Genaro Oliveira: A little win for all in Brazilian Olympics

Debate rages around holding of a Games in such a conflicted city but decision is a tribute to maturing world.
On the eve of the 2016 Olympics opening, debate continues over who stands to gain and who may be harmed by staging the Games in Rio. Photo / AP
On the eve of the 2016 Olympics opening, debate continues over who stands to gain and who may be harmed by staging the Games in Rio. Photo / AP

Brazilian-born Dr Genaro Oliveira works at the New Zealand Centre for Latin American Studies at the University of Auckland.

Few other cities in the world have been depicted through more conflicting lenses than Rio. Is it an earthly paradise where all races coexist, peacefully sipping caipirinha cocktails, or the apocalyptic "City of God", a diabolic experiment testing the limits of human suffering?

It's a place that has always triggered passionate, conflicting opinions and the 2016 Olympic Games coverage has been no different. Just days before the opening, the debate remains starkly divided. Will the Games bring overall positive or negative outcomes? Wealth or deficit to the local economy? More safety or vulnerability to its citizens and tourists? A legacy of public infrastructure that benefits all or only the privileged few?

If we take the word of most Brazilian and foreign press lately, the answers are gloomy.

The headlines have all been full of the recent rise of gang and gun violence, corruption scandals, the controversial impeachment of President Rousseff, Zika epidemics, electrical faults at the Olympic village, athletes contaminated by polluted waters and even the risk of jihadist terrorism, something, until now, unheard of in the country. By contrast, the cheerful official supporters of the Games (Brazilian authorities, IOC members and advertisers) proudly claim that "Rio is ready" and blame critics for focusing only on the negative rather than on the fact that most things are working as planned.

In this crossfire, it's hard to find balanced opinions or news that inspires genuine optimism.

Just as with the 2014 Fifa World Cup, I've been a critic of the elitist, racist, money-wasting and undemocratic ways in which the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil have been organised. However, all of my objections seem to fade away when I remember that Brazilian sports are not just about Brazil.

Travelling around the world has made me aware of how many non-Brazilians choose Brazil as their team when their own nations can't make it to big sports competitions like football world cups. Only 32 out of 193 member states of the United Nations make it to each Fifa World Cup. What about the majority of people left out? I've have lost count of the number of Middle Eastern peoples, Africans, Asians and even Pacific Islanders who have told me they grew up seeing Brazil as a sort of "adopted second nation" during these occasions.

Why is this? My bet is that it has something to do with our reputation as a multi-ethnic and inclusive society.

From Kaka to Ronaldinho, Brazilian national teams are made up of a fabulously eclectic collection of skin tones, hair styles and nose shapes. No matter what part of the world you're from, you'll resemble someone in that squad.

But the country's popularity among other nations -- especially other mixed-race, developing societies -- is also a result of world history. Like most countries, it's a former European colony which built its wealth on the sweat and tears of brown and black populations. As such, it is still torn between the promises of freedom and the reality of racism.

However, Brazil has developed more than many other places to become one of the world's largest economies. Today it's able to beat former empires in areas like global commerce -- such as aviation exports -- just as it triumphs over them on the football pitch. From a third-world perspective, there is a post-colonial pleasure in seeing this turn of events.

Locals are proud of their eclectic city but also aware that it's far from perfect. A common joke among cariocas (Rio's natives) is that the open arms of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue bless the part of the city he faces while he turns his back on the rest.

Chic Copacabana boulevards coexist alongside narrow favela alleys, carnival ecstasy with narco wars, Girls from Ipanema with homeless boys.

But despite the myriad problems, organising a global event in a relatively poor and unstable tropical setting is also more truly representative of the world most of us live in. There is also a sense of hope and accomplishment in an event of this magnitude being organised in the Southern Hemisphere.

I'm not happy with the way Brazil is currently being represented in the world, but am proud that the world will be well represented in Brazil.

- NZ Herald

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