Flames Over Rio 2016: Brazil’s President ‘Burns’ as the World Watches the Summer Olympic Games (Part One)

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Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics
Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics, held in August 5, 2016

Celebrate Bad Times, Come On!

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. And it most certainly wasn’t part of anyone’s game plan, either.

This was going to be the twin jewels in the crown of Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose personal efforts on behalf of his country’s pitch to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) resulted in a dual victory of sorts.

The first prize was awarded on October 30, 2007, in Zurich, Switzerland, with Brazil being chosen as the site for the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament, its first since the contest took place there in 1950 (and we know how that venture turned out). Next up, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, which were formally announced in Copenhagen, Denmark, on October 2, 2009.

That was seven seasons ago, when Lula was at the height of his fame and esteem, with an astounding 75 percent (or more) approval rating among his fellow Brazilians. Lula wept visibly, and uncontrollably, as then-IOC president Jacques Rogge called out the name of “Rio de Janeiro” as the first South American host city in the history of the modern Olympic Games. Time to party!

Brimming with pride and self-confidence, Brazil sauntered forth in preparation for two of the world’s most prestigious sporting events. If anything, Lula and his Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), or PT for short, had every right to believe that Rio would make itself ready to receive close to half a million visitors, without undue controversy or delays.

If only …. !

When I was a boy, I remember hearing my dad reminisce about the countless times his foolhardy compatriots would brag that Brazil was on its way at last. “Dessa vez vai!”  they would shout at him, in defiant assurance. “This time for sure!”

Over the course of the last two years, however — ever since Brazil suffered a humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup semi-final match — the country has had nothing but uphill battles in its attempts to overcome the odds of mounting a crowd-pleasing, if not financially rewarding, 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

Throughout Brazil’s summer and into the fall there was plenty of “trash talk” from news outlets the world over, calling for cancellation of the quadrennial event. At the very least, the games must be postponed, journalists hinted at loudly. If not, they would dissolve into an unqualified catastrophe.

Athletes from around the globe, including those of the host nation, would become infected with the dreaded Zika virus, spreading its harmful effects (i.e., infants born with shrunken heads and severely impaired brain function to women of childbearing age) in a full-blown pandemic. They conveniently overlooked the fact that winter had settled upon the region, which meant the mosquito population carrying the virus would be at its lowest point.

Needless to say, dire warnings of the end of civilization as we know it were foisted upon anyone willing to listen to these modern-day Cassandras, as if Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’ introduction of venereal disease to the New World had left a less damaging legacy.

Astonishingly, the organizers of the Rio games, as well as the unruffled IOC members, didn’t see it that way at all. As a matter of fact, they maintained an unwavering Pollyanna-ish outlook on the situation. “Everything is awesome,” they seemed to be spouting. “No Trojan horses here, of that we are certain. So it’s on with the show!”

And what a show it would turn out to be. But before dealing with the main event, South America’s most populous nation would have to wade through a lightning round of preliminaries. With forecasts of a calamity worse than the plagues of Egypt, commentators openly implied that those self-same “preliminaries” would be better by far than the games themselves.

Was it possible they could be right?

Light That Torch

Torch lighting ceremony - Rio 2016
Torch lighting ceremony, with torch bearer Vanderlai Cordeiro de Lima, Rio 2016

On May 3, 2016, the Olympic torch finally arrived in northern Brazil. It made the long, arduous journey through the country’s five major regions, eventually winding up in Rio’s mammoth Maracanã Stadium in time for the opening ceremony.

In many instances, Brazilian runners carrying the renowned sports symbol were met with a bizarre combination of cheers and jeers, and unbounded exuberance mixed in with outright antagonism.

On more than one occasion the torch relay was interrupted by masses of noisy protesters lining the route. Among the demonstrators were striking teachers from Angra dos Reis, in the state of Rio, who were dispersed later on by military forces when tear gas and rubber pellets were haphazardly fired into the crowd.

One such torch bearer, a woman, collapsed on the pavement from sheer exhaustion. Another bearer, surrounded by police jogging alongside and in unison, was sprayed with the contents of an extinguisher. (What part of “light my fire” did they not get?) The police quickly rushed in to tackle the offender.

These and similar incidents continued unabated, up until show time. However, to be fair most foreign viewers and participants were left speechless by the boundless good will and easy camaraderie shown by their Brazilian hosts during the actual games.

All the drama and tension of a two-act theatrical production, with lengthy intermission features and triumphant medal winners, were spaced strategically apart from incidents that took place before and after competition began.

Politics Rule the Day

Brazil's ex-President Dilma Rousseff speaking in Brasilia
Brazil’s ex-President Dilma Rousseff speaking in the capital of Brasilia

To start with, Brazil’s political system had been in virtual freefall. President Dilma Rousseff’s suspension, on May 12, 2016, from the nation’s highest office — nine days after the Olympic torch had landed — along with the Brazilian Senate’s historic vote for her impeachment on August 31 — exactly nine days after the Olympic closing ceremonies on August 22 — had thrown the ruling Workers’ Party into a tailspin.

Dilma had been tried for the crime, such as it was, of falsely propping up the economy in order to cover up the “true” state of the federal government’s deficit-ridden coffers during her 2014 re-election bid — a technical accounting maneuver that past presidents had taken full advantage of.

Only in her case, the implications were indicative of what some critics had foreseen as a personal grudge against an unpopular, uncompromising, and totally unbending head of state, a convenient scapegoat for the country’s economic woes.

Having won a narrow victory in the November 2014 runoff election, Rousseff implemented an array of measures that did little to prevent the country from slipping further into recession. Despite having been Lula’s handpicked successor, and by dint of her carrying on with his policies of lifting the living standards of Brazil’s impoverished under-classes via the enormously effective Bolsa Família (Family Aid) program, Dilma’s mishandling of the coming fiscal crisis had riled the nation’s elites into action.

“I may have committed errors,” Rousseff admitted to her accusers, “but I never committed crimes. It’s the most brutal of things that can happen to a human being — to be condemned for a crime you didn’t commit. There is no more devastating justice.”

After more than a decade of social uplift and federal handouts initiated under Lula and the Workers’ Party, Brazil’s “traditional ruling class,” consisting of influential oligarchs with vast monetary holdings (an eerie nod to the U.S.’s own circumstances re: Citizens United), saw an opportunity to take back the reins of power.

There were those within this select group of career politicians who were more corrupt than the person they were pursuing. Let him who is without sin cast the first impeachment vote.

Some even insisted on going forward with proceedings against Brazil’s first woman president on the grounds of her poor command of the Portuguese language. This wasn’t so much a crime as it was a clear-cut expression of the deplorable state of the Brazilian educational system.

Be that as it may, Dilma’s vice president and sidekick, Michel Temer, from the opposition Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), or PMDB, while temporarily in charge of the government in her absence, has himself been implicated in corruption activities.

Interim President Michel Temer (AFP Photo - Evaristo Sa)
Interim President Michel Temer (AFP Photo – Evaristo Sa)

The charges stem from his alleged solicitation of illegal campaign contributions from the then-head of the transportation unit of the state-owned Petrobras oil conglomerate. The accusations were part of a much larger investigation commonly known as Operação Lava-Jato (Operation Car Wash), in which an ever-widening circle of Brazil’s politicians were caught with unclean hands, including possibly ex-President Lula himself.

In addition to which, Temer’s brand of right-wing politics, his handpicked all-male (and all-white) cabinet members — in a country where 60 or more percent of the population has some kind of black African roots — and austerity measures that plan to cut back the very programs that helped poor Brazilians out of their misery, have infuriated those who deem his efforts as geared primarily towards saving his own party’s skin and the monied interests of the ruling elite. He remains almost as unpopular as Dilma had been.

As of this writing, Temer has been confined to serving out the remainder of Dilma’s term of office through 2018. With all that has transpired in the political arena, the Brazilian people as a whole have been left with little credibility in their leaders to shake the weary nation out of its torpor.

“This time for sure” remains as unfulfilled a slogan as it ever was.

Oh, We’ve Got Trouble, Right Here in Rio City

The escalating violence — over 60,000 or more unsolved murders in the past few years alone — has continued to upend efforts by both government and paramilitary groups to control drug traffickers and their constant turf wars for dominance in Rio’s squalid slum areas, known universally as favelas.

The city’s own fiscal crisis, wherein it spent over $11.9 billion on Olympic facilities as well as expansion of the existing infrastructure — much more than was taken in to make the 2016 Summer Games a profitable endeavor — has only contributed to the once nascent BRIC nation’s problems, leading to a 4 percent drop in average wages and a staggering 11.6 percent increase in the unemployment rate. (Note: The estimated “unofficial” figure has been pegged at nearer the 37 percent mark, which takes into consideration the number of undocumented workers, the so-termed clandestinos, who make their living the unofficial way.)

Brazil’s gross domestic product, or GDP, also fell 3.8 percent in the second quarter of this year. According to the Website Focus Economics, this was considered an “improvement” over the first quarter’s tumbling of nearly 5.4 percent. Didn’t they say there were no Trojan horses?

This unfortunate reversal of fortune, in a country once touted as the most likely to break through to the level of a First World state (the letter “B” in BRIC stands for Brazil), has brought about a massive recession the likes of which has not been seen since Brazil’s military leaders staged a nonviolent coup back in 1964. You would have to go back to the Depression and war years to find a comparable situation.

As if all that weren’t enough, the raw sewage dumped into Rio’s picturesque Guanabara Bay was rumored to have been detrimental to swimmers and rowers’ health. Despite assurances by the IOC and the city’s planners, who continued to claim progress in “cleaning up” the filth and muck, the situation will continue to rankle long after the games have ended. Problems in Rio’s sewage treatment plants were to blame, allowing for a paltry 20 to 30 percent success rate in eliminating the contamination.

Clean up of Rio's Guanabara Bay - Rio 2016
Clean up of Rio’s Guanabara Bay – Rio 2016

Along the same lines, reports of incomplete or faulty construction, involving the accidental deaths of workers on one of the newly built bike paths in the upper-class neighborhood of São Conrado, as well as the use of cheap labor and shoddy materials, renewed concerns over the slipshod working methods employed in building the Olympic Village and other select venues.

Poor or nonexistent accommodations, faulty wiring, intermittent power outages, cost overruns, and related structural issues were an unavoidable nuisance, a constant reminder that problems continued to plague the seaside paradise of Rio de Janeiro.

Added to which the colossal upheaval to the city’s mass transit system has led to constant disruptions in service to a public entirely dependent on its functionality for getting around town. Detours, work stoppages, and miles upon miles of snarled traffic have contributed in many cases to bringing Marvelous City to a marvelous standstill.

All this gloom and doom was projected to bring about a correspondingly Olympic pool-sized fiasco. The opening ceremonies would be a joke. The lighting of the Olympic flame would be doused by Brazil’s inability to meet expectations, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.

On the other hand, the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” to coin a phrase once used by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew (and attributed to writer William Safire), would rue the day they badmouthed Rio to a skeptical sports world.

Goodness, gracious me! Has there ever been a more negative view, in anyone’s experience, of a host city’s ills? And we thought the situation with Athens 2004 was bad! If “Greece” is the word, what would Rio 2016 spell in the wake of these impending disasters?

(End of Part One – To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

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