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BRAZIL: Rio on edge with one month to go to Olympics

‘Welcome to Hell’ read the banner unfurled by a few dozen police officers and firefighters at the arrivals gate of the new terminal 2 of Rio de Janeiro’s international Galeão airport: ‘Police and firefighters don’t get paid and whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe’. As protests go, it was clever and well-timed, prompting headlines around Brazil and the world. With one month to go until the Olympics, there are serious concerns about Rio’s state of preparedness. While this is nothing unusual ahead of any sporting mega-event, the scale of Rio’s particular problems appears unprecedented.

Infrastructure

Almost all of the sporting venues are complete, with a few final touches necessary for both the velodrome and tennis centre, neither of which will have hosted a test event. The new express bus lane, the Transolímpica, connecting the main Olympic Village in Barra da Tijuca to Deodoro, another of the four Olympic Zones, was opened on 4 July. The biggest question remains whether the metro line extension, linking Rio’s touristic South Zone, with Barra, will be ready by its scheduled opening date of 1 August, four days before the opening ceremony. In an interview on 6 July, Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes, gave a “100% guarantee” it would be open on time.

In the mayor’s own words, transport is the great legacy of the Games for Rio de Janeiro, but there are questions as to spending priorities. Almost R$1.8bn (US$500m) was spent on 28km of track for the new tram line in Rio’s redeveloped port area; the same amount that has been invested over the past decade on the 270km of track of Rio’s Supervia, its municipal railway network, used by the city’s working-class commuters. The so-called ‘rationalisation’ of Rio’s bus lines, by which many lines were taken out of circulation to reduce congestion with little or no information to the public, has angered many.

While local authorities admit that the new network of so-called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lanes is not as good as a metro, they argue it will cut commuter journeys down by avoiding Rio’s heavily congested roads. But the quality of workmanship has proved questionable, with the Transoeste line, completed in a rush ahead of Paes’ re-election in 2012, already showing signs of wear and tear. The lack of reinforced concrete means the road has buckled in places, damaging the high-speed buses and forcing some off the roads, prompting long queues and overcrowding on the ones that remain. Potholes also emerged on the Elevado do Joá, the new road connecting the Zona Sul and Barra, just one week after it opened; another illustration of shoddy workmanship.

The environment

Perhaps the Olympic goal that has received the most attention outside of Brazil was the city’s failed ambition to clean up the Guanabara Bay. Campaigns to clean up the water have been ongoing since at least the early nineteenth century, when slaves used to hurl barrels full of human faeces into the bay. As part of its bid process, Rio promised to treat 80% of the raw sewage flowing into the bay by the start of the Games; in fact the seven treatment stations installed along the edge of the bay have increased the amount treated from 16% to 48%. Though even that final number is disputed.

Various newspaper investigations have discovered high levels of viruses and super-bacteria in the water, which may prove dangerous for the open-water swimmers and sailors who will have to compete there. Once again, the city is putting a brave face on the situation, with the mayor arguing that the fact that the Games are taking place during the dry season means that there will be less effluence running off into the waters (see sidebar).

But it was not just the Guanabara Bay target that was missed. All of Rio’s environmental pledges during its bid procedure were abandoned in the course of delivering the Games. The lake at Jacarepaguá, abutting the Olympic Village itself, remains a fetid latrine; its drainage was suspended after the licencing process was questioned by independent public prosecutors. The goal of turning the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon in Ipanema, the venue for the rowing, into a waterway safe for swimmers was also quietly shelved, as was a plan to plant seedlings to restore some of the much denuded Atlantic Forest.

Security

With military police officers threatening strike action over recent weeks, following delays in their salaries due to the bankruptcy of the state, acting governor Fernando Dornelles declared a state of “public calamity”. While arguably necessary to access federal funding usually reserved for the aftermath of a natural disaster, it is clear that it was hardly a masterful example of PR. Rio de Janeiro now has R$2.9bn (US$870m) of federal government funding, which the state government has promised to use to pay police officers, many of whom complained not just about delays in their salaries, but lack of equipment, including money for petrol in patrol cars.

Starting on 6 July, 85,000 security personnel, drawn from the armed forces as well as police services across the country, have started to patrol the streets of Rio. Combined with various private-sector initiatives to provide high-profile policing of tourist hotspots, it seems likely that violent crime against tourists will be kept to a minimum.

At the same time, there is a concern that the concentration of effort on the wealthier parts of the city could lead to a deterioration in the security situation in other, poorer areas. In the run-up to the Games, there has been a significant uptick in violent crime. While some of this has been attributed to Brazil’s dire economic situation, other security experts claim that drug gangs have been competing for territory ahead of a potentially lucrative period over the Olympics.

Brazil has little history of terrorism, but the intelligence agency, Abin, has warned of possible ‘lone-wolf’ style attacks and has advised locals to be vigilant. Abin has warned of increased Islamic State chatter suggesting the Olympics as a possible target, with one confirmed threat from an IS French militant. The terrorist group is also using the Telegram messaging app in an attempt to reach Portuguese-language sympathisers. Another cause of concern is the tri-border area between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, which has gained a degree of notoriety as a haven for financiers of terrorism. Abin is stepping up its coordination with the 110 foreign intelligence agencies which will be present in Brazil during the Games.

Zika

Another major issue of concern to visitors is the Zika virus. However, both the Brazilian authorities, and perhaps more credibly, the World Health Organization (WHO), have insisted that the colder winter months mean that the mosquito population is much lower, and therefore the risk of transmission is much lower. Although Zika may be a new and frightening development, Brazil has a long history of dealing with mosquito-borne illnesses; historical data shows that transmission rates for dengue and chikungunya drop significantly during the winter months.

  • The legacy

While it is to be hoped that the Olympics themselves pass off successfully, it is clear that the Games will have done little to address some of Rio’s most serious issues, and in some instances may have exacerbated existing tensions. Tens of thousands of poorer families have been resettled in Rio’s distant and poorly connected West Zone to make way for various Olympic and transport projects. Much of the investment in the Games has been spent in areas, like Barra da Tijuca, which are already relatively wealthy. In short, while local authorities believe the Games will transform Rio as they did Barcelona in 1992, the long-term result is likely to be an ever-more unequal and divided city.

  • Clean-up job

Patrols in Guanabara Bay by so-called Ecoboats, which scoop out physical objects, such as plastic bags, discarded television sets and animal carcasses, are also set to increase in the final weeks to ensure there are no major obstacles for the athletes.



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