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The catalyst for my story on Time.com today was the closure of Rio’s 2016 Olympic games stadium because it is in danger of collapse.
The Joao Havelange stadium was inaugurated just six years ago but was so poorly done it is already in an advanced state of disrepair.
My editors at Time made tweaks to my story on the grounds it was too opinionated.
What I wanted to say loud and clear, and have been saying in conversation for years, is this: The people who ran Rio’s 2007 Pan American Games and who are organising the next Olympics are guilty of either deceit or bad planning or both.
For the Pan Ams they promised the city of Rio 54km of new metro, a light railway line and a new highway.
They did none of it.
The games were at least six times over budget and the justification was that the venues and facilities were expensive because they were of Olympic standard.
They are not.
The track and field stadium is in danger of collapse. The aquatics park is not big enough to be used for the Olympics and a new one must be built. The brand new cycle track can’t be used because it is not good enough. The Maracana is undergoing its third reform since 2000 at a total cost exceeding 1 billion reais.
Rio’s Pan Am experience is more about how not to prepare for a major sporting event than how to.
It is nothing short of scandalous that the organizers are being given a second chance.
Almost a year ago I write a piece for Time magazine about how poor construction and Rio’s lack of oversight may have contributed to the tragic collapse of a building in the old centre that killed several people.
Mayor Eduardo Paes sarcastically attacked me for suggesting such things and local newspaper O Globo defended the city against outside criticism. (See my blog here.)
Well, today O Globo has a front page story about how the city’s buses can’t use the brand new bus lanes built for the Olympics because they are falling apart. (See O Globo’s picture below. Link to the story is here, in Portuguese.)
The BRT bus lanes were completed in the middle of last year and are one of Rio’s main public transport projects ahead of the 2016 Olympics.
Experts quoted in the story blame poor construction for the potholes and said it was probably done cheaply to save money, even though the costs of maintenance are much higher once completed.
It’s infuriating, not to say scandalous, that public money is so repeatedly wasted in this way.
As I wrote in the Christian Science Monitor last year, there is
“ongoing concern about construction and infrastructure in South America’s biggest nation – and the world’s sixth-biggest economy. Even at the highest levels, Brazil’s infrastructure projects are routinely late, poorly built or over budget, or all three.”
With the World Cup just 17 months away and host cities rushing to get stadiums and infrastructure projects completed those warnings are more and more salient.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from ordinary Brazilians is that foreigners associate Brazil with the same old stereotypical images. They blame the foreign press for selling those images abroad.
– Gringos think Brazil is either favelas, beaches or jungle.
– Gringos think all Brazilian women are sex maniacs in tiny bikinis.
– Gringos think everyone here spends their days playing football, dancing samba or lying on the beach.
I hardly need stress that those are grotesque cliches.
But it’s not the foreign press that perpetuate those stereotypes. It’s Brazilians themselves. In fact, Brazil makes a point of selling those images overseas.
The best example of that came in the Olympic closing ceremony, where Brazil was represented, and not unfairly, by a samba-ing bin man and dancing indians. The background was the promenade at Copacabana beach. Pele appeared.
I tweeted this at the time:
Nunca mais quero ouvir Brasileiro reclamando que gringo acha que Brazil ‘e so samba e carnaval e indio…
and got a huge response from Brazilians who seemed to agree.
(The tweet says: “I never again want to hear Brazilians complaining that gringos think Brazil is all about samba and carnival and indians.”)
Further cliches abound in a song released this week to celebrate Rio de Janeiro taking the Olympic mantle from London.
The song is called Os Deuses do Olimpo Visitam o Rio de Janeiro, or The Olympic Gods Visit Rio de Janeiro. It features many of the city’s best known musicians and some of its most famous personalities. (Although curiously, there are no sportsmen or women involved.)
The video is great, with amazing pictures of the city.
The problem is that it’s full of the same old cliches Brazilians say they hate. Samba. Favelas. Beaches. Christ the Redeemer. Football.
They chorus is even that tiresome phrase: Rio de Janeiro continua lindo, or Rio de Janeiro is still beautiful.
The point I want to make here is not that these cliches are untrue. Like all cliches, they have their roots in reality.
The point is that Brazilians can’t have it all ways. You either come up with some new ways to sell the city and the country or you accept that people are going to associate Brazil with samba, beaches, scantily clad dancers and kids playing football in favelas.
Personally, I think the strategy makes total sense. I don’t see the problem with concentrating on your strengths.
Rio’s favelas are iconic. The country’s football players are the best in the world. The beaches are beautiful. Samba and carnival are both spectacular and seductive. Christ and Sugarloaf are unbeatable postcard images. And who doesn’t find Brazilian women charming and attractive?
Enjoy these things, they are what make Brazil so unique.
Just relax and let the world will enjoy them too. And don’t blame me if gringos can’t see past them.
Having painfully missed out on the chance to win its first Olympic gold, you’d think Brazil would circle the wagons and take the positives from a campaign that was going perfectly until the final 2-1 reverse against Mexico.
But what did the CBF do today?
“Right back Rafael knows he made a mistake that led to the first Mexican goal in the Olympic football final in the London 2012 Games,” the statement said. “There’s no denying it. Nevertheless, with his skill and determination, the young No. 2 can’t be tainted by the error.”
“Mistakes are for correcting. Rafael knows that. Later, when things have calmed down, he will surely look at the move and learn from it. At the end of the day, as the saying goes, to err is human and we learn from our mistakes.”
Way to go, CBF. Blame the kids. You are, after all, above any blame yourself.
Few if any athletes have impressed me as much as Robert Scheidt, the sailor who, if he wins a medal next week, will become Brazil’s greatest every Olympian.
Scheidt is competing in the star class with his partner Bruno Prada.
If they win Scheidt will overtake another sailor, Torben Grael, the former king of Star. Scheidt already has two gold and two silver medals, one behind Grael’s tally of two gold, a silver and two bronze.
For all his immense talent, Scheidt is very down to earth.
I’ve interviewed him a couple of times at his base at Santo Amaro Yacht Club in the south of Sao Paulo.
The place is idyllic (see photo left) – especially considering it is just miles from some of the city’s grimmest neighbourhoods – and Scheidt was friendly and likeable.
I wrote this about him in my Reuters story in May:
Brazil is known as a soccer powerhouse. But if Olympic medals are any measure, it might just as well be known as the country of sailing.
While not quite the household character in Brazil that former soccer ace Ronaldo is, Scheidt is not far off, at least when the Olympics come along.
“Brazil has won more Olympic medals in sailing than any other sport and although Brazilians don’t know how it works 100 percent, they know it and they know the heroes,” Scheidt told Reuters in an interview in his home city of Sao Paulo.
“When we win people stop us on the streets and congratulate us. We know we’ll never be as popular as football, which is like a religion here, but we are doing what we love and we have a great level of support to help us make our dreams come true.”
One of the most interesting things he said was comparing football to sailing. They appear to have nothing in common but the way that Brazilians and Europeans approach them conform to all the old stereotypes.
Scheidt says there are similarities between Brazilian footballers and sailors. On the water, as on the football pitch, Brazilians tend to be creative, especially compared to Europeans, who are more pragmatic.
“Europeans train differently, they train lots more short and intense regattas, whereas Brazilians do longer training, looking to use the speed of the boat,” Scheidt said.
“We know how to surf the waves and use their power. Europeans are more about tactics and the fundamentals, the start, which line to take, how to attack, how to defend. We are free-er, in part because we don’t have the same infrastructure.”
That may be true, but so far the fundamentals are proving more important than creativity. With two days to go, Scheidt and Prada trail Britons Ian Percy and Andrew Simpson.
The gold medal will be decided on Sunday with the final medal race.
Today, a long time after enjoying my first Olympics in Montreal in 1976, I will be going through the same wait.
Back in 1976, I at least had the excitement of watching my countryman David Wilkie win the breaststroke event.
The commentator’s excited shout, “And it’s Wilkie!” as he touched home to take the gold medal remains a classic moment in Scottish broadcasting.
This time around I’ll be looking out for Cesar Cielo, the Brazilian who won gold in the 50 meters freestyle in Beijing and who is favourite to repeat his win.
He was pleasant, charming, likeable and generous with his time, in short, an example to most of the world’s football players, who are rarely charming, rarely likeable, rarely pleasant, and rarely generous with their time.
But I’ll be torn. Cielo was caught taking a banned substance last year and was inexplicably let off by Brazilian swimming association. (I explain more about the case here.)
I have a pretty radical take on doping. I think that anyone caught taking a banned substance should be banned for life unless they can prove convincingly there was a mistake. It’s the best way to stop cheats. If they realise their sporting life is over if they get caught, more of them would think twice about cheating.
I asked Cielo about the incident when we met and he looked visibly uncomfortable when I brought it up.
“My life hasn’t changed but I feel like as person I have changed a lot,” he told me. “I feel like I grew up a lot to overcome the situation. I had to learn who my real friends were, who I could talk to and who wanted to kill me. It opened my eyes to see who was supporting and who stood by me. It challenged myself to see if I could overcome something like that. Today I am much more prepared for any eventuality and any setback.”
Whatever the truth of the case, and there are still questions over what really happened, Cielo has every reason to feel confident about his medal chances.
He owns the world record (20.91 seconds) which he set in 2009 before synthetic bodysuits were banned, and has the fastest time in the world this year (21.38 when I wrote this story).
He will go to London as the favourite and I wish him luck. But as far as I am concerned, there will always be an asterisk alongside his name.
They take on Brazil at the Riverside stadium in Middlesbrough.
But if the British think they have it tough – and there is a huge controversy over the very existence of a British soccer team, as is explained here, here and most interestingly here – then the Brazilians have it tougher.
As I say in my Reuters story:
There is much more at stake for their opponents Brazil, who go into the Olympics looking not only for their first Olympic title but also seeking to find the team and the style of play that will bring them success when they host the World Cup in 2014.
Brazil has won world titles at every level and is the only country to lift the World Cup five times. But it has never won Olympic gold and most Brazilians would gladly pass up victories in sailing or judo or volleyball if it meant they could finally get their hands on the elusive soccer medal.
For coach Mano Menezes, winning in London is only part of the deal. He must also shape and prepare his team to win the World Cup on home soil, which will be no easy feat given that they recently dropped to their lowest FIFA ranking ever – 11th – and that they will be under huge pressure from their home fans.
Making their task even harder is the lack of competition between now and 2014. The Olympics are the last competitive fixtures that Brazil will play for two years, unless you count the relatively relaxed Confederations Cup, and I don’t.
Menezes, moreover, doesn’t have to just do well in the Olympics. He has to do well and in style.
His task is to get Brazil playing a more exciting football, something resembling their own futebol arte of the past, as well as the European possession game that Spain (and latterly Germany) have made so successful.
The former Corinthians coach has introduced a more attacking style of play than his predecessor Dunga, and they appear to be learning from the Europeans who press higher up the pitch and value possession.
He has a squad full of youngsters who would walk into almost any team in the world. Neymar, Paulo Henrique Ganso, Alexandre Pato, Oscar and Leandro Damiao are joined by over-age picks Hulk, Marcelo, and Thiago Silva, who last week signed for Paris St. Germain for a reported 42 million Euros.
Most of them will start the match against Great Britain tonight.
It is one more step on a long journey they hope will end with them lifting the World Cup at the Maracana stadium two years from now. The Olympics will give us some sense of how likely that is.
I’ve never been a huge fan of naming things after famous people and certainly not after politicians. (And don’t get me started on naming rights.)
In football, there are so few folks that are above reproach these days that to name a stadium or a stand after a player or a manager is inviting trouble.
Which makes you wonder why the Rio de Janeiro authorities even considered naming their Pan American Games stadium (seen in this picturesque snap below) after João Havelange, the former head of the CBF and FIFA and a member of the International Olympic Committee. All three institutions have long had a reputation of being rotten to the core.
Well, back in 2007 they did and it was appropriate in at least one respect. The João Havelange Olympic Stadium was supposed to cost 30 million reais and ended up costing 380 million. And even then it wasn’t built to high enough standards for FIFA to even consider using it as a venue in the 2014 World Cup.
So far, so FIFA and CBF and IOC.
Now, a week after Swiss prosecutors revealed that Havelange took bribes, there is a small but growing movement to change the stadium’s name.
Some people want to change the name of the stadium to Nilton Santos, the former Botafogo and Brazil full back, or João Saldanha, the former Brazil manager.
I am against them naming it after someone else for the reasons argued above. You’re always going to find someone opposed, even if there’s no suggestion Nilton Santos or João Saldanha has skeletons in his cupboard.
Most Cariocas already call the stadium the Engenhão, after the neighbourhood where it’s located. Why not just formalise that? The Engenhão stadium sounds good to me. And it avoids any controversy.
Typically, the Rio organising committee hasn’t commented on the affair. But they can’t be happy at the thought of the 2016 Olympic Games being held at a stadium named after a man the world knows is corrupt.
You have to think it’s only a matter of time before they make a subtle change. They’d be wise to do it sooner rather than later.
This piece in the Christian Science Monitor about the collapse of three buildings in Rio de Janeiro was supposed to be about Brazil’s housing deficit and the shoddy workmanship that left residents of new houses with damp walls, cracked floor tiles and unpaved roads. All just months after they moved in to their new homes.
Earlier this month I went to Ribeirão Preto and Franca in rural São Paulo state to talk to residents who were justly aggrieved at the construction company’s refusal to make their houses more liveable.
To quote Raquel Rolnik, a well-known architect who studies the issue.
“In terms of construction and design, the logic is one of ‘do it as cheaply as possible’ so the quality is always questionable. They think it is for the poor so it doesn’t have to be decent. The consequences for the people who live there are terrible.”
In reporting this story, I had made a passing reference to poor practices in the construction industry, writing:
Even at the highest levels, Brazil’s infrastructure projects are routinely late, poorly built, or over budget, or all three.
Stadiums for the World Cup were slow to get started and public transport, particularly airports, are so behind schedule that even soccer stars turned politicians like Pele and Romario are predicting chaos.
New metro lines open only during off peak hours because they not prepared to take the strain, craters appear in new motorways within weeks of the ribbon being cut and cracks run down the walls of brand new, multi-million dollar buildings just days after they are inaugurated.
But now, the Rio de Janeiro disaster is the news and the Monitor used that to start off a broader piece about construction, infrastructure projects, and Brazil’s preparedness to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
My reporting from Franca and Ribeirão Preto got pushed further down the story.
That is unfortunate, as I wanted those stories to be heard loud and clear.
But there’s no holding back the news.
What is it about Brazilians that makes them so thin-skinned?
This is a question I have pondered many times. It came up again today after Robin Williams joked on Letterman that Rio won the right to host the 2016 Olympics because Chicago sent Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey and Rio sent 50 strippers and half a kilo of cocaine. Robin Williams is a comedian. He made a joke.
However, Rio Mayor Eduardo Pães didn’t see the funny side. Pães reacted nastily, calling William’s words those of man betrayed, or “dor do corno” in Portuguese. (Telling a man his wife is cheating on him is considered one of the biggest insults in Brazil.)
The smart – not to menion the classy thing – to do would have been to laugh it off. After all, Rio won, the city can afford to be magnanimous. Also, why bring more attention to the issue? Let it go.
But Brazilians are incredibly thin-skinned. When Burger King made a joking reference to Rio as the place gangsters flee to, Brazilian publicists designed their own campaign to slag off London, as I wrote about in this Christian Science Monitor story back in June.
And of course, there was the by now legendary Simpsons episode that made fun of Rio. Not getting irony, or not being worldy enough to know that the Simpons make fun of everyone, Brazil’s president protested and the Rio Tourism Board threaten to sue.
The Brazilian response, I think, comes because for years the country was never taken seriously. When foreigners joke about tiny bikinis, or violence, or samba, or football or any of the typical Brazilian stereotypes, locals feel belittled.
They shouldn’t. They should learn to laugh it off. If Brazil is going to be a world player they can expect more such attention. And their leaders should learn to take the moral high ground.