RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Olympics has raised the tantalizing prospect that Brazil’s faded former capital, known for its beauty and high crime, will be rejuvenated into a modern, thriving city.
Blessed with jaw-dropping natural wonders and passionate people, the Carnival city is in line for a multibillion-dollar Olympic overhaul that supporters say will unclog its transport system, clean up the environment and boost public services.
Rio’s slick Olympic campaign promised world-class sports facilities, a doubling of the beachside city’s hotel capacity, and a rejuvenation of its dilapidated port area and the historic city center. After the International Olympic Committee awarded Rio the Games on Friday, newspapers and many residents voiced hope that the city could emulate Spain’s Barcelona, which experienced a cultural and economic renaissance after it hosted the 1992 Olympics.
“It is something able to rival the arrival of the Portuguese royal family in 1808 in terms of the benefits it can bring for the economy, social life, security, politics, public administration and other areas,” O Globo newspaper said in an editorial.
The arrival of the royal family as they fled Napoleon’s invasions in Europe heralded Rio’s transformation into a major city and the center of the Portuguese empire.
The city of 6 million has mostly been in decline since 1960, when the federal capital shifted to Brasilia, with its image increasingly stained by the poverty and drug violence of its slums and the brutality of its security forces.
It has shown signs of a revival in recent years, helped by Brazil’s economic strength, but has remained overshadowed by financial capital Sao Paulo and has failed to shake off its reputation for decadence and high crime.
Surveys have shown strong support among Rio residents for the 2016 Games, and the bid organizers argued that the event could transform the city.
But many residents are skeptical and fret that preparations for the event could be plagued by corruption.
“There will have to be a major control of the resources by the international and Brazilian (Olympics) organizations. If not, we will face embarrassment,” said Marcos dos Santos, a 39-year-old trainer of blind athletes in Rio.
The experience of the 2007 Pan-American Games in Rio inspires little confidence that promises will be kept.
Although the budget for that event more than tripled, much of the pledged infrastructure was never built and it did not provide the economic windfall that residents had expected.
The O Globo editorial said Rio has only seven years to do what had not been done in 50, calling for “a culture of extreme transparency” in spending decisions, using the Internet to solicit public input and feedback.
Efforts to change Rio could also be stymied by its widespread poverty, embodied in the more than 1,000 slums that run through the city and occupy many hillsides.
For the first time in modern history, the IOC selected a host city that has large areas outside state control, dominated by heavily armed drug gangs or militias made up of off-duty police officers and firefighters.
Last year, a U.N. report described the Rio police’s violent invasions of slums as “murderous and self-defeating.” Rio state recorded 5,717 murders last year.
“Rio is a city that lost many things over its history,” an overjoyed, tearful President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said after Friday’s announcement, adding that Rio’s people now had the chance to show the world how “marvelous” they are.
Ahead of the Pan-Am Games, police stepped up their violent raids of slums in an attempt to “clean” the city, while officials and the media clamped down on critics of the policy, said Ignacio Cano, a sociologist at Rio state university.
“If the same state of mind prevails for the Olympic Games, it’s going to be terrible for the city,” he said.
“The issue is, will they take the chance to make the city as a whole less violent and more inclusive, not just during the Games, but up to the Games.”
Editing by Stacey Joyce