Monday 11 December 2017

Great sport: who will be the real winners in Games?

Economic slide, political scandals and the Zika virus have led many to predict disaster for the Olympics, which kick off in two weeks. But Brazil won't let down big-business sport, even if it fails them, writes our reporter in Rio

Beefing up: One of the 22,000 soldiers who arrived in Rio last week
Beefing up: One of the 22,000 soldiers who arrived in Rio last week
Ewan McKenna

Ewan McKenna

In the aftermath of Brazil's 7-1 defeat to Germany at the World Cup in 2014, the nation was split. In the city of Belo Horizonte, where that ­incredible game took place, two faces grabbed your attention and surmised the two sides of a nation. The first was a white girl, the sort that popped up on big screens across the tournament, crying tears as brief as they were attention-­seeking. The second was that of an elderly black man priced out of the games, but looking forward to the return of the domestic league.

A couple of years on and, as the world's other truly giant, if hugely flawed, sporting event comes to the country, much remains the same, even if much has changed. The ­country is again split largely along lines of class and colour, but this time it's split in a time of deep recession, deep unemployment and even deeper political crisis that makes any recovery seem impossible.

All in all, it makes these ­Olympics reminiscent of a guy just made ­redundant heading straight for a slap-up meal and a night out that might help him briefly forget but will ultimately make his situation worse.

None of that is to say these ­Olympics can't be great. But that whole notion revolves around great for who?

The International Olympic Committee will be glad they've gotten their showpiece funded once more, still peddling the line about some sort of economic benefit for the host that has long been proven to be a dud; tourists, fans and athletes will get a fortnight very different from the doom and gloom purported in media stories; and the Brazilian ­super-elite will have gotten ­wealthier still thanks to money and land that was in public hands when all this began.

What that leaves is the rest of society here, who exist amongst jobless figures that stand at a record 11.4pc, inflation that's not far behind and schools and hospitals that are having their doors bolted up. In fact, this month the tell-tale stories locally have varied from a female teacher who is believed to have committed suicide having not been paid by the state for four months, to striking ­police hoisting banners before ­tourists in the international airport that read "Welcome to hell".

For those who arrive into that airport, the drive into Rio's heart gives you a perfect microcosm of the bigger picture. The Red Line that carries you initially runs alongside the Complexo da Maré, a slum of around 130,000 people, only you can no longer see them. Fenced off from the motorway six years ago by massive perspex walls, the 7km have recently been covered in Olympic posters at a staggering cost of €56m. Bad enough is the price tag, but for many the thought process is worse, as they suggest it's a case of hear no evil, see no evil. This has been ­denied in major Brazilian ­newspaper O Folha, with Rio's tourism ­secretary suggesting: "It's not to hide the favela, it's to decorate the city to get it into the Olympic spirit". It's hard not to be sceptical.

In a country of much political spin from both sides, though, there was some honesty a little under year ago courtesy of businessman Carlos Carvalho. The main hub of the Games is the very wealthy neighbourhood of Barra da Tijuca. When Brazil tried to host the 2012 Games, it involved holding them in the much more troubled and needy Ilha do Governador, but this was rejected by the IOC who were far more pleased with a bid that saw Barra become the focal point of sport and crucially investment.

There, Carvalho owns six million square metres of land. In August 2015, when talking about the opportunity of Olympic development, he told the Guardian he wants to turn the area into the new centre of Rio and create a "city of the elite, of good taste" and for it to become home to a "noble" elite.

The city's mayor, Eduardo Paes, has shushed one of his main political backers while defending the spending on the Games, regularly highlighting the private investment of 57pc of the total cost of around €10.5bn, but he's ignored the transfer of wealth. He's also stressed that 75pc of the city's investment has been in the poorer areas, as "that is where I get my votes from" but this isn't verified and is widely disputed.

It's all part of the political theme smothering the sport. For instance, the county's president, Dilma, won't be next to or near any of this across August, and by the time the flame goes out, she might well be impeached. Her stand-in replacement, meanwhile, will be greeted by boos, against the backdrop of overwhelming disapproval levels and a maiden cabinet that has been filleted by corruption charges. All the while the economy has fallen in eight of the last 10 quarters, GDP has seen 10pc wiped out, and this is propped up by more real and amazing figures like state oil company Petrobras sacking 276,600 employees in the past 24 months.

While the rest of the country has gone into reverse, though, Rio city has simply stalled, the Olympic funding stopping it following the rest of the nation into a black hole. Or, more accurately, certain sectors of the city. And this is the biggest problem with souped-up sporting events: the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats, though some are in yachts while the rest are left in ­flimsy dinghies.

Aside from taxpayer spending, just consider where tourist spending will be directed. The majority of full-up bars, restaurants and hotels over the coming weeks will belong to those who already can afford the most expensive land in the southern hemisphere, with the drip-down usually being the monthly €245 minimum wage, or even less when it comes to the city's thriving ­prostitution industry.

Many looking in will see all that as an internal problem however, and if you're just looking for sport, you'll likely enjoy it all. The horror stories ahead of the World Cup weren't dissimilar and when it strictly came to those here for the football, that was considered one of the most enjoyable tournaments of them all. Just like then, security is being ramped up and last week 22,000 troops arrived in Rio. True, there's an Isis threat now with four people with links in recent days banned from entering, but security experts spoken to by Review mentioned how they lack a local network and how moving terrorists from their domestic hubs will weaken their impact and make them more detectable.

And then there's Zika, only there isn't really. That's because the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes which carry the virus need two weeks to gain the ability to transmit it, which is greater than their life expectancy when the minimum temperature dips below 22-24°C.

Indeed, it's those types of fears that show a desperation for negativity, when there are so many other real fears hidden away and in need of a light being cast on them.

Through it all, there's still the line being peddled by vested interests that sport will be a way out of the situation Brazil finds itself in. Only the country was sold that lie by sporting politicians and its own politicians back in 2014.

Then the next great superpower, it wasted money on stadiums, failed to finish much of the infrastructure promised, moved billions from the taxpayer to corrupt businesses, and slipped into a spiral it's never pulled out of.

Of course, you can still expect all this to end with these Olympics being called a resounding success after the country is shown at its best, but that's only part of the story. Just like two years ago, the Brazilian people won't fail big-business sport. But just like two years ago, it will fail them.

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