Saturday, May 14, 2011

Will World Cup, Olympics in Rio Really Be 'Deadly Games?'

No offense to my sportswriter friends, but this is what can happen when someone who makes a living by elevating games into earth-shaking events tries his hand at writing hard news.  

An online story posted by ESPN last week relating violence in Rio’s favelas to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 summer Olympics has drawn some international attention and upset the Marvelous City’s fragile self-image. The piece was reported in the Brazilian media and picked up by the Huffington Post, various Brazilian web sites and innumerable silly blogs like this one. 

However, while the report is very scary, it actually has little to do with the sporting events in question.

I wanted to do a humorously overstated imitation of the article’s dramatic, Dirty Harry-style narration, but the tone of a story ominously headlined “Deadly Games,” beginning with the sentence, “A white cross rising above the Macacos slum marks the spot where people are burned alive,” and carrying on with lines like, “The police come in behind a protective curtain of bullets” becomes difficult to parody. I’ll try anyway: “Come for the Olympics. Stay because you and your family are lead-ridden corpses feeding rats in the gutter.”

There’s a tendency among sportswriters to use hyperbole, colorful language and breathless narration to juice up stories that might otherwise read, “Yet again, the ball went back and forth until somebody won.” But it isn’t always necessary or appropriate for actual news reports to be turned into Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks.

I don’t question the truth of the report, which centers around urban warfare between rival gangs and police in a favela near Maracanã Stadium, where at least the closing game of the Cup will be held. Yes, Rio’s favelas occasionally erupt into war zones, with police and drug traffickers blasting away at each other with automatic weapons. Yes, some gangs have a penchant for burning snitches alive. And, judging from his account, the author would almost have us believe he even convinced (or paid) police to hand him a machine gun and let him take part in a raid for the story:

“The world shrinks to the metal in your hands. Firing a rifle brings you back into contact with yourself: You feel the kick of the stock, hear the bang of the hammer, smell the powder, taste the cordite, see the dense, white smoke and the glimmer of sun off the ejecting cartridge.”

What was your kill count, Wright?

But the real issue here is that the reporter, with his nose for action, instinctively picked out the most dramatic story, not the one most relevant to the The Games. While this sort of violence is a very real problem for Rio and for Brazil, it is not your problem as a sports tourist.

Your problem is that hungry little kid on the sidewalk of Avenida Atlântica, whose parents taught him to spot gringos and who is eyeing your Gucci handbag while you’re getting sunburned on Copacabana beach, obliviously sipping a caipirinha. And the gang of professional robbers who waited until I was alone in the crowd of the Lapa street party, picked me up from behind, relieved me of my wallet, dropped me on the sidewalk and vanished before I had time to react. (To be fair, the city has since made major changes to the Lapa scene, including a heightened police presence. Do not miss it while you’re there.) And the ever-present street people who will, sometimes aggressively, hound you for change, try to polish your boots and try to sell you their handicrafts. None of these folks are particularly dangerous to your physical person (although a beggar did once whip a 10-centavo piece at my temple when I declined to make a donation), but they can screw up your vacation.

Basic transportation may also be a real problem. See this excellent piece that an actual news outlet ran in late March. While it focuses primarily on São Paulo, the story illustrates the breathtaking levels of corruption, incompetence and bureaucracy that stand in the way of the massive infrastructure improvements necessary to accommodate the influx of visitors.

Gang violence, on the other hand, is contained in the favelas, with rare exceptions. You probably won’t be in the favelas, unless you pay for a tour. And, while they permeate the city, most of the favelas around tourist areas have been or will be taken under police control by the time the Cup takes place. While Rio’s sporadic urban warfare is astounding to us northerners and makes for cool movies and attention-grabbing headlines, its only relevance to The Games is the image problem it creates.

The “Deadly Games” report acknowledges early on that it's “possible to live a middle-class life without the violence of the slums affecting one's daily existence.” OK, so what’s the point of spending another 2,000 words on it in the context of middle-class tourists?

Some might be thinking, “Professional robbers? Cops with machine guns? I think I’ll stay home and watch it on television.” WRONG. The correct response is to remember that adventure is defined by a certain amount of risk. Despite a couple of incidents, I never regretted my decision to go to Rio. But leave a credit card and a debit card back in the hotel room, just in case. 

The real threat to your Olympics vacation. Just give him a real and move on. Unless he’s in a group, in which case, just move on.

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