Rio has a reputation for putting on a great party, but is it ready for the Olympics?

Writer Misha Glenny spent months living in its biggest slum to find out

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Let’s start with the good news. The chances of contracting the Zika virus during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are negligible. It’s winter there, and mosquitos don’t like the cooler weather.

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Furthermore, the 2016 Games are going to look fantastic on TV. I can’t think of another city in the world whose natural beauty provides a better backdrop than Rio’s. We did a great job in 2012, but Stratford and Canary Wharf can’t compete with Sugarloaf Mountain, the huge white statue of Christ the Redeemer and the long white sandy beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema that wind like ribbons beneath the city’s vertiginous green hills and mountains.

Rio also has form when it comes to putting on a big show for hundreds of thousands of visitors – they do it every year for Carnival. Singing and dancing is deeply embedded in the Brazilian DNA and I have little doubt that the Opening Ceremony will be worth watching. Rio’s answer to Danny Boyle is Fernando Meirelles, who directed City of God, the Oscar-nominated film about Rio’s slums, so expect an explosion of colour and rhythm.

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Rio Carnival 2016

But that’s it for the good news, I’m afraid. Things have been looking a tad rickety for a few months now, and decidedly ropey since the city’s acting governor declared “a state of financial emergency” in June. Sadly, Brazil is wallowing in a monumental political, economic and constitutional crisis. The president, Dilma Rousseff, has been suspended and is facing impeachment. The country’s largest company, the oil giant Petrobras, is at the heart of what might turn out to be the largest corruption scandal in history. And one result has been swinging budget cuts that have affected Rio badly.

So look out for Rio’s fabled graffiti artists and banner-makers. As I exited
 the customs area at Rio’s airport recently, I was greeted by a group of smiling police officers protesting against their unpaid salaries by holding up a huge greeting to the incoming foreigners: “Welcome to Hell”. As I left the terminal, painted on the first bridge I passed under was an enormous slogan saying “Welcome to Rio! We have no hospitals here!”

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Much as I love this city, I think you’re better off watching the Games from the comfort of your sofa than trying to negotiate the notorious traffic jams, collapsing public transport and the muggers.

Two years ago, I spent three months living in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela. I was research
ing my book Nemesis, a biography of the drug trafficker
 who ran Rocinha for five 
years before his arrest in 
November 2011. It was a 
fascinating time to be 
there.

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Rocinha, Rio’s biggest slum

Community policing
 was put in place for the first
 time in 50 years. For a year or
 two, this offered the residents a brief respite from the otherwise constant gun battles between the drug gangs and the often equally violent special forces.

When I was back again in June and July, all my friends were reporting a spike in gun violence and muggings. Oddly this may well let up during the Games as the gangs see the influx of tourists as a golden opportunity to shift a lot of drugs. Sad but true.

Rio’s suave mayor, Eduardo Paes, puts 
a brave face on things. He insists repeatedly that everything is ready to roll and the Games can begin. But things didn’t look quite so peachy when he opened the Barra Velodrome just a month ago. There were large swathes of cloth covering the parts of the spectator stands not yet completed. There is barely a venue that is not the site of furious 11th-hour building works. And there are fears that corners have been cut. The first sign was in April when a new cycle lane that skirts some of Rio’s most beautiful coastline collapsed, killing two people.


When I visited, the volleyball arena on Copacabana still looked a complete mess with big holes in the spectator areas where seats should be. Workers stood around in desultory fashion with tools lying everywhere on the ground. The scene, repeated in many parts of Rio’s Olympic infrastructure, did not inspire confidence.


I witnessed Rio snatching victory from the jaws of defeat during Pope Francis’s first foreign visit as pontiff in 2013. Floods damaged the venue for his main mass, but in a deft move the authorities switched it to Copacabana, building a stage in just three days, and it was a huge success.

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Pope Francis greeting the crowds in Rio in 2013

This time, however, the whole city appears on edge. “To be honest, the political crisis in Brazil is so bad that nobody really gives a damn about the Olympics,” a friend told me. She should know – she is a documentary film-maker with the tricky task of trying to find locals who are excited about the forthcoming event.


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The impeachment of the president has polarised the country as much as the Brexit vote has in Britain. But hopefully for all of us, in Britain and Brazil, the achievements of the world’s greatest sportsmen and women will offer us a respite from a signally unpredictable year.

The Olympics 2016: Opening Ceremony is on tonight at 11:40pm on BBC1