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Rio 2016 | What Do Locals Think Now the Olympic Circus Has Left Town?

Team GB might have smashed it, but how to their Brazilian hosts feel about the Olympics? Our man in Rio investigates

Words by Nick Ellerby

“For sure, in terms of organization, these Games were a success. This is true. We are just sorry that lots of necessities, things that the people need, outside of the Olympics, were forgotten about.”

Antonio is 41 and works in a hut on the beach selling drinks and renting chairs and umbrellas to tourists. His hut is just yards from the beach volleyball stadium, which now sits in a state of semi-retirement on the sands of Copacabana, waiting to be turned into two new schools.

He remembers me from our chat three weeks ago and greets me with a big smile and the classic Brazilian greeting, which consists of a sideways high five and fist bump.

“Rio’s image has improved internationally, great! But for me and my people that work on the beach here, we haven’t seen any improvement.”

“Hey, gringo!” He shouts at me, beaming. “Everything alright? Have you come to speak to me about the Games again?”

I had gone to do exactly that, to ask him if he thinks things had improved in the city now the Games had been and gone.

“Yeah, things have got better. They’ve got better for tourists, Rio’s image has improved internationally, great! This is good. But for me and my people that work on the beach here, we haven’t seen any improvement,” his tone shifts down a few gears, “in fact, all these guys who had their huts moved because of the stadium, haven’t received one centavo in compensation yet. All these pipes we use for the showers have been destroyed and it’s my friends who will foot the bill. Not the IOC. It costs R$1000 (£235) just to put a new one in. So it actually hurt us more than it helped us.”

Antonio, who sells drinks on Copacabana Beach. The Beach Volleyball stadium is being dismantled in the background. Photo: Nick Ellerby

Antonio seems almost desperate. He’s sick, like most working class Brazilians, of seeing their people forgotten about.

The build up to these mega-events seems to get more and more tumultuous with each one that passes but Rio did seem to be teetering on the brink of self-destruction for a while.

The high watermark of tension was reached just before the opening ceremony. Could Brazil be trusted with an Olympics? Would the athletes be safe? Would the venues be safe? Could Rio compete with the grandeur of Beijing or the savvy of London?

The answer was yes. Categorically, yes.

“It really went sooo much better than I expected!” Alessandra Amaral tells me over the phone. The 43-year-old mum of three, who thought that it was “going to be shit” back at the beginning of August was made to eat her words. “I thought the transport wouldn’t work and that there would be huge security problems. But the Olympic spirit infected us Cariocas.”

Occupying military forces often talk about converting ‘the grey zone’, the undecided people, those unsure as to what is best for their invaded country. Rio 2016 seemed to win over these fence-sitters fairly swiftly.

“The opening ceremony was an important turning point, it was wonderful! Our World Cup opening ceremony was terrible and we were scared about being embarrassed again, right at the beginning of things. But it was spectacular! Beautiful! And it filled our hearts with pride.” Enthused Alessandra.

Alessandra Amaral enjoying the Olympic park with her daughter. After initial scepticism Allessandra got caught up by the excitement of the games. Photo: Courtesy Allessandra

After originally not buying any tickets because of safety and transport concerns she made a few trips to the Olympic park, with the highlight being taking her 14-year-old daughter to see the synchronised swimming team final.

The biggest concern before the Games was security, and this was always going to be a tightrope for Rio to walk. While the Olympics didn’t pass ‘without incident’, the most shocking incidents were not the ones most people heard about.

Yes, there were three reported attacks on athletes during the Games. Ryan Lochte made up a lie about being robbed at gunpoint to save his relationship; Australian swimmer, Josh Palmer, was said to have been taken to a cash machine at knife-point but details are sketchy. He didn’t report the incident and was then banned from attending the closing ceremony by the Australian Olympic commission for breaking a curfew; and an unnamed British athlete was also reportedly mugged – although details were never released.

On the other hand there were three athletes arrested for alleged sexual attacks on maids in the Athletes Village. The Morrocan boxer, Hassan Saada, was imprisoned for six days and banned from competition, the Namibian boxer, Jonas Junias, was imprisoned and then released and allowed to fight and Bulgarian rower, Georgi Bozhilov, was arrested and released without charge for allegedly attacking four maids in his room.

There are other incidents, including two members of the Fijian rugby team, Semi Tani Qerelevu Kunabuli and Leone Nakarawa, who had to pay fines to get their passports back before leaving the country after they drunkenly harassed four 19-22-year olds who were making their beds.

Vidigal favela, where Raf Giglio trains boxers. The favela, he says hasn't benefitted at all from the games. Photo: Peter Vilsimaa / iStock

It seems perhaps that it should have been Brazilian women, not foreign athletes, who should have been most concerned about their security. But of course, little of this made it into the international press. Brazilian maids don’t have the media profile of a former reality TV star like Ryan Lochte. And so the real security narrative of Rio – that host nations should be wary of international sportsmen who feel they can grab whatever they want, riding roughshod over local laws people in the process – was lost in a frenzy of confected fear about athletes’ safety.

To find out more about the sporting side of things, I caught up again with Raff Giglio, who trained two boxers from the favela of Vidigal to compete at Rio 2016 without any help from the government or the city.

When I asked him if Brazil might use this moment to produce more medal winning athletes, he was hesitant. He doesn’t think that the money that they do have is being used in the right way.

Boxing trainer Raf Giglio in his office. Photo: Nick Ellerby

“The Brazilian Confederation [CBB] receives a lot of funding but it’s such a shame that this money stops there. They don’t give any out to the federations and, consequently not to the people who actually discover and produce these talents, these true athletes. The confederation doesn’t create any fighters, it gets them ready made off the production line from people like me.

To take a guy, like I do, like one of these here in Vidigal, I’m working at the base of the sport. I train him and take him to the national championships. To take someone to become champion of Brazil is so much work, daily grind and dedication and no one wants to help me.”

Raff was totally against Brazil hosting the Games for financial and social reasons and nothing he saw over the two and a half weeks has changed that view.

“I love the Olympics,” he tells me pointedly “but there are so many things that Brazil doesn’t know how to do.

“Everybody is talking about the opening and closing ceremonies, you see? ‘Ah Brazil knows how to put on a party!’ Exactly, we have the biggest party in the world, Carnival. It lasts 4 days and no one knows how to do this like us. So yeah, Brazil knows how to put on a party, it was a wonderful, beautiful party they put on for the ceremonies.

“Now Brazil needs to learn how to look after its people, and this, it doesn’t know how to do.”

“It seems perhaps that it should have been Brazilian women, not foreign athletes, who should have been most concerned about their security. “

So the verdict: The party was great. But when did someone last come to Rio and not have fun?

More important is the question of what’s next for Rio? Well the city still has to host the Paralympics, while at the same time working through its Olympic hangover. The legacy of the Games, both in terms of the city’s finances and its new infrastructure, looks to be shaky. Rio is broke. Municipal elections are just around the corner in October, but the outgoing mayor, Eduardo Paes, has done all he can to prevent investigations into exactly how and where Olympic money was spent.

Only about half of his infrastructure improvement plans were completed on time and his successor will have to deal with maintaining what the city did inherit. Olympic bus stations have been vandalized this week and the tarmac on the new road out to Barra (where the Olympic Park is located) is already breaking up. It will be a challenge for the new mayor just to maintain these projects.

Back down on the beach, Antonio doesn’t feel like Rio’s politicians care enough to really make the changes that his city and his people need, which, at the end of the day always come back to a lack of basic education.

“Not one politician or Olympic chief came down to see us, came to see what kind of conditions we work in” Antonio laments, “because for them, the beach vendors are just shit, they are only interested in us when the elections are on. That’s when you see them in the suburbs, eating sandwiches and hugging babies from the favela, which is all just deceitful propaganda. People are tricked because they’re idiots.”

Read more from the Olympic Issue here

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