Cariocas have a way of coping with the difficulty of living in their extraordinary, exasperating city, where the highs and lows are as jagged as the landscape. “We have to laugh or we’ll cry,” they say with a warm, weary smile.
They are laughing about the Olympics, which will showcase Rio’s distinction as the first South American host starting with Friday’s Opening Ceremonies in Maracana Stadium.
The music, the dancing and the costumes should uplift the mood of Rio’s residents, who are feeling uncharacteristically sour.
“Yes, we are experts at throwing a party, but what is the price we’ll pay when all the athletes and tourists leave?” Jorge Pinheiro said while eating at his favorite juice bar in Copacabana. “The messy situation in Brazil right now means the impact of the Olympics is not a happy one.”
A paralyzing recession, 10 percent unemployment and a corruption scandal that has brought down dozens of corporate executives, politicians and former president Luiz Inacio da Silva has Brazil taking a giant step backward just as it was ready to flex its economic muscles. President Dilma Rouseff faces an impeachment trial after the Olympics and is expected to be ousted. Rio city and state are broke and the $4.6 billion Olympic bill is part of the cause.
“Rio wasn’t the best choice for the Olympics,” said Marina Mufatto Choinski, a college student working at the Victorinox store on Sugarloaf mountain. “We have many more important things to worry about. We are not so proud of the Games because we don’t think they will bring anything good to the city. The Olympics only benefits the rich, and already in Rio we have a huge gap between rich and poor.”
Cariocas are laughing, sarcastically. In a play on the word Olimpiadas — piadas means jokes in Portuguese — they’re calling Rio 2016 the Joke Olympics.
The Games have spawned an abundance of memes. Chucky, the horror movie doll, is the “new mascot.” Katy Perry, songstress of the Olympic anthem, is shown emerging from polluted Guanabara Bay with her head surrounded by garbage. Another image shows gold, silver and bronze medals engraved not with the Olympic rings but with mosquitoes called Dengue, Zika and Chikungunya.
“I love Rio but so much needs to change,” said Lucas Dias, who lives in the Complexo do Alemao favela, where he heard gunshots Wednesday as police battled drug traficantes. “We blame the government but we voted for them. What is normal? I’m used to normal being bad. We have great things in Rio but the bad things are bigger.”
Cariocas worry that money spent on Olympic venues and the shoddily-constructed Olympic Village will turn out to be a waste. Pan Am Games dorms converted to apartments in 2007 are decrepit from neglect and surrounded by weeds.
Promises to clean up Guanabara Bay, build sewage treatment facilities, improve mass transit and increase services to the favelas which are home to 20 percent of the city’s 6.5 million people have not been kept. Instead, a wall was erected to hide the Mare favela complex from visitors driving into town from the airport.
“They started so many projects they haven’t finished — not even the World Cup construction is finished,” Choinski said.
Asked if she ever swims in the bay, Choinski said no, “we don’t want to kill ourselves! It’s a shame for the Olympic sailors.”
The public education system is on the verge of collapse. Students are asked to bring their own toilet paper to school.
“You go to a school and you’ll be heartbroken to see the lack of teachers and books and janitors,” Choinski said. “The politicians keep the money for themselves, as we are seeing with all the trials.”
The magazine piaui pokes fun at politicians Eduardo Cunha and Aecio Neves and imprisoned construction company CEO Marcelo Odebrecht with cartoons of Cunha in a gymnastics leotard handcuffed to the high bar, Neves in golf duds handing over a urine sample and Odebrecht swinging a ball and chain instead of a hammer.
Olympic ticket sales and tourism have been slower than expected.
“Olympic events are too expensive but I might buy some to the Paralympics for 10 Reais [$3],” Dias said.
Neto Queiroz and his friend, hotel employee Samira Ferigotti, watched the Brazilian Olympic men’s soccer team tie South Africa 1-1 inside Queiroz’s newsstand. They are excited about the team’s gold-medal chances with captain Neymar.
“But they will have to play better than this,” Queiroz said, groaning loudly — a sound echoed down the street at numerous TVs tuned to the game — when Neymar’s header sailed high.
Still, Rio’s residents exhibit hope. It’s in their nature.
Pinheiro said Cariocas are not as obsessed with the Olympic medal count as Americans — soccer being the one exception — but he thinks they will make the best of their role as Olympic host, enjoy the Games and demand progress.
“The fact that we are discussing the legacy is a sign of maturity for a place that is immature as a democracy,” he said. “The Olympics has given us a vision of what we’d like to be, not what we are.
“But the best thing about our city as always is the people, wonderful people. We know there are problems, but let us talk, drink some coconut water or coffee, and relax.”