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Rings Of Fire | Our Man In Rio On Why The Locals Don’t Want The Olympics

"The Olympics have arrived in a country that largely doesn’t want them, hosted by a city with no money."

Words by Nick Ellerby

Raff Giglio is a boxing trainer who lives and works in Vidigal, Rio de Janeiro’s most picturesque and visited favela. With majestic sea views, it’s nestled on the hillside at the end of Ipanema beach between the rich neighbourhoods of Leblon and São Conrado. It’s also one of the many favelas in the south zone to have been successfully ‘pacified’ by the police.

At the foot of Vidigal, in an abandoned warehouse, is an unlikely training ground for sporting excellence that has already produced two Olympic medallists. Raff scouted and trained Esquiva and Yamagotchi Falcão, originally from the neighbouring state of Espírito Santo, who won silver and bronze, respectively, at London 2012. This year Raff has two more fighters going for gold in the ring, Patrick Lourenço and Michel Borges, both of them raised in the favela.

“This is a fifth world country, we should never have an Olympics.”

“I, alone have managed to get two athletes into the Olympic Squad and I’ve not had any help at all from the government. Not from the City Council of Rio, nor from the state or the Federal Government.” Despite the medals, Raff’s gym: Boxe Vidigal and NGO: Institute Todos Na Luta (All In The Fight) exist solely on blood, sweat, tears and private donations.

Vidigal favela. Credit: iStock

Much was made of Brazil’s unsuitability to host first the World Cup in 2014 as Brazilians were crying out for ‘Fifa-standard’ hospitals and schools, not football stadiums. And two years on with the Olympics about to start, the tune is a similar one.

You would think, if anyone could put a positive spin on Rio hosting the Games it would be Raff. “Firstly these Olympics are very special to me because of the two athletes I’ve trained from here, from Vidigal, who have qualified and will compete,” he says.

“But personally I am totally against this Olympics happening here! Brazil, the state and the city of Rio de Janeiro isn’t ready to host an event of this magnitude. This really irritates me. In no way should the Games be held here!”

Ipanema Beach Credit: iStock

The anger in his voice reverberates around Raff’s little office above the gym. “It should be in a first world country, not in a country where they don’t have enough money to pay the salaries of policemen, where they’re telling people to leave hospitals, sending sick people home… We already have abysmal public services anyway, health, education, transport… It’s horrible.  This is a fifth world country, we should never have an Olympics.”

Raff Giglio. Credit: Nick Ellerby

Despite being the world’s fifth largest country both in terms of size and population, Brazil remains a relatively unknown quantity outside of South America and is still better known for balls and bottoms.

I’ve been living in the country for nearly three years now working as a teacher and journalist. My experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one, so much so that I want to stay here for the foreseeable future. Brazilians are incredible people, they have so much joie de vivre and treat visitors like royalty. Brazil has a lot to offer, some of the world’s most dazzling sites of outstanding natural beauty, a music scene to rival any on earth and a social and cultural blend not seen in any other country. What’s more, if anyone knows how to have a good time, it’s the Brazilians.

It’s this spirit that gives me some hope that these Games will not be a total, unmitigated disaster. Tourists coming to Rio will find it difficult not to have a good time and get caught up in the world’s biggest party in a city that really knows how to host one.

Carnaval 2016. Credit: iStock

But it’s also difficult to put a positive spin on things when the national mood is so pessimistic.

Brazil won the chance to host these Olympic Games back in 2009 when “the country of the future” was starting to be taken more seriously by the international community and said future looked rosy. Lula Inacio da Silva was in power and thanks to his social policies his PT government helped 30 million people climb out of poverty and away from the threat of starvation, while Brazil’s middle class grew rapidly. His successor, Dilma Roussef was his chief of staff at the time and chairman of state-run oil company, Petrobras, which was about to make $70bn in what was then the world’s largest share offering.

“Since the World Cup here two years ago, the country has suffered its fastest ever economic slowdown.”

Skip forward seven years and the picture is rather bleaker. Political scandal and the worst economic crisis for 100 years has rocked Brazil. In April president Dilma was impeached in a move that was seen by many here as an opportunistic political coup. The interim president Temer has already had three members of his cabinet resign over corruption charges and politically, the country is divided down the middle. Since the World Cup here two years ago, the country has suffered its fastest ever economic slowdown.

The Maraca Stadium, which hosted the World Cup Final and will host the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics. Credit: iStock

All the while, Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash) rumbles on. This is an investigation into a massive scandal at Petrobras where politicians and businessmen have been thought to be lining their own pockets with bribes and kick backs related to lucrative oil contracts. It’s estimated about $5 billion has changed hands in backroom deals. Top politicians from all major parties are involved including ex-president Lula, who was arrested back in March, but not charged by investigators.

Dilma’s fate will be decided just after the Olympics leave town. All five construction companies that won bids to build Olympic stadia are also caught up in Lava Jato, while two of Rio 2016’s flagship projects, the metro extension connecting the Olympic village with the rest of the city and Porto Maravilha, a renovated square in the port district, are directly under investigation.

“The Olympics have arrived in a country that largely doesn’t want them, hosted by a city with no money.”

Everyone here cites corruption for Brazil’s faltering progress. No one trusts any of the big institutions here and Brazil has long had a problem with the rich elite doing largely what it wants, namely maintaining control and making more money. Raff is typically vitriolic when it comes to describing his country’s politicians. “[They] only want votes, here in the favela they only come around once every four years to ask for peoples’ votes. Afterwards they disappear, they do absolutely nothing. Brazil, in terms of politicians, is hellish.  There’s not one candidate who’s worth voting for. Our political class is rotten.”

So, the Olympics have arrived in a country that largely doesn’t want them, hosted by a city with no money. Rio officials recently declared a state of public calamity in order to borrow state money to finish preparations.

Porto Maravilha. Credit: iStock

Aside from all the well-publicised concerns over the Zika virus and polluted water, it’s the unfinished construction projects and security that provoke most local ire.

“That structure over there is running a huge risk of being toppled by a huge wave, when the tide is high, strong waves can reach up to there,”

This week I walked past the beach volleyball arena on Copacabana beach, which is still uncovered with all the scaffolding showing. While walking around the venue I met Ricardo, 39, who has a tent on the beach selling drinks and snacks. He is worried about people’s safety: “That structure over there is running a huge risk of being toppled by a huge wave, when the tide is high, strong waves can reach up to there,” he directs my gaze to the top of the beach right up by the promenade. “They haven’t done any research or any field studies, nothing. They just do it, end of story.”

The Rio 2016 preparations have form in this regard, in April two people died as a new coastal cycle path they were using collapsed after being hit from below by a giant wave. Alarmingly, it was discovered that developers had not accounted for a wave impacting the poorly supported track from beneath. This basic incompetence is what leads me to worry about the safety of other Olympic structures.

Ricardo (far left) and friends, in front of the unfinished volleyball stadium at Copacabana Beach. Credit: Nick Ellerby

The proposed metro extension is another huge project that will be completed only a few days before the Games begin and will close again afterwards, before being opened to the public. It should have been ready in June but now the Olympic family will effectively be guinea pigs. I’m not going to use it until it’s been fully operational for a while.

On the plus side, Rio 2016 is not going to produce as many white elephants as Athens or Beijing and temporary buildings will be dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere as new schools. The city will also benefit from infrastructure projects like a new tram system, new roads and the metro extension that cannot be undone, but even some of these are overshadowed by fears that they may be abandoned. Just like most Cariocas, Ricardo remains downbeat: “I don’t think there will be any legacy”, he frustratedly tells me, “the Porto Maravilha will become a crack addicts hangout again, the tram doesn’t even have any barriers, so people will start to get on it without paying, it will become an abandoned track before long.”

“It’s going to be shit!” a 43-year-old interior designer tells me…

If you thought it was only the working class who are downbeat about the whole thing then you’d be wrong. “It’s going to be shit!” Alessandra Amaral tells me, a 43-year-old interior designer who lives in the exclusive neighbourhood around the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. “There’s going to be so much crime, tourists won’t be safe.” I asked if she was worried about the possibility of a terrorist attack. “It doesn’t really figure too much in our thinking,” replied Alessandra, “our reality is the daily threat of violence on the streets.”

The army and national police forces have moved in and everywhere you go now in the city you see men in uniform with automatic weapons. It was the same situation during the World Cup, the streets are crawling with military and federal police and I’m sure deals have been cut with gang-lords to curb thefts and violent crime for a month while the world is watching.

Alessandra is right though, the biggest concern in Rio is always security. The police are receiving their salaries two months late and the UPP, a division created to pacify the favelas in the south of Rio while these mega events take place, is out of cash. The number of muggings and violent crimes is on the rise again. A colleague of mine was robbed and smashed over the head with the butt of a pistol last week as he walked home from a bar near the Olympic site in Barra.

Credit: iStock

Alessandra said that the situation on the streets did get better for a while, but she doesn’t think it can last. “When the UPP entered the favelas in 2012 the situation improved a lot, but it’s getting worse again, it’s all just a quick fix solution to a bigger problem.”

The real fear among residents is what will happen afterwards, when Brazil is forgotten about again. As he showed me photos of his best fighters, I asked Raff if he was worried about a potential return to the horrific crime levels of the 90s.

“Look,” his tone of voice is resigned, “I think there’s a huge chance of this happening.  We’ve had the World Cup, now we have the Olympics.  When the Olympics are over, Brazil is done. The big events are done, you know, no one will be looking this way any more, so it’ll go back to how it was.. robberies, the same old stuff, and the state is bankrupt.”

“When the world turns it’s back on Brazil, the politicians will wash their hands of the whole thing.  Us residents will carry on without proper support and investment.” Here’s hoping he’s wrong.

Read more from the Olympic Issue here 

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