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An Olympic oasis

 

BACK in 2009 when the Olympic games were awarded to Rio de Janeiro, the stars seemed to be aligned. Brazil was prospering, thanks to strong global demand for its oil, iron ore, soya beans and other commodities. Federal, state and city governments were working well together as close political allies. Now cariocas (as inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro are known) might well feel that fate has forsaken them.

 

The country is suffering its worst recession since the 1930s. The federal government is paralysed by a corruption scandal. The unpopular president, Dilma Rousseff, faces possible impeachment for allegedly breaking budget rules. The collapse of the oil price has hit Rio de Janeiro state, the centre of the oil industry, especially hard, forcing it to slash its budgets.

Yet the city of Rio resembles an oasis in Brazil’s political and economic desert. Thanks partly to the games and to booming revenue from tourism, the money is still flowing. Eduardo Paes, the city’s mayor since 2009, seized control of venue construction and many transport projects. While stadium-building for the 2014 football World Cup in Brazil was marked by scandal and last-minute rush, the Olympics are on track with five months to go. At the Olympic Park, the venues are all but ready. When Bello visited a fortnight ago a hose was filling the pool at the aquatic centre; at the multipurpose Arena Carioca, a taekwondo contest was about to start.

There are three worries. The state government has failed to clean up the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay, the venue for yachting. Mr Paes retorts that races will be held at the bay’s mouth, where the water is clean, and that two dummy runs went well. Then there is the new metro line being built by the state government to link Ipanema and Barra de Tijuca, the site of the Olympic Park. A recent leaked memo from the mayor’s office fretted that it wouldn’t be ready in time. The state government insists it will be; it says 90% of the work is already done. School holidays have been moved back to coincide with the Olympics; traffic may be more of a problem for the Paralympics in September.

The biggest concern is Zika. Since the disease was detected in 2015, 1.5m Brazilians may have caught it. Usually it just involves a few days of mild fever and aches. But it has been linked to microcephaly (brain damage) in the babies of a small minority of women who caught it while pregnant. And a tiny number of Zika sufferers develop Guillain-Barré syndrome, a creeping (though normally reversible) paralysis.

Zika is hard to test for. Most of Brazil’s 641 confirmed cases of microcephaly are in the poor north-east. But Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that is the main vector, is also responsible for dengue, which Rio has suffered since 1977. The insects breed in stagnant water.

Across the country, the government has stepped up efforts to control the mosquito. In Gardênia Azul, a favela near the Olympic Park, a team of health agents does house-to-house visits. Geraldo Marques, a mosquito-control specialist, checks that empty beer bottles are dry and covered; he drizzles insecticide into a drain. “The saucers under plants are the greatest villain,” he says.

The problem, says Rubem César Fernandes of Viva Rio, a big NGO which, among other things, runs health clinics for the city government, is that many urban spaces are beyond public control. “The population knows what to do, but they don’t have the discipline to do it every week. It’s a cultural thing.” It doesn’t help that a third of dwellings in the Rio area lack a proper sewerage connection.

Mr Paes stresses that the games will take place in the dry season; cases of dengue normally drop in August and September. Part of the worry about Zika is that so much about it is unknown, and therefore scary. Though pregnant women and their sexual partners will need to seek medical advice, for the mass of sports fans the virus should not be a worry.

 

There is already much to celebrate about the Rio Olympics, though with their city turned into an obstacle course of road works for the new metro and bus lanes, cariocas may not yet feel like cheering. There has been no obvious waste or corruption. The city has used the games as a catalyst for a wider transformation. Mr Paes tore down an elevated motorway that scarred the old port, burying it in a tunnel. The port area now hosts new museums and public spaces; next month a tramway will open there. Apart from better public transport, the Olympics may bequeath an overdue revival of Rio’s decayed and crime-ridden historic centre. If urban renewal were a sport, that would win a gold medal.

 

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