Guest Opinion: When Rio ends reality kicks in
With the Summer Olympics closing ceremony around the corner, are Brazilians raising their caipirinhas or crying in them? There’s reason for Rio to revel — the Zika scare has not turned into a Zika crisis. The polluted waters of Guanabara Bay, Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and along Fort Copacabana haven’t induced outbreaks of retching among swimmers, rowers and sailors. Rafaela Silva, a young female judo athlete from Rio’s infamous “City of God” favela, gave Brazil its first gold medal of these games, telling the world, “If I can set an example for the kids in the City of God, if they can believe in their dreams and find them through sport, then do it.”
And there’s reason for Rio to wince. Vast swaths of empty seats can be found at Olympic venues throughout the city. The diving pool turned a swampy lime green, thanks to a chemical imbalance. And despite the presence of 85,000 soldiers and police, violent crime marred the party, U.S. swimming gold medalist Ryan Lochte’s evolving robbery fiasco notwithstanding.
Soon, though, the acrid whiffs of closing ceremony pyrotechnics will fade in an ocean breeze, surdo drums and samba whistles will go back into closets, and Rio will be in the full grip of an Olympic hangover. As with every rousing soiree, at some point guests stagger out, and the hosts, bags under their eyes, get back to everyday living. In the case of Brazil, however, it may not be the denouement they want.
Brazil’s Senate kept the momentum rolling against suspended President Dilma Rousseff with a vote earlier this month to indict her on charges she manipulated the country’s budget to mask Brazil’s economic woes. The impeachment trial is expected to take place next week. The country’s acting president, former Vice President Michel Temer, has failed to make Brazilians believe he’s the right helmsman for the myriad crises Brazil faces. Their disdain for him was broadcast around the world during the opening ceremonies, when his introduction drew loud booing throughout Maracana Stadium.
Once one of the world’s most promising nations — one of the advancing BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia India, China) of the early 2000s — Brazil is now neck-deep in its worst depression in decades. Like other economies that have natural resources as their fulcrum, Brazil’s is flagging because prices of those commodities, including oil, iron ore and beef, have dropped sharply.
Beyond the country’s economic troubles lurks its ever-rising crime rate. In Rio de Janeiro, murders are up 7 percent in the first six months this year. Much of the street violence stems from warring between drug gangs in Rio’s impoverished favelas. Rio has tens of thousands of security personnel on the streets now; what will crime look like after the games, when that deployment subsides?
Just as endemic are Brazil’s struggles with corruption. The center-left Workers Party, which launched Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, to power, is embroiled in a multibillion-dollar bribery scandal involving Petrobras, the state-run oil company. Silva faces charges that he tried to obstruct a probe into the allegations surrounding Petrobras. Investigators tell The Associated Press that the oil company had a separate department to handle bribes.
Brazil may come out of these Olympics feeling pretty good about its performance with a global event that many thought it would not be able to pull off. It could have been a lot worse. There have been moments to savor (Simone Biles’ four gold medals in gymnastics), history etched (Michael Phelps capturing his 23rd swimming gold medal in five Olympics; Usain Bolt streaking to his third 100-meter gold medal since Beijing in 2008) and moving surprises (Simone Manuel’s stunning gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle, making her the first female African-American swimmer to win individual gold).
Soon, however, the world will exit Rio, leaving behind a country burdened by corruption, crime, economic malaise and polluted water. The hope is that Brazil’s leaders will aggressively tackle those scourges after the global spotlight swivels away.