The grim mood stands in contrast to the ebullience shown in 2009, when Rio landed the Olympics. At the time, Brazil was basking in its triumphs.
RIO DE JANEIRO —
How do Brazilians feel about their big Olympic moment?
First, there is the anger: Rioters pelted the Olympic torch relay with rocks as it approached Rio de Janeiro, while bumper stickers have rearranged the Olympic rings into a four-letter word.
NBC (Channel 5) is airing the opening ceremonies starting at 7:30 tonight.
There is the anxiety: With gallows humor amid a crime wave and fears of terrorism, a bingo game is circulating for people to wager on which day during the games an attack will occur.
And the indifference: The media giant Globo will not even bother to broadcast the Olympics during the coveted Sunday afternoon slot, opting instead for domestic soccer. A sizable number of Rio hotel rooms remain unreserved, forcing travel agents to slash rates in a desperate attempt to entice Brazilians to come.
“Just thinking of the Olympics leaves me revolted,” said Ana Caroline Joia da Souza, 21, a street vendor who sells sweets in front of a Rio metro station. “Our politicians want to trick the world into thinking things are great here. Well, let the foreigners see for themselves the filth we live in, the money our leaders steal.”
It is something of a ritual in countries that host the Olympics to engage in soul-searching on the eve of the games. Brazil is no exception, unleashing a withering exploration of the country’s political, economic and ethical troubles before the opening ceremony Friday.
Nearly two-thirds of Brazilians — 63 percent — think hosting the Olympics will hurt the country, according to a recent survey by the polling company Datafolha. Only 16 percent said they were enthusiastic about the games, while 51 percent said they had no interest in them. (The poll, conducted on July 14-15 in interviews with 2,792 people, had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.)
The grim mood stands in contrast to the ebullience shown in 2009, when Rio landed the Olympics. At the time, Brazil was basking in its triumphs — including a growing presence on the world stage, the lifting of millions of poor people into the middle class and the maturing of its young democracy after 21 years of military rule that had ended in 1985.
Today, the Olympics are competing with a harrowing recession and Brazil’s other public spectacle: bare-knuckled political dysfunction.
The country has not one, but two presidents: Dilma Rousseff, who was suspended to face impeachment proceedings that will continue to unfold during the games, and Michel Temer, her interim replacement. Both Rousseff, a leftist, and Temer, who is shifting to the right, are deeply unpopular throughout the country. In fact, voters are fuming about the entire political establishment.
The leaders who envisioned the Olympics as an opportunity for Brazil to swagger in the international spotlight, including Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president who has been one of Brazil’s most influential political figures, are mired in scandals.
Da Silva, universally known as Lula, is about to go on trial on charges that he tried to obstruct the investigation of a colossal graft scheme at Petrobras, the national oil company.
Now da Silva’s hand-picked successor, Rousseff, faces an impeachment trial on claims that she manipulated the budget to conceal mounting economic problems. The scandals have developed against a backdrop of economic wretchedness: The unemployment rate surged to 11.3 percent in July, compared with 6.5 percent at the end of 2014, with companies laying off thousands of workers a day.
Rio de Janeiro, which just a few years ago boasted an economy turbocharged by offshore oil discoveries, is the center of Brazil’s worst economic crisis in decades. Struggling to pay civil servants and pensioners after squandering a bonanza of oil royalties, the leaders of the state of Rio de Janeiro recently declared a “state of calamity” because of its collapsing public finances.
The approach to the Olympics has been marked by such a long and varied list of fiascos — from protests over forced evictions to complaints about thefts and plumbing debacles at the new Olympic Village — that British sports historian David Goldblatt ranks the preparations in Rio among the worst in Olympic history.
In an effort to bolster security in Rio during the games, the federal government is deploying thousands of troops to patrol the crime-weary city. But critics say that bringing in soldiers from violence-ravaged cities in northeast Brazil could embolden gang activity there and in other parts of the country.
Mindful of the dilemma, the Brazilian authorities shifted their plans this week and sent more than 1,000 troops to the state of Rio Grande do Norte in the country’s northeast, hoping to quell attacks by a prison-based gang on public buildings and buses.
Challenges aside, some argue that the Olympics are just what Brazil needs to bring it out of its slump.
Supporters say the traditional Olympic narrative often involves an escalation of tension before the games, only to be replaced by excitement once they are under way. There are also those who say the country needs to stop complaining and start enjoying the spectacle.
“Everyone wanted the games here when we got them, so all the criticism now is hypocritical,” said Cleide Correa, 72, a real-estate broker in Rio de Janeiro. “Of course they spent a lot of money to organize this, but that’s the case in every host country. We need to make the best of the situation now.”
Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, who has hitched his political fortunes to the games, contends the negative sentiment around the Olympics is largely because of Brazil’s “stray-dog complex,” a term used by the playwright Nelson Rodrigues to describe the inferiority with which Brazilians sometimes view themselves in relation to other countries.
The International Olympic Committee, Paes said, “is noting how we sell ourselves short.” He then argued that blame for the problems at the Olympic Village rested with an Argentina-born Olympic official, and contended that Brazilians were rapidly resolving the problems.
Others say the country’s merciless self-questioning at the moment holds a cathartic value, reflecting a democracy where freedom of expression remains resilient.
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In an essay, writer Eliane Brum listed some of the problems that make Brazil seem like a holy mess, including man-made environmental disasters like the bursting of a dam last year in the state of Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro’s sewage-infested Guanabara Bay, where sailing teams fear colliding with bodies.
Still, Brum said, it would be a joke to submit Brazil “to the judgment of the so-called First World,” given the number of recent problems in those countries and elsewhere.
The question of medals
Brum mentioned Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s chances of becoming the president of the United States as evidence that rich industrialized countries, long seen by some Brazilians as admirable role models, might not have as many lessons to teach Latin America’s largest country after all.
The chances of the Olympics offering a distraction from Brazil’s woes may be undermined by the country’s own Olympic history. It has never won a medal at the Winter Games, and could win fewer medals at these Summer Games than nearly any host country in history.
It is rare for the host team to finish outside the top 10 in the medal count, but Brazil has never finished better than 15th. At the 2012 Summer Games in London, British athletes won 65 medals, helping turn annoyance and anger over hosting the Olympics into a surge of national pride.
Brazil, whose population is more than three times that of Britain, won just 17 medals in London. It was the most ever for Brazil, but placed it only 15th among competing countries, tied with Spain.
Should Brazil finish 15th again, it would equal the home-country finishes of Greece (Athens, 2004) and Mexico (Mexico City, 1968). The only Summer Games host with a worse showing was Canada in 1976, when it won 11 medals in Montreal — none of them gold — and finished 27th in the medal count.
Some Brazilians hope that home-field advantage, and the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in upgrading the country’s sports programs, can push Brazil’s total number of medals toward 30 and a finish in the top 10.
It could get a boost from volleyball, judo and sailing, which are historically strong sports for the Brazilians. As for soccer, the state of the men’s national team remains a touchy subject, after its humiliating loss to Germany during the 2014 World Cup, the last big sporting event that Brazil hosted.
Brazil’s malaise has some arguing for realistic expectations.
“We’re clearly not about to project an image of a powerful and efficient country,” said Fernando Gabeira, a politician and writer.
“Maybe we can show how we’re starting to get past our economic, political and moral disaster,” Gabeira said. “We could be like those athletes who manage to finish the marathon with their tongues hanging out, almost fainting. But they make it to the finish line.”