A party at the wrong time

Left: Olympic torch bearer and former Brazilian volleyball player Maria Isabel Barroso Salgado holds the torch of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games as Mayor Eduardo Paes (extreme left) and Rio Archbishop Orani Tempesta look on, in front of the landmark stat
Olympic torch bearer and former Brazilian volleyball player Maria Isabel Barroso Salgado holds the torch of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games as Mayor Eduardo Paes (extreme left) and Rio Archbishop Orani Tempesta look on, in front of the landmark statue of Christ the Redeemer yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Visitors taking pictures in front of the Olympic rings at Copacabana beach.
Visitors taking pictures in front of the Olympic rings at Copacabana beach. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Left: Olympic torch bearer and former Brazilian volleyball player Maria Isabel Barroso Salgado holds the torch of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games as Mayor Eduardo Paes (extreme left) and Rio Archbishop Orani Tempesta look on, in front of the landmark stat
A spectator in the colours of the home team holds a huge replica gold medal during the 0-0 football draw between the hosts and South Africa.PHOTO: REUTERS

Combination of political turmoil and sliding economy creates the feeling among some locals that Games will be a burden for Rio

Marta Salvucci is a Carioca - native of Rio de Janeiro - through and through, having been born and lived here all her life. The Olympic Games were meant to give the world a glimpse into her beloved city - only she is not sure there is much left to boast of.

"My city used to be much better," the 55-year-old English teacher told The Straits Times. "I used to be proud to be from Rio. Nowadays, not so much.

"I think a lot of Brazilians have mixed feelings about the Olympics. We're excited to have the Games here, but on the other hand, there are a lot of problems the country and city are facing."

She rattles off a laundry list of pressing problems, from political instability and economic crisis to corruption and crime.

While there remains much about Rio de Janeiro's colourful culture to celebrate, the quadrennial event is taking place at a most inopportune time.

Brazil has been rocked by corruption scandals involving high-ranking government officials, with suspended President Dilma Rousseff facing an impeachment trial.

UNDERLYING ISSUES REMAIN

I think a lot of Brazilians have mixed feelings about the Olympics. We're excited to have the Games here, but on the other hand, there are a lot of problems the country and city are facing.

MARTA SALVUCCI, English teacher from Rio de Janeiro.

INTANGIBLE BENEFITS

Having the Olympics here is good for Brazil's image, but it's a lot of money spent on something we won't get returns for.

INGRID RODRIGUES MARCELINO, student from the capital, Brasilia.

On the economic front, the country was riding an economic boom when it was awarded hosting rights by the International Olympic Committee in 2009. But the country is now grappling with its worst recession since the 1930s, the situation so dire that a financial emergency had to be declared to allow federal funds to be pumped in.

Policemen, having gone without pay, instead welcomed visitors at the airport with a "Welcome to Hell" banner. Subway workers, too, are threatening to go on strike.

All these make the Games' estimated price tag of S$16 billion look like untimely and unwise expenditure.

Said Renan Andrade, a 26-year-old tour guide: "Rio doesn't even have the funds for hospitals or schools for our kids.

"People think that Rio de Janeiro is just Copacabana beach, or the rich neighbourhoods of Ipanema and Leblon. But that is not Rio - Rio goes much deeper in, where the children are crying and there is violence."

Andrade lamented that competition tickets and the Barra area where the Olympic park was built is out of reach for many locals.

"Barra is an area created for the rich, and not a place you can get to without a car," he said. "We have a party in our city and yet its people can't enjoy it."

There is also Rio's notorious issue of crime and violence, although the streets - especially those within the vicinity of Olympic venues - are now guarded by heavily-armed security forces.

Said Salvucci: "We (usually) leave our homes and pray that everything is okay and we can go home safely. Now, you see the federal police, military police, civil police. This is not our reality."

Those who have seen new stadiums erected for the 2014 World Cup, and then left largely unused also worry about potential white elephants that the Olympics may leave behind. For instance, the Arena da Amazonia was built in the jungle city of Manaus where there are no top-flight teams. The Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha in capital city Brasilia is reportedly used as a bus parking lot nowadays.

Said Ingrid Rodrigues Marcelino, a 21-year-old student from Brasilia: "We spent so much building a big stadium in so many cities while people are dying in hospitals. Other than small matches and a few concerts, the stadiums are mostly not used.

"Having the Olympics here is good for Brazil's image, but it's a lot of money spent on something we won't get returns for."

The Brazilians know how to have fun and there is no doubt the lighting of the Olympic cauldron on Friday night (Brazil time) has signalled the start of a two-week party.

The true test, however, is what the party leaves behind.

Said Salvucci: "Brazilians tend to forget things pretty fast and I know the next 20 days are going to be great.

"But when it's all over, that's when reality will strike. There will be no party then."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline 'A party at the wrong time'. Print Edition | Subscribe