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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Violence, chaos plagues Rio one year after Olympics

Rio was the first South American city to hold the Summer Games and organisers were credited with staging a successful show. But as soon as the athletes packed their bags and cameras stopped rolling, barely hidden problems erupted.

Built for the Rio Olympic Games in August 2016, the Olympic Aquatics Stadium sits drained and empty in this view taken on February 5, 2017.  Pilar Olivares / Reuters
Built for the Rio Olympic Games in August 2016, the Olympic Aquatics Stadium sits drained and empty in this view taken on February 5, 2017. Pilar Olivares / Reuters

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It could have been a sort of rebirth, or at the very least a rebranding. Instead, Rio de Janeiro today is unrecognisable frrom the feelgood city that greeted the world at the Olympics exactly a year ago, and the Olympic legacy is one of violence, white elephant sports facilities and corruption scandals.

Rio was the first South American city to host the Summer Games and organisers were credited with staging a successful show, from the moving opening ceremony to the exploits of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and US swimming superman Michael Phelps. But as soon as the athletes packed their bags and the cameras stopped rolling, the problems - which were already barely hidden - erupted.

Eduardo Paes, mayor of Rio during the Olympics, boasted of making the city "the safest placer in the world" - thanks to the temporary deployment of 50,000 troops.

Last month, the army had to return, sending around 8,500 soldiers to support Rio's cash-strapped police in their brutal fight against the drug gangs that rule much of the city's favelas, or shanty towns, with near impunity.

Muggings have rocketed in richer neighbourhoods, parts of the favelas are like war zones, and stray bullets fired from high powered rifles mean that no one is safe. In the last few weeks, gunfights have spilled over on to the major thoroughfare that passes the international airport, forcing drivers to stop and hide behind their cars.

Roberto Alzir, head of security strategy for the state of Rio, said the city still needed that Olympic-level support from the military. "Today those reinforcements have left and we have trouble paying our police," he said.

Despite all the promises, authorities have struggled to find uses for the facilities built for the two-week Olympics. Parts of the Olympic Park are now open to public events, but much of the complex is eerily vacant. Last weekend the state-of-the-art velodrome with its wooden track caught fire and was heavily damaged.

The Arena of the Future, where handball games were played, was meant to be dismantled and recycled for three schools in poor neighborhoods. But budget shortages mean it has yet to happen. many of the sports arenas are either semi-abandoned or used too rarely to support the neighborhood's economy or attract new investment.

Mario Andrada, spokesman for the Rio organising committee, insists that the legacy "is just taking time to put in place."

A metro line extension and a new rapid bus network are among the tangible benefits of the Games for ordinary Rio residents. However, with hotel occupancy plummeting, unemployment soaring and ever more homeless in the streets, the widespread feeling is of an economy in freefall.

Rio de Janeiro hotels nearly doubled capacity for the Olympics, hoping it would boost the city's appeal as a seaside destination beyond the Games. Last August , hotel occupancy reached 76 per cent and according to the National Business Confederation, 5,000 people got jobs in tourism.

But when the sports checked out, the tourism industry went with them. The sector shed 9,000 jobs in the first five months of this year. In June this year, with Rio state nearly bankrupt and the city awash with crime: the occupancy rate was 37 percent.

"We raised our hotel capacity from 29,000 rooms in 2009 to 56,000 in 2016," said Alfredo Lopes, head of the Rio hotel industry association. "What we didn't do was attract more tourists."

"The situation is really critical," said Alexandre Sampaio, president of the Brazilian Hospitality and Food Federation. "Hotels agreed to big investments in order to meet the demands of the Olympics authorities, with more modern establishments and the entry of new international chains. However, these investments are now compromised. If we don't manage to get an acceptable occupancy rate in the near future, many hotels risk closing in the second half of the year."

The situation is worst in the far-flung area of western Rio where the Olympic Park was built. Now that the Games are over, there is almost no reason for tourists to base themselves in a location with difficult access to sightseeing favorites such as Copacabana beach or the Christ the Redeemer statue.

"Today almost no one goes to those hotels. Most have only one or two floors open, with 12 per cent occupancy,"Mr Lopes said. "No big hotel chain wants to invest millions just for the Olympics."

Even more centrally-located establishments are suffering. The four star, 136-room Arena Ipanema hotel, right by the famous beach of the same name, was inaugurated just days before the Olympic opening ceremony but is now "in crisis", said manager, Douglas Viegas. "It's absolutely not what we were expecting," he added.

On top of its deep economic problems, Rio is suffering a surge in violent crime, which has scared tourists off even more - and not just from Rio.

"Rio is the gateway to Brazil and this situation can end up affecting the whole country," Mr Sampaio said. "We've missed the train. We should have capitalized on the positive image of a perfectly organized Olympic Games."

There is particular bitterness from the approximately 3,000 former inhabitants of a favela that was razed to make way for the Olympic Park. After a high profile battle against eviction, nearly all the inhabitants of Vila Autodromo accepted apparently generous compensation packages and alternative housing, leaving only a handful of people holding out. But those who did move into the newly-built project, named Parque Carioca, say their new homes are not fit for habitation.

Taxi driver Iran Oliveira, 41, pointed to cracks and damp in the walls and a bathroom where nearly all the tiling has come off.

"We didn't have much choice because the mayor was putting so much pressure, even threatening to destroy our houses without compensation if we didn't leave," he said.

He was assured that he' would hold the title deeds to the new apartment. However, under the small print, which he only understood later, he will not have the right to sell it until the city has finished making payments on the property of 90,000 reais ($30,000). That is supposed to take ten years but due to the economic crisis payments are already in arrears, meaning people like Mr Oliveira are stuck. .

"We were ripped off," said Ze Riveiro, another evicted resident of Vila Autodromo.

Meanwhile, the nearby athletes' village — a brand new tower complex that was meant to be sold as luxury apartments after the Games remains barely occupied. Only 10 per cent of the apartments have sold, according to Brazilian media reports.

"They demolished our community only because the poor were not allowed to take part in the Olympics," said Maria da Penha, who led Vila Autodromo's resistance to eviction.

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