Rio Olympics – like opiate for the masses

Rio Olympics – can it lift the mood of a nation in economic meltdown?

Rio Olympics – like opiate for the masses

If Brazil is good at anything, it is at dispensing opiate to its oppressed masses. The Rio Olympics promises to lift the mood of Brazilians who are gripped by economic and political melt down.

The Rio Carnival, the biggest in the world, comes around every year, touted as “a wild 5-day celebration 40 days before Easter . . . it is a euphoric event where people dance, sing, party and have an overdose of fun.”

Rio is undisputedly the party capital of the world. In the yearly 5-day carnival frenzy, Cariocas, great and small from Copacabana to Rocinha and Vidigal, bury their woes or celebrate their good fortune and their wealth. Intoxicated with the rhythm of the Samba and the undulating hips of passistas, they party and rub shoulders with not just the rest of Brazil but party revellers from around the world who come to Rio every year for the ultimate party fix.

But against that backdrop is a city with a dark past, and a present where a sizeable minority live in poverty. Brazil’s poverty is not a passing phase, it is entrenched, it is a way of life, and Brazilian cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, provide a stark picture into the soul of Brazil and the deep social inequality amongst its people. Following the end of slavery, the free slaves no longer welcome in the city, took to the hills surrounding the city and constructed their own realities, in unregulated communities, shacks built in the hills outside the city limit, they created what are today known as favelas. In those favelas, they lived from generation to generation creating their own culture, their own rhythm and their own alternative to the Brazilian nightmare. Until 2008’s favelas pacification initiative, favelas remained largely ignored by the powers that be, allowing crime and gang violence to take root in these marginalised communities.

Over the years, there has been a steady rise in the number of favela dwellers in Rio, some say about 27% rise in the last few years so that in Rio, 23-24% of its 6 and a half million population live in favelas, over 1 and a half million people. There has been no appreciable upgrade to the infrastructure in the favelas: running water, electricity and sewerage are all challenges that the favela dwellers have to negotiate on an ongoing basis.

In the midst of Brazil’s economic and political woes, another carnival rolls into town. Fernando Meirelles, one of the creative directors of the Rio Opening ceremony promised that the spectacle of the opening ceremony would be ‘a drug for depression’. And hopefully the 16-day carnival will continue to deliver that fix. However, unlike the yearly carnival, those that are most in need of that fix, seem to be conspicuously absent from this one, this one-in-a-lifetime party. Those who have been watching the Olympics cannot help but notice the empty seats, either large sections of its population has been priced out of tickets or they are simply not interested and refuse to succumb to the promise of a drug for depression, or are just systematically excluded. Whatever the reason for their absence and the empty seats, this is a Rio party that is refusing to take off, and those who need the ‘drug’ the most would rather wait for 2017 for their opiate of choice.

First published in The European Financial Review on August 24, 2016.