After the Olympics, 'Brazil has to stand up to its problems'

On Monday, as some venues are torn down and others scaled back for the financially hobbled Paralympics in September, the bills will be tallied and the legacies measured.

Rio got subways and a new port area, but no solution for sanitation and crime in its poor neighbourhoods

Olympics paid for a revitalized downtown Rio in the port area. #Olympica attracted tens of thousands over the course of the games. The new Museum of Tomorrow is in the background. (Susan Ormiston/CBC )

In one moment Saturday night, a collective cheer thundered up from Maracana Stadium, echoing around Rio's hills and back down to Copacabana's bars, as Brazil won the gold medal in men's Olympic soccer. Fans pounded their chests with pride; suddenly the Rio Olympics seemed worth it.

But come Monday, as some venues are torn down and others scaled back for the financially hobbled Paralympics in September, the bills will be tallied and the legacies measured.

"My biggest concern is what is going to happen the day after the Olympics, because for now, we had two weeks of a very beautiful party, but we know that all the serious problems of Rio will remain and perhaps no one will pay attention to us anymore," says Mauricio Santoro, professor of political science at Rio State University.

Brazil's significant problems were exposed by the Olympic attention, says Mauricio Santoro, and now the country has to have the courage to solve them. (Susan Ormiston/CBC )
Brazil's economic crisis, the worst in 30 years, and its political tumult, on hold for the Olympics, will command attention again and the state of Rio is already broke.

"There is always a hangover when you throw a party, when you throw a celebration. But I mean this is a country full of challenges that I hope is getting out of a political and economic crisis. I hope things will get better now," says Eduardo Paes, Rio's mayor.

In spite of mosquitoes, muggings and smelly bays, he says, Rio pulled off a spectacular party.

The Games were "much better" than expected, better than "even in my sweetest dreams when we campaigned for the bid," he told CBC News.

But the reality for many in Brazil is more nuanced.

'The host usually pays'

A block from the marathon finish line Sunday, a Brazilian street artist sprays the finishing touches on a mural. It shows a long dinner table, wine glasses upended, chairs overturned and a metre-long bill with the Olympic rings.

"It says who's going to pay the bill after all the party," says Paulo Ito, a street artist.

"The host usually pays; maybe it wasn't really a good time for Olympics."

"The host usually pays" for the Olympic party, says street artist Paulo Ito, as he spray-paints a wall mural a block away from the Olympic marathon venue. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Rio won the Olympics promising improved infrastructure. It got that — a subway extension, and a new bus rapid transit line. A complete overhaul of the port area created a lively, enticing new public space, crowded daily for the Olympics.

But two of Rio's biggest problems, security and sanitation, did not benefit from any Olympic glow, leaving disappointment and skepticism.

"The Olympics for me is lack of sanitation in the favelas," says Jose Martins de Oliveira, part of a residents' activist group Rocinha without Borders.

He's standing at what the locals call the "sewage waterfalls," in Rocinha, Rio's largest favela, climbing up a hill between the Olympic Park and Ipanema.

At the top end of a small gully between rickety houses, raw sewage streams unimpeded down to the ground, its flow slight or heavy depending on how many are flushing their toilets or sinks.

In Rio's biggest favela of Rochina, residents wanted Olympic infrastructure to include sewer pipes. "It's political," says activist Jose Martins de Oliveira. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)
Sewage pipes extend out from the houses but then stop — unconnected to anything.

"Without piping we have big cases of tuberculosis, stomach worms and skin problems," says de Oliveira.

"The Olympics for me is also the Guanabara Bay, promised to have been cleaned up, with the financial resources to do it, and it was not done."

"Obviously, Rio is not a perfect place," counters Mayor Paes. "Rio has a lot of problems. And the Olympics were not about solving all those problems of the city. It was about getting people's lives better.

"This is a country with a lot of inequality. Countries like Brazil, continents like South America, they have the right to get the Olympics. It doesn't have to be only in developed countries — always North America or always Europe or some dictatorship."

Final price tag unknown

The actual cost of these Olympics has not been transparent. Projections run close to $12 billion US. The mayor says for the venues and the organization, 80 per cent is being paid from the private sector, "it's a cheap bill."

Sewage pipes exit homes, then go nowhere, draining raw sewage into the gulleys and underground to the sea. Residents wanted connected pipes and sewage treatment from any Olympic development funds. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)
He frequently cites Montreal's experience with cost overruns and white elephant structures as an example that Brazil will avoid.

High above Guanabara Bay, in the middle-class neighbourhood of Santa Theresa, Mauricio Santaro says his biggest worry was a terrorism attack. That didn't happen.

But a steady beat of robberies, and street crime, the odd stray bullet in venues, and stone-throwing vandals from favelas, kept organizers on the defensive, while state security forces held running battles in some favelas trying to contain the violence within.

"During the Olympics we had massive shootings in the biggest slums in Rio," says Santoro. "It didn't make the headlines as much, but it was much more serious than some American swimmers making bad things in Rio."

Still, "I'm relieved," says Mayor Paes, "I am very proud of my country, very proud of my city and excited about what can come after." 

Sunday night, he was centre stage as the Olympic torch passed to Tokyo and Brazil went back to its everyday crises. 

The Olympics exposed Brazil's problems, now Brazilians need to have courage to fix them, says Santoro.

"OK, it was not a tragedy, but there were many serious problems and we have to address those problems, not just because of the Olympics, not just because of the foreign tourists, but because of the lives of the people who actually inhabit Rio and we have to stand up to these problems after the Olympic circus is gone."

The city's mayor says the Olympics wasn't about solving all the problems of Rio but to improve people's lives. Kids growing up in favelas will judge the "legacy." (Susan Ormiston/CBC )


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.


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