x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Work starts now

Few would argue with the choice of Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 Olympics.

The Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro will bring the Olympic Games to South America for the first time.
The Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro will bring the Olympic Games to South America for the first time.

Few would argue with the choice of Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 Olympics. It takes the Games to South America for the first time and takes advantage of one of the world's fastest growing economies. But with two big events now on its schedule - the 2014 World Cup includes games in Rio as well - the city has a lot of work to do over the next five years.

On the plus side, it is a city that knows how to party, as anyone who has been around at Carnival time will testify, and as a tourist destination it is, second to none. No big city in the world can boast such a spectacular setting. But Rio has its darker side. If you doubt this, you get hold of the viscerally thrilling film City Of God, set in the favelas, the shanty towns on the outskirts of the city, where drug barons rule the roost and bullets are the local currency. Life expectancy in some of these areas struggles to get past 33 years.

As it happens I was in Rio a few years ago, sent by a newspaper to interview the famous "Girl From Ipanema". You will no doubt be familiar with the tune, a worldwide hit in the mid-1960s, but you might not know that the tall, tanned, and slender young lady who inspired it is still around. She is called Heloisa Pinheiro, now an elegant lady in her 60s and proprietor of a dress shop in Sao Paulo. We met in the bar where the tune was born on a beautiful afternoon, a cooling breeze rippling the palm fronds and a score of impromptu games of football being played on the sand. In that setting, it was easy to persuade yourself you had set foot in paradise.

The tour firm I travelled with did take us on a trip to one of Rio's favelas, where I was impressed by the friendly atmosphere, but that was an approved neighbourhood, where public money had been invested to create projects to keep youngsters out of the clutches of the drug gangs. There will have to be a whole lot more of that sort of spending in the years leading up to Rio's two big events. Eye-popping amounts will need to be shelled out before the world can be welcomed to this beautiful city.

In bidding for the Olympics, Brazil's sports minister, Orlando Silva, rejected the idea that security would be a particular problem in Rio, and his point is valid. Both Johannesburg in 2010 and London in 2012 have their own issues in this area, which may be different from Rio's but will require equal vigilance and demand similar resources. The fact remains, though, that there were more than 5,000 homicides in the state of Rio last year, there are still stories appearing in local newspapers about corruption and poor use of public money in connection with the Pan American Games held there in 2007, and, on a more practical level, Rio remains one of the world's more traffic-choked capitals.

It seems to me - and this applies to London as well as Rio - that winning the bid to host the games is the exciting moment. My view was when London won the bid, we should have enjoyed the triumph, and then handed the Games to Paris, to let them pick up the tab. For Rio, then, the hard work starts now, and I doubt very much it will be an untroubled stroll to a bossa nova rhythm, like the fabled "Girl from Ipanema".

The Heineken Cup, European rugby's premier competition, starts this weekend with the game still mired in controversy following the fake blood scandal at Harlequins and the drug taking and missing of drugs tests at Bath. This is a shame because it takes the gloss off the fantastic entertainment the cup has provided over the past 15 years. That should not, however, stop further and deeper investigations into cheating in the game. There is a whiff of complacency about the Rugby Football Union's report on the so-called "Bloodgate" affair because only 12 per cent of players questioned said they knew of injuries being feigned. The task force concluded that there was "no substance whatsoever" for allegations that cheating is widespread. Seems ever so slightly smug to me, and I would question the use of the word "only".

Of all the Premier League managers enjoying an enforced rest this international weekend, the one who will relish it the most is undoubtedly Gianfranco Zola. Having performed minor miracles at West Ham last season against a background of financial uncertainty, Zola now finds his team not only near the foot of the table, but playing like a team who deserve to be there. What puts particular pressure on the manager is to find games at this early stage of the season being described as "must win". This, however, is something with which Zola is going to have to learn to live. On behalf of not just West Ham fans but the Premier League in general, which he enhances with his zest for the game and gentlemanly conduct, I hope this kind of thing does not drive him out of the game.