a sign which read: “Welcome to Hell. Police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.”
Local residents like Severino Jesus da Silva believe that there is only one way that visitors to Rio can stay out of trouble. “My advice to people coming for the Olympics is this: start praying that God will protect you, as soon as you step out of the airport,” he told the Mail Online.
While the security situation is quite frankly terrifying, there is a more insidious threat posed by the mosquito-borne zika virus. In fact it is the main reason why sportspeople and journalists have been withdrawing from the Olympics.
Wimbledon semi-finalist Thomas Berdych recently revealed that he would not compete in Rio due to his concerns over the virus, which has been linked to birth defects in newborn children. He joins fellow tennis players Milos Raonic and Dominic Thiem in staying away from Rio due to zika.
The golf competition has been hit even harder than tennis, with three high-profile players declining to travel to Brazil. At this stage it looks like their concerns are based more on the standard of competition than zika, but that is a separate issue to be discussed another day.
While golfers might have something better to do with their time, surely the same can’t be said of leading sports journalists. The BBC’s Richard Conway has rejected the chance to cover one of the world’s largest sporting events due to his concerns over zika, and it looks like around a dozen other BBC staff might join him.
Cities around the world spend millions of pounds bidding for the Olympics in the hope that the games will bring an influx of investment and tourism. The idea is that host cities are ready to put on a show for the world in a safe, stable environment, but Rio does not look to be able to guarantee even the physical safety of athletes and visitors.
If Rio can’t even convince the sportspeople to turn up, what hope is there that your average will fan run the gauntlet and travel to Brazil this summer?
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