Matthew Fisher: Brazilians bask in Olympics afterglow

RIO DE JANEIRO — Sandra Magalheas and her workmates at the Bara da Lava, atop the ramshackle Vidigal favela, were fed up with Rio’s Games before they began. All they hoped was that with half a million foreigners in town, some would be brave enough to zig and zag up the steep road to their veranda bar to take in the breathtaking view of Leblon and Ipanema, and buy a few drinks or a meal.

Sunday afternoon, with playing Italy in the volleyball gold medal game that closed out the Games, the bar was packed. Magalheas barely had time to say hello, she was so busy serving customers and cheering on the victorious Brazilian team.

“Of course I love the ,” was about all she had to say.

What a difference a few weeks can make. “It’s the Brazilian way,” laughed Gilvan Carvalho when told of his waitress’s 180-degree turn on the Olympics. “Only when it actually happens do Brazilians believe it. The Olympics were only a dream before. Now they are a reality.”

Matthew Fisher/National Post
Matthew Fisher/National PostSandra Magalheas.

It was impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about the Olympics among the crowds gathered around television sets in bars, shops and homes everywhere in Vidigal. The “feel good” mood also prevailed a few kilometres away in much flashier Copacabana.

As she drank coffee in a streetside café, Govanna Sabino gushed about her work as a volunteer at the Olympic swimming pool.

“I saw Michael Phelps up close every day,” she said of the prodigious American swimmer who added six more medals to bring his record-setting Olympic count to 28.

“Brazilians should be very proud. That is what every Brazilian is thinking and saying right now,” said the engineering student, who had come from Parana in the south of the country to catch “the Olympic fever.”

Much is being now made of how foreign commentators had been wrong to question whether Brazil was capable of staging the Olympics. However, Brazilians shared similarly gloomy fears that the Games might end up being a serious embarrassment.

Years of political and economic turmoil and a rising state of war between police and drug gangs in many of Rio’s favelas had sapped the nation’s confidence and left many seriously questioning the wisdom of spending billions of dollars on the Olympics when everything else was going badly. That has changed, at least for now.

“Brazilians live for the and the Olympics were an amazing ,” said Adriana Oliveira.

Matthew Fisher / Postmedia News
Matthew Fisher / Postmedia NewsWhen the Olympics began there was zero interest in the Summer Games at the Bara da Lava. As Brazil won its seventh and last Olympic gold medal in volleyball the bar was packed and tepid support for the Games had turned into despair that they were so quickly over.

“Brazilians suffer from low self-esteem and are very critical about themselves. Most people were thinking that everything would be ruined and negative and chaotic. We proved to ourselves that we could make something not by improvising but by planning.”

Despite the relentlessly upbeat mood about the Olympics in Rio, Brazilian public was divided: 62 the Games had hurt the country, according to a poll published on the last day by local pollster Ibope, while 57 they had enhanced its standing.

The International Olympic Committee always boasts about the legacy that is left when its cavalcade moves on, as it now does to Tokyo in 2020. By most measures the Rio Games will not meet that expectation. To save money many of the sports facilities were pop-up affairs that were already being dismantled Monday.

Because of steep budget cuts only a fraction of the $1 billion allotted to fix the city’s grave sewage situation got spent. Water quality improved, but not by much.

Everything was for the Olympics but it has not erased our

Rio also got a much-needed subway extension,  expressways and badly needed tunnels to ease commuting. But these improvements will be a greater boon to those living in tony southern areas and will have no impact on the chaotic, crime-ridden neighbourhoods elsewhere. As the 85,000 police and soldiers to normal duties, a fresh crime wave is expected.

“Everything was perfect for the Olympics but it has not erased our problems,” said driver Carlos Barbosa. “Starting right now we are back to the same old shit.”

Gilvan Carvalho wanted to make clear the Games had been a triumph for former president Lula Da Silva and President Dilma Rousseff, who has been suspended from office, pending an impeachment trial on charges of fiscal irresponsibility in the state budget and irregularities in the billion-dollar scandal involving the state-owned Petrobras conglomerate.

“Rousseff is a victim of a coup” that had been staged by interim president Michel Temer, he said, expressing an opinion that is often heard in Rio.

Temer attended the opening ceremony, but he is so unpopular that in a break with protocol the IOC chose not to introduce him, let alone let him speak.

Brazil’s Olympic honeymoon is very real at the moment, but beset by problems on every other front the country is likely to return to its traditional blood sport — politics — soon.

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