Matthew Fisher: Rio’s Weary, Frightened Slum Dwellers Have no Interest in Olympics
RIO DE JANEIRO — Sandra Magalheas will not be going to the Olympic Games.
Like millions who live in the city’s cramped hillside favelas, Magalheas says that with the cocaine and crack dealers all around her involved in a deadly war with police, her life is far too difficult, and she is far too busy trying to provide for her five-year-old son, to think for even a moment about the Olympic quadrennial that is about to unfold far below.
“My Olympics will be spent working here,” the 40-year-old single mother said as she paused to take orders at a restaurant and bar atop the sprawling Vidigal favela, which is blessed with a panorama of Rio and its many beaches every bit as breathtaking as those from tourist landmarks atop Sugarloaf Mountain and around the majestic Christ the Redeemer statue.
“My only hope for the Olympics is that they will bring us some tourists and their money,” Magalheas said. “We have already had a few Olympic visitors. We need to get a lot more.”
A few hundred metres down the hill from Magalhaes’ Bar da Lave, on a steep lane full of hairpin turns and zigzags, Carlos Coeli and Diorge Nascima were sharing a cold, quart-sized bottle of Itaipava beer. They mused about how, though as pensioners theywere eligible for half-price Olympic tickets, they too had no plans to attend any events, including free ones such as the marathon and cycling’s road race.
The most interest in the Olympics that they could muster was the weary concession that they just might catch a few of the competitions on television.
The opinions expressed about the Rio Games in Vidigal jibe with a poll published by Datafalha last week, which found that 84 per cent of Brazilians had little or no interest in the Olympics.
Arguably more damning, more than half of those surveyed thought the Games would do Rio more harm than good.
Other than one man-sized Olympic logo in the sand and the nearly perpendicular temporary bleachers that have erected for beach volleyball, there is no sense at all on Copacabana’s magical waterfront that it is about to become one of the focal points for the Summer Olympics.
Nowhere is the apathy about the Olympic fortnight more obvious than in Rio’s infamous favelas, which are not only breeding grounds for the mosquito-borne Zika virus, but for such violence that the city reported nearly 2,500 murders during the first half of this year.
Ambivalence about the Olympics is common enough in host nations before the Games get underway, but the level of apathy ahead of the opening ceremonies on Aug. 5 is astonishing.
How could it be otherwise? asked 16-year-old Bruna Concercao.
“There is so much money being spent on the Olympics and there is none for our schools and our hospitals,” said the drama student, who hopes to escape from Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, by becoming an actress.
How, she wondered, could she and her family possibly get excited about the Games when the police were an even more dangerous presence than the drug lords, and when anything but a mediocre ticket to a marginal event costs more than most people in the favelas earn in a week?
Perhaps the greatest reason for Rio’s profound lack of interest in South America’s first Olympics is that, other than the city’s beach culture, all that really matters is soccer. This was proven again on Monday when patrons in packed restaurants and bars went berserk when the home side, Flamengo, scored a goal in a nationally telecast match.
The fourth-place showing of the Brazilian team at the 2014 World Cup final in Rio — something of a trial run for the Olympics — was “a national humiliation,” according to Diorge Nascima.
That result still eats at the collective psyche far more than the constant news about delays, diseases, pollution, crime and other screwups and dangers that loom over the Summer Games.
Of concern to locals are the traffic snafus related to the much-delayed Metro, and a barely functioning new express bus network that is to carry people to the Olympic Park and other venues.
That is because, unlike the Olympics, the lack of decent public transport matters greatly to a mostly poor population who have to move around a city hemmed in by mountains and beaches.
While admitting there is still sometimes gunfire in Vidigal and neighbouring Rocinha, Sandra Magalheas and Bruna Concercao said these favelas and others relatively close to the main Olympic sites have been somewhat pacified by a massive police crackdown that largely won them back from the street gangs four years ago.
Residents of both favelas were quick to point out that many slums in the north of the city, as well as one near the international airport, were virtual no-go zones for police and remained far more dangerous than the slums near the Atlantic Ocean.
Many Rio residents believe the densely populated favelas in the north have received no additional policing because they are far from the tourist haunts where athletes, media and half a million foreign visitors are gathering.
All that would change in a flash, if tourists or members of the Olympic family are shot, beaten or kidnapped.
However, it is pretty much a given that some visitors will be robbed at gunpoint. A Spanish Olympian and two Australian Paralympians have already had harrowing encounters with thieves.
With 85,000 police deployed at and around the airport or in or near neighbourhoods where there are Olympic venues or hotels, there is an expectation in the favelas, usually delivered with a sly laugh, that would-be terrorists will be too scared to cause much trouble there.
“For the first time in our lives we may be more secure here than if we went for a stroll on Copacabana,” joked Carlos Ceoli, as he raised his glass to toast an unexpected visitor to his crime-ridden neighbourhood.