Let the games begin? Why not everyone in Rio is celebrating the Olympics

Stuart Rodger

With protests expected outside the opening ceremony as Rio 2016 gets underway, we take a look at the controversy surrounding this year’s Olympics

The 2016 Olympic Games are set to begin in Rio de Janeiro tonight, with the opening ceremony taking place in the city’s Maracana stadium.

Around 300 dancers, 5,000 costumes and 12,000 volunteers will be inlcuded in the show. British actress Judi Dench is even expected to make an appearance, while recent Wimbledon champion Andy Murray will lead Team GB into the stadium.

The director of the opening ceremony, Fernando Meirelles – known for the film City of God –  has suggested people should not expect a spectacle on a par with Beijing 2008, which had a budget of £20bn. He has suggested such a lavish ceremony would be inappropriate for a country struggling to pay for schools and hospitals. But while there may be a carnival-like atmosphere inside the stadium, protests are expected outside. 

The mayor of Rio, Eduardo Raes, is expected to watch many of the sporting events through bullet-proof glass.

Such protests will come after years of economic and political crisis in Brazil. Costing just over £9bn, by far one of the biggest controversies has been the amount of money spent on the Games, in a country of significant inequality. Around six per cent of Brazil’s population – 11 million people – live in urban slums, known as favelas.

One Brazilian political activist told Vice News that even the favelas themselves have become too expensive: “When the state pacified the favelas, they were seen as safer and rents shot up, meaning many could no longer afford to live there.”

He added: “There are now around 800,000 families without a home in the Rio metropolitan area. Rio continues to persecute, demonize and criminalize the poorest in society, and it's getting worse. Many had to move out of the city, which now only serves those who can afford it.”

Meanwhile, the Olympic Village will host around 10,500 athletes, and is expected to be turned into “luxury condos” after the Games.

But discontent has gone beyond Brazil’s most marginalized and included its middle classes. A protest this Wednesday at the arrival of the Olympic torch in Rio was attended by teachers and school administrators who were demanding the payment of salaries.

One protestor, a librarian, said to the Guardian: “We don’t have the money for this. We don’t have enough books in our schools. When it rains, the ceiling leaks and drips on to the students.”

The ongoing protests have been met with widespread repression, with some protestors being targeted with tear gas and rubber bullets, while many squatters have been forcibly evicted from occupied buildings. Around 85,000 security personel have been drafted in to oversee the Games.

“We don’t have the money for this. We don’t have enough books in our schools.” Rio resident

Indeed, the chaos has been so severe that the mayor of Rio, Eduardo Raes, is expected to watch many of the sporting events through bullet-proof glass. A “wall of shame” has been erected between favelas and the motorway coming from Rio’s main airport, but organisers suggest it is a decoration and not a disguise.

The Games are also being held within the context of public health crises, with the Zika virus still ravaging the country. Concerns have been expressed about the city’s water supply, with reports suggesting that swallowing just three teaspoons of water is likely to lead to illness.

Journalist Dave Zirin, author of a book-length examination of Brazil and the Olympics, suggested this was attributable to neglected infrastructure, saying authorities should “devote resources to the only thing that will actually eliminate the Zika virus, and that is better sewage treatment and the elimination of standing water in Brazil’s poorest communities”.

The current president of Brazil, Michel Temer, has claimed that the Games will “do Brazil an extraordinary service by showing the whole world that Brazil is capable”, adding that they will leave a lasting legacy of improved infrstructure for the city: “The Olympics here in Rio have sparked projects that leave a legacy – a legacy for the population of Rio de Janeiro.”

The president will formally open the cermony, but it is possible organisers will need to drown out protestors both inside and outside the stadium. The president’s administration has been mired in controversy after ousting former preisdent Dilma Rousseff in what critics have said mounts to a “coup”.

Indeed, the president of Brazil at the time Rio won the bid for the 2016 Games, Lula da Silva, will not be in attendance either. When Rio won the bid in 2009, it was regarded as a symbolic moment for a country in economic and political ascendance – with the president tearfully hugging Pele, the “greatest footballer of all time”.

While sporting events normally act to unify nations, Rio 2016 looks set to showcase a country fractured by divisions – divisions which may come to a head over the next two weeks.

Pictures courtesy of: Philip Pryke ; Peteris

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.