Rio 2016: Violence and Fear Dominate the Coverage
The volume of news, almost all of it bad, coming from Brazil can make it difficult to form a coherent impression of the situation around the upcoming Olympic Games. Even Brazilians, who should have the best understanding of the situation, are having a hard time figuring out what poses the biggest threat to the Rio Olympics. Violence, however, is a strong contender.
People are rightly concerned by the news of corruption, pollution, political instability, zika virus, incomplete facilities and facilities built in poor conditions. That said, none of these warrant panic. Indeed, by keeping an eye on the headlines, tourists, journalists, and athletes can better understand the difficulties they may face in Rio, and prepare accordingly.
For anyone travelling to Brazil for the games, the real issue to be concerned about is violence. At least, that’s the opinion of Juca Kfouri, one of the most respected sports journalists in the country.
“Honestly, as a tourist, I wouldn't come to Rio for the games,” he says. “As a professional, I would come with plenty of precautions, as I did when I went to Johannesburg (South Africa) for the World Cup, where I ended up being robbed at the hotel anyway.”
When he says that he wouldn’t attend the games as a tourist, it may sound like exaggeration, but the truth is that violent incidents are reported in Rio almost daily. Some of them seem almost surreal. On June 20th, a group of more than 20 men invaded a hospital carrying heavy weaponry in an effort to rescue an associate being treated there. The hospital, Souza Aguiar, is the one officially recommended to anyone visiting Rio for the games.
During a televised interview about the incident, Rio’s Security Secretary, José Mariano Beltrame, was asked how such a thing could be possible in a major hospital located in such a central area. He replied, “This is Rio, it is a big mess, and I wouldn't be surprised if there is a guy walking around with a rifle near here right now.”
Unfortunately, the daring hospital rescue is only the most spectacular example of the violence that unfolds in Rio on a daily basis. Robberies, gunshots, and incidents involving the police are on the news all the time. This year alone the three main expressways (Linha Vermelha, Avenida Brasil, and Linha Amarela) have seen ten shootings and three so-called “arrastão,” (in which a group of criminals invades an area to rob everybody they can).
In the first four months of 2016, Rio state recorded 1,715 homicides, 15% higher than the same period in 2015. Australian paralympic athlete Liesl Tesch was pushed to the ground and had her bike stolen at gunpoint at a bus stop in Rio in June.
The situation is so grave that the World Health Organization has released a special warning for travelers going to the games. It advises that “crime, including robbery and violence, happens in Brazil” and “travelers should be advised to act with caution and to use authorized taxis and buses only.”
In June, the federal government authorized a loan of about $800 million for Rio to spend on security measures. This was only possible because the state government has declared that Rio is officially facing a situation of “public calamity,” a state typically announced during natural disasters. Now, though, the state of “public calamity” will help Rio to get money from the federal government with fewer bureaucratic barriers.
Indeed, for all the doomsaying, there’s a chance that it won’t end in catastrophe. Juca Kfouri notes that Rio has already hosted other big events, including Rio-92 and the World Cup, without serious consequences.
“We had the same feeling about these two events and Rio, as a big city, took all its precautions,” he says. However, Kfouri is concerned that, “Brazil is now living a more complicated moment.”
The “more complicated moment” he describes has a lot to do with Brazil's current political landscape. Even if the impeachment process against Dilma Rousseff is finished ahead of the games, which seems unlikely, the atmosphere will still be far from normal. Kfouri remembers the situation he faced in 2013, when his car was surrounded by demonstrators during the huge protests of that year. He believes something similar could happen again.
“Even the public employees will probably protest in Rio because of their delayed payments,” says Kfouri. “Just think about it; if you are an extremist, or you are part of the MST [landless movement], or a student, wouldn't you do that [protest]? Now everything is concentrated in the same city, it is very easy to make, for example, a barricade in the olympic line [the official route used for the games].”
Of course, bullets and robberies are reason enough to panic, to say nothing of the possibility of terrorism, but Rio also has a less obvious problem. As soon as it was announced that Rio would host the games, local authorities promised that they would finally clean the Guanabara Bay, one of its primary postcards turned almost to a sewer by decades of pollution. In the end, they just didn’t do the job.
Despite the fact they’ve had plenty of time to get it done, we’re now seeing coverage like this article from The New York Times, titled simply, “Keep Your Mouth Closed: Aquatic Olympians Face a Toxic Stew in Rio.”
The article prominently features a picture of a body floating on Guanabara Bay, as well as the results of tests made by the Federal University of Rio. The results bear out what everyone can see with their own eyes; the Guanabara Bay is far from clean. It is full of the kinds of bacteria typically found in hospitals. Its pollutants can cause several stomach, respiratory, cardiac, and even cerebral problems.