RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, July 11- Rio de Janeiro hosts the Olympic Games in less than four weeks, but crime and economic crisis mean the party-loving Brazilian city is glum and struggling to find its vibe.
Stadiums are just about ready and local businesses, hammered by Brazil’s deep recession, look forward to the arrival of an estimated 500,000 tourists.
For an already sports-mad city, the Games — the first ever held in South America – will be a delight. Some 10,500 athletes will compete over 19 days in 42 disciplines, with Brazil targeting a top 10 place in the medal count.
The setting for the globe’s most watched event will be breathtaking: sailors dueling below Sugarloaf Mountain, sprinters battling under the gaze of the Christ the Redeemer statue, and beach volleyball players scrambling on the sands of Copacabana.
Given Rio’s brilliance at annual carnival week, the opening ceremony in the famed Maracana Stadium on August 5 is likely to be spectacular.
But violent crime, 11 percent unemployment, fears about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and embarrassing stumbles during infrastructure preparations have many Brazilians grumbling that the Olympics are little more than a costly distraction.
“The Olympics soak up the money that could be used on improving the life of people in Rio, rather than making cosmetic changes,” said Felipe, a 32-year-old lifeguard on Copacabana beach, who did not want to give his last name.
“They’ve sanitized everything, without the poor, and made it nice for foreigners.”
– Ready to roll? –
Rio has defied doomsayers to open all the sporting facilities on time. But there have been worrying hiccups.
Construction of the velodrome was so delayed, following bankruptcy of the main contractor, that authorities had to scrap a full-scale test event – the dry run at the facility.
A much-touted coastal cycle path, part of the city’s Olympic-legacy beautification, collapsed when it was hit by an Atlantic wave, killing two people, and there are already potholes in a new road along the spectacular shoreline.
Guanabara Bay, where sailing and windsurfing events will take place, is literally a giant cesspool, filling daily with the raw sewage of half the city. Sailors are concerned about infections from what Brazilian researchers say is a drug-resistant super bacteria.
There is also concern over the extension of the metro to link the Olympic Village to the city center. Held up by funding problems, the vital project will only open on August 1, a mere four days before the Games.
– Bad news day –
The Olympics were meant to celebrate Brazil’s rise but instead the run-up has been plagued by bad news. Even the nationwide Olympic torch relay hasn’t been without controversy: a rare, captive jaguar — the same animal as Brazil’s team mascot – was shot dead after getting loose at a ceremony.
When Brazil was awarded the Games in 2009, it was one of the world’s booming economies, headed by the charismatic and hugely popular leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Today Brazil is on the economic ropes, Lula is one of dozens of politicians facing corruption charges, and his successor Dilma Rousseff could be turfed out of office in an impeachment vote days after the Games end.
That instability is adding to tensions already stoked by joblessness and inflation. Political protests are near certain, although no one knows yet whether they’ll be big enough to disrupt the Games.
– Zika and crime –
Internationally the biggest concern is over the Zika virus, which can cause serious birth defects if pregnant mothers are infected, as well as possibly the devastating Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Several athletes, notably golfers like Rory McIlroy, have pulled out. Brazilian officials insist that the threat is near zero in a season with few mosquitoes about.
As at any mega event, the possibility of terror attacks is a big fear, even if Brazil’s lack of enemies and geographical distance from jihadist strongholds make the country less vulnerable than Belgium or Turkey, which were recently targeted by the Islamic State group.
Soaring crime could be the bigger danger. Spanish sailing team members were mugged at gunpoint in May and Australian Paralympians were robbed while biking. Murder numbers are well up on last year.
The authorities say deployment of 85,000 military personnel and police – double the number of security at the 2012 London Games – will ensure total safety.
But the discovery of human body parts on the sand next to the beach volleyball stadium and high-profile incidents like the hijacking of a truck carrying nearly Sh50mn worth of television equipment mean many remain nervous.