“The Olympics are for first world countries and Brazil is still a third world nation.” These were the words of Raff Giglio, a boxing instructor and community leader in Vidigal, a favela that majestically sits among two hills overlooking Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema beach.
Giglio knows Vidigal from top to bottom. He was born into an upper middle-class family, but fell in love with the favela in the early 1990’s, and decided to relocate there. In 2010 he founded a youth boxing club, Instituto Todos Na Luta [“Everyone in the struggle institute”], to offer kids a way out of a life of crime.
One of Giglio’s biggest success stories, Patrick Lourenço, will take to the ring as a member of Brazil’s boxing team. That is a victory in itself. Since founding the academy, Giglio says he never once received a call from the Mayor or the government willing to extend a helping hand. The initiative is solely dependent on private donations. “The government only comes to the favela every four years – when they need our votes”, he laments.
These are similar stories to ones I heard two years ago when Brazil was preparing to stage the World Cup. That event was shrouded by worry throughout much of the country. Stadiums were finished just days before kick-off, some legacy projects never materialised, and the budget was inflated to unworldly proportions – a bill Brazilians will have to foot for many years to come.
But even with all the controversies surrounding the tournament, a nationwide optimism persisted. In spite of the human and economic cost, Brazilians were salivating at the prospect of earning their sixth World Cup title – this time on home soil. We all know how that ended.
Brazil is a nation that loves sport. But three days into my six-week stay to cover the Games, talking with taxi drivers, casually eavesdropping on conversations, and checking people’s Facebook feeds has led me to conclude that Cariocas – as Rio’s residents are known – are not feeling very festive.
And why would they? Rio de Janeiro state is broke. So broke, in fact, it needed a bailout from the federal government last month to cover basic expenses, such as paying the salaries of police officers and civil servants.
I was at the Olympic Village on Wednesday in Rio’s Barra da Tijuca neighbourhood, in the west of the city. It is vast, overwhelming, and sprawling. A small town erected in what not long ago was nothing more than scrubland and mangroves. It is also completely disconnected from the rest of the city, both geographically and socially. Poor people won’t be able to afford to make the journey to the Olympic Park, let alone attend the events.
Landing at Galeão Airport, it’s clear to see officials are going to great lengths to give off a vibe of festivity and celebration, with banners and posters of athletes in pretty much every corner. However, on my way to the city centre – where my home will be for the next five weeks – I saw very little of that Olympic spirit.
And yet, in spite of the doom and gloom, the party will go ahead. Locals, though, are under no illusions as to who is invited.
One of the evils of money is that it enables those who possess it to ignore the plight of those who don’t. And there are few better places in the world for affluent Westerners to turn a blind eye to human deprivation than in Rio.
Foreigners will have a grand time. They will go up to Christ The Redeemer and marvel at the beauty of it all – including the favelas on the hill. They won’t catch Zika because the streets they walk on won’t have open sewers. They won’t be mugged because the army will be there to protect them. They won’t go hungry because they can afford to eat whatever – and whenever – they want.
Having been behind the scenes and witnessed first-hand the sheer size of the operation, one realises the Games are not just too big to fail, but too big for guys like Giglio, who’s just trying to keep the youth off the streets. “I need gloves, food, and equipment for my kids,” he says. “The Olympics will do nothing for me.”
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Felipe Araujo is a freelance news journalist based in London. He spent five years at CNN International and covered the 2014 World Cup in Brazil for Germany’s public broadcaster ZDF. He writes about race and minority issues, sports and culture. Twitter: @felipethejourno
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