Focus on Brazil: Will the Rio revolution be finished in time for the World Cup, then the Olympics?

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Brazilian city has unparalleled task of hosting a World Cup followed by the Olympics. Robin Scott-Elliot pays a visit to see how things are shaping up

The walkway from Maracana station curves across a busy road – few in Rio de Janeiro are not furiously well used – before dropping to ground level and ending abruptly in a brown puddle. Five palm trees stand as sad witnesses to its grubby finale in front of the iconic stadium it is supposed to serve.

The Maracana and its approaches are not fit for purpose, not yet. It is now due to be ready in May, just days before England’s June friendly with Brazil in a venue that rivals Wembley as football’s spiritual home. This is the Maracana, where a handful short of 200,000 watched the 1950 World Cup final. It was never a stadium to attract attention for architectural beauty, it’s a basic concrete bowl, rather the beauty was found on the pitch, the joga bonito. There is something about the Maracana, even the Maracana as a building site with workmen there 20 hours a day in a desperate rush to complete reconstruction behind its grim guard of bare concrete columns that will one day form the new entrance to the stadium.

There is something about Rio, from the Maracana to the Copacabana to the Carnival. It is one of the world’s great cities yet it is one, according to one of its ministers, suffering from low self-esteem.

It’s more than half a century since the Brazilian government departed, transferring the capital inland to Brasilia. It has left a chip on Rio’s shoulder, a sun-kissed chip carried with a swagger but a chip nonetheless. And it is one that can be removed,  so the ministerial script goes, by doing what no city has ever done before. Next year the World Cup stops off in Rio – after this summer’s Confederations Cup dress rehearsal – and two years after that the Olympics comes to South America for the first time. Never mind which is the greatest sporting show on earth, both are Rio bound.

“We need these events to bring the eyes of the world on Rio, to change the mentality of the people,” says Andre Lazarmi, the state secretary of sport and leisure for Rio. “We did not have a lot of self-esteem. We are changing mentality – now we are proud of ourselves.”

Sport has been prescribed as an attempted cure all for the Cariocas, the residents of Rio. The sport will be preceded by significant investment in the city’s infrastructure. There is enforced change too with the favelas undergoing a controversial programme known locally as pacification, accompanied by eviction from some areas to allow Olympic construction. Local human rights bodies estimate around 30,000 people have been evicted. 

An estimated one fifth of Rio’s population of six million live in the favelas, most of which scuttle precariously up the steep hills that dot the city. Their gradual pacification begins with a specialist police force driving out the drug gangs. To begin with it was a bloody operation. But over time a routine has been established – the authorities announce their intention to pacify an area on a certain date and the gangs melt away before the police move in. Some £2.5bn is being spent on improving more than 200 favelas over a 10-year period either side of the Games. It is not happening solely because of the Olympics and World Cup, but their presence has an impact on the timing. 

“Rio will be an example of the transformation of a city,” says Carlos Nuzman, president of Rio 2016. It is a theme taken on by Leo Gryner, the chief operating officer and a veteran of every summer Games since 1976.

“There is a component here that is very important for Rio and the Brazilian story. This city is living a revolution,” says Gryner. “Rio had undergone a very tough period since it lost its status as capital of the country. The city lost its bearings.”

Across the city from the Maracana, on the shores of the Lagoa de Jacarepagua, construction has begun on an Olympic park which will not include the main stadium for the Games.The athletics will take place elsewhere. A visit to the park reveals minimal signs of activity on a site that has been levelled but little more. A dog wanders the boundary fence and a bus trails a cloud of dust as it passes where the velodrome will stand. Three years is not a sizeable window in which to transform this into a functioning Olympic park – expect a sprint finish on a par with Athens, although the Olympic project has not yet caused anything like the levels of alarm within the International Olympic Committee as the World Cup preparations have with Fifa. The latest IOC inspection last month cautioned that “time is of the essence”. Like the plodding progress in the Maracana – just two weeks ago the authorities were dishing out assurances that it would definitely be ready by 27 April, now another month has been added – there are going to be some close run builds.

Across the lake the Olympic village is further advanced. “It will mirror what it is like to live in Rio,” says Mario Cilenti, the man in charge. “This one will have the Rio feel.” The regenerative aspect to Rio’s Games is applied broad brush style to the entire city, and the Games themselves will be spread more widely than in London. Deodoro, in the city’s north-west, will host seven sports including equestrianism and canoeing, the Copacabana will – of course – stage beach volleyball, while the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a stone’s throw from Ipanema beach and beneath the statue of Christ the Redeemer, is the most striking venue rowing has ever had at an Olympic Games.

But the most important venue at any Games is the Olympic Stadium and here is where Rio differs from all recent hosts. The Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange (named after the former Fifa president accused in a Swiss court of accepting millions in bribes but who remains revered in some quarters at home) stands on its own in the geographical centre of the city. The already built 60,000-seat venue for the athletics will not be the focal point of the Olympic park (organisers claim it will take a 20-minute journey from the athletes’ village) nor will it host the ceremonies – they will take place in the Maracana.

The stadium was built for the Pan American Games in 2007, an event that stands as a warning to the Olympic organisers. It came with promises for new roads and stations that never materialised. The athletes’ village is already in a state of disrepair with some blocks and roads caving in as a result of hurried construction. The original budget for the stadium multiplied by six.

Budget is an issue for Rio, and Brazil as a whole, for the World Cup and the Olympics – and who foots the bill. The cost of re-building the Maracana has more than doubled to £377m. The World Cup budget has risen to around $13bn (£8.6bn), with a similar amount  earmarked for the Olympics, although figures remain vague and wide ranging from source to source depending on how much of those infrastructure improvements are included. There are complications over who will pay the bills too. Rio state last week threatened to stop paying the constructors of the Maracana over a squabble with federal government over how much of a share it receives of the Atlantic oil fields located off the city. There are three layers of government involved – federal, state and city – as well as the two organising committees, and the IOC and Fifa. Relations fluctuate.

Gryner has drawn comparisons with Barcelona – and its relationship with Madrid – in explaining what Rio wants to become. The mayor of Rio has held extensive meetings with his Catalan counterpart. Nuzman holds up the example of Tokyo in 1964 as how a city can be transformed by the Olympics as it staged the Games  19 years after “losing a war”.

Rio has a plenty to lose, however, if things do not go to plan. It is already the most visited city in the southern hemisphere, thanks to the Carnival, and a Games or World Cup dogged by traffic jams and a wide ranging perception of unsafe streets would do  serious global damage to its reputation.

“It is a challenge but we are prepared for it,” says Lazarmi. “The city, the state and the federal government are working hard together. Everything will be ready – better than you think.  For Rio it will change our lives. For us it is worth it.”

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