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Rio mayor hopes to bask in Olympic glory of his own

Rio de Janeiro's Mayor Eduardo Paes, pictured on May 14, 2016, is on the defensive a month before the Olympic Games opening ceremony/AFP-File

Rio de Janeiro’s Mayor Eduardo Paes, pictured on May 14, 2016, is on the defensive a month before the Olympic Games opening ceremony/AFP-File

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, Jul 11 – Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes says that after years of preparation, next month’s Olympic Games will be “incredible” but that he can’t wait for them to end.

“I’m anxious for them to get started, but also for them to finish,” he told AFP in an interview.

Having spent much of the last seven years getting ready for the first Games ever in South America, Paes will be glad when the mayor of Tokyo, host of the 2020 Games, appears at the closing ceremony in the Maracana stadium for the symbolic handover.

“Then I’ll go and get sloshed. I’ll go listen to samba and drink beer,” he said.

Paes, a youthful looking 46-year-old, has become one of Brazil’s most recognizable politicians thanks to the Olympics. He is seen as presidential material in a country crying out for a fresh face in the capital.

And this rise has not changed his carefully crafted image of a likeable everyman more comfortable in jeans and an open-necked shirt than a suit and open to getting “sloshed” during a well-deserved celebration.

Olympic boost

Rio was awarded the Olympics in 2009, early in Paes’s first term, and he has worked to make himself the face of the event, outshining Brazil’s Olympic committee boss Carlos Nuzman.

Paes says the Olympics have brought changes to Rio like a big metro line extension, the revitalization of the rundown port area, and a new tramway and landscaping in the center of the city. He has boasted that Rio can emulate Barcelona’s renewal stemming from the 1992 Olympics.

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“Even in my most beautiful dreams, I could never have imagined such a big transformation of the city,” he said.

“We did things simply. The Olympics in Rio don’t have any stadium built by a big international architect. There are functional stadiums, simple and beautiful. Here, with the landscape that we have, there’s no need for grandiose works. The arenas have to fit into the landscape and not compete.”

Darker side?

Paes has been in politics since he was 23, with his career taking off upon his election to the lower house of Congress in 1998. Since then he has changed parties numerous times, earning accusations of opportunism, before settling on the big center-right PMDB party.

It’s the party of interim president Michel Temer, who took over following the suspension of leftist president Dilma Rousseff for an impeachment trial, triggering a deep political crisis.

But Paes, cautious as ever, does not take sides in the crisis.

“My role as mayor is to get on with whoever the president is,” he says.

Although Paes might seem to be as happy in the poor favelas of Rio as in the posh southern neighborhood where he grew up, critics accuse him of ignoring the most vulnerable during his push to leave a mark on the city.

According to a study by Rio State University professor Lucas Faulhaber, 67,000 people have been displaced during Olympic and other big public projects during Paes’s rule — a record.

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People forced out during these traumatic upheavals, like the inhabitants of the Vila Autodromo favela on the site of the Olympic Park, are compensated, but many have resisted, sometimes clashing violently with police.

Paes has also courted controversy with a plan, blocked by a judge, to distribute some 547,000 Olympic tickets to officials.

But the mayor feels that he has the momentum.

Even as Rio state’s budget comes close to collapse, requiring a huge federal bailout, he says the city is in good shape and that criticism which comes his way is often “unfair.”

His second term ends this December. What’s next?

“I’ll take a sabbatical year. I will disappear,” he said, before adding: “I never said I won’t run in different elections.”

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