RIO DE JANEIRO – Rio de Janeiro’s hosting of the 2016 Olympics has divided public opinion in Brazil, where political and economic crises have put the games under scrutiny like never before.
But after a seven-year buildup in which everything that could possibly go wrong did, the Olympics have finally arrived in Brazil’s second-biggest city.
According to organizers, around 80 percent of the Rio Games’ 6.1 million tickets had been sold as of Aug. 1, and The Japan Times caught up with visitors to the main Barra Olympic Park to gauge the mood.
“It’s my second day,” said Anna Marcondes, a 36-year-old marketing manager from Sao Paulo. “Yesterday I saw swimming, and I had the best time of my life. I’m such a huge fan of these swimmers and getting to see everybody very close, not just on TV, is a dream come true.
“So it was an amazing time. Everything was super, very well organized. I’m very proud of my country and I’m very happy to be hosting the Olympics here.”
A vibrant atmosphere pervaded the Olympic Park on Sunday afternoon, with families enjoying their day out and thousands of Brazilians waving flags and wearing the canary yellow shirts of the national soccer team.
Brazilian victories at the various venues have been celebrated with a fervor usually only reserved for soccer matches, while a team of 50,000 volunteers has been deployed to smooth the wheels of the Olympic experience.
“I really like this place,” said Luisa Hapner, a 20-year-old law student from Curitiba. “It’s really good and good for people with children.
“The staff are really happy and that makes everybody happier, because it’s hot and everything is so far. When there’s someone there enjoying themselves, it makes it better.”
Advocates of the Rio Games have been keen to stress the positive legacy of hosting the Olympics, with organizers hoping to inspire the next generation of Brazilians.
“I watched handball,” said 9-year-old Gabriel Nascimento, who was visiting the Olympic Park with his father. “It was good. I think it’s a good idea to do the Olympics. I like it. All my friends at school like it.
“It makes me want to try lots of sports. I want to watch fencing. I’ve never seen it before and that’s why I want to see it.”
More than 85,000 security personnel — double the number deployed in London four years ago — have been assigned to guard Rio 2016, with armed soldiers a visible presence at each of the Olympic venues.
Protests against the Olympics have taken place in poorer parts of the city, but inside the Olympic Park, dissenting voices are few and far between.
“There were a lot of complaints and protests before, but when it starts, Brazilian people will love it and support the teams,” said 38-year-old Cassio Marinho Siqueira, a physiotherapist from Sao Paolo who was visiting the games with his family.
“Brazil has a lot of problems but we still can have this great party.”
The Rio Games have been criticized for benefiting the rich while excluding the poor, and middle-class, educated white Brazilians appeared to make up the majority of visitors to the Olympic Park.
Brazil is currently in the grips of a political crisis that has seen President Dilma Rousseff suspended while impeachment proceedings take place against her, and 20-year-old medicine student Eduardo Cat believes the Olympics must be kept in perspective.
“The Olympics should not be a distraction when dealing with all the political issues going on right now,” he said.
“I think that’s the biggest point that people should think about. Because that could be a way of changing people’s minds somehow — they forget a little bit about the political issues that are bad right now.
“To get better, people need to make it better. I think that’s what people need to keep in mind.”
Others, however, believe that politics and sport should not mix.
“We are very conscious that we have to solve some stuff on the political side, but I think it’s two separate things,” said marketing manager Marcondes. “We have to deal with both. I am very happy that everything is working well, hosting foreign people super-well, everyone is welcome and they are helping everybody as much as they can.
“I see a lot of Brazilian volunteers and everybody is super-dedicated to the games. So even though we have problems, I think it’s two separate things that we have to deal with separately.”
Ultimately, Rio will not feel the impact of hosting the games until long after the International Olympic Committee has packed up and moved on to the next host city.
Brazil’s many problems will not be solved easily, but for some, being at the center of the world’s attention for the next two weeks can help to change the nation’s mindset.
“It’s a little bit difficult,” said Marcelle Brito, a 29-year-old engineer from Rio. “A lot of money was transferred to the Olympics. We have problems with health and quality of life. But now we’re happy that the games have begun. We can do it now. But there are many problems for us.
“The political situation is very difficult. We need to change our culture. Political reform. Maybe this can open our minds. I think having contact with other people and other cultures should help us.”
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