Rio 2016 Athletes: Take Back the Bay

As I finished a delicious meal at the São Conrado Golf Club in Rio de Janeiros’s wealthy Zona Sul, I couldn’t help but note the great slum looking over me from the hillside. Rocinha is its name—the largest slum in Brazil with as many as 300,000 people. I asked my friend José what he thought about the great wealth disparity so close to where he was able to enjoy a poolside meal. However, I probably should have simply asked him if he, or any of Rio’s wealthy class, was ever thinking critically about poverty in their city. While he first tried to circumvent the question, it eventually seemed as if he, and many other upper-class cariocas (residents of Rio de Janeiro), had little concern—and even a hint of disdain—for Rio’s poor.

My host father during my stay in Rio was similar. He is an avid fan of Fluminense, the city’s soccer team most associated with the elite class. When conversing with him about his beloved team and its greatest rival, he tied the conversation in with classism. “When you’re at the stadium, it’s easy to see: Fluminense fans are one way, and Flamengo fans are another.” I asked him to expand on this statement, and he eventually told me about how he was mugged by a group of Flamengo fans after a game at the historic Maracanã Stadium in Rio.

While this account gave some justification for his disparagement of Flamenguistas, it was easy to tell from both this conversation and my time in Rio de Janeiro that the rivalry was aggressively divided along class lines. At Flamengo vs. Fluminense games, the generally richer Fluminense fans repeatedly chant “Silencio na Favela”—ordering “Silence in the Slum”—when their side is ahead in a game, blindly mocking the poorer opposition.

As reports of unsanitary water have flooded the Internet in anticipation of the 2016 Olympic Games, the last thing that the slums need is silence. The focus from this unsanitary water has fallen on whether Olympians will be able to sail, swim, and compete in the water. However, for many living in the favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro, unsanitary water is a detriment to their daily lifestyle, food supply, and diet.

Many fishermen commute daily from the hilly shantytowns towards the Guanabara Bay—oftentimes for business, but many times merely to feed their own family. One in every five cariocas lives in a favela, well below the poverty line with little more than a tin roof and a dirt floor to their name. Few of these people will be able to witness the greatest sporting event in the world in their own city. And while the international Olympic community was shocked to discover the conditions that many of these fishermen work and live in, Brazilians themselves are seldom aware of the situation. As exhibited by José and my host father, few upper-class cariocas seem to actively care about the wellbeing of their poorer countrymen, and, until recently, preparations for the Olympics were not doing much to help.

However, the growing publicity surrounding substandard living conditions in the slums may finally bring hope to the dire situation, with even the Olympic athletes expressing concerns about the effects of foul water on Rio’s working people. As Brazilian Olympic sailor Isabel Swan put it during a protest alongside locals, “To find long-term solutions for a healthier bay, we need to consider everyone who is affected by the pollution. We all want a bay that’s alive. And Brazil deserves better than this.”Swan’s statement addresses the core of the situation: while this issue has received more attention because of worried world-class athletes, it is not a recent development. Rio’s poor have suffered through an inferior quality of life for many years, at times abandoned by the government and potential philanthropists alike.

Their quality of life should be on the upswing now that they are on the international community’s radar. Many resources that the government and police have refused to sufficiently provide can be taken into the hands of third parties as a result of vast news coverage. While inhabitants of the favelas may not be welcoming journalists with cafezinho and biscoitos*, any publicity—especially Olympic publicity—is good publicity.


*Coffee and cookies, a traditional tea-time snack in Rio de Janeiro

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