Olympics: Rio's chance to regain lost luster

Updated: October 4, 2009, 2:03 PM ET
Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil's most iconic city has been losing its luster for decades, and those who live there hope that the 2016 Olympic Games will help it regain lost glory.

While its gorgeous beaches have kept Rio De Janeiro among the world's top tourist draws, and the city hosts major events like the annual Carnival and the 2007 Pan American Games without incident, its international reputation for violence has weighed it down, and its domestic role as the epicenter of all things Brazilian has waned.

"Rio is a city that has suffered," President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said in Copenhagen, after the city won the Olympics on Friday. "Rio, for a long time, has appeared in newspapers in the crime section."

Rio's modern decline came quickly after its cultural apex in the late 1950s, when its cool Bossa Nova beat circled the globe, backing its self-titled nickname of The Marvelous City.

The first big blow came in 1960, when Brazil's capital was moved inland to Brasilia, taking political power away from Rio for the first time since 1763. The 1960s also saw rival city Sao Paulo's industrial sector surge, making it a modern economic powerhouse and luring countless businesses -- and cash -- away from the coast.

The 1970s and '80s saw drug gangs violently take control of Rio's vast slums, with the lucrative cocaine trade fueling violence that engulfs the city to this day, generating those sordid newspaper headlines. Some 2 million of Rio's residents live in slums, where government presence is essentially nonexistent and the rule of law is whatever the drug lord demands.

But some residents are hoping that the Olympics -- and the massive $14.4 billion plan that Rio presented -- mean improvements will come quickly.

"This will force the authorities to improve security and other social problems. How can we receive the entire world if these problems endure?" said Rita Villa-Forte, a 60-year-old lawyer from Rio's beachside Ipanema neighborhood.

"It is a beautiful city, yet things have not always gone well for it."

Villa-Forte, who was visiting Chicago the day Rio won the Olympics and was speaking as she traveled overnight Sunday to her hometown, said winning the Olympics will help Rio "return to be the marvelous, beautiful city that it was and has always been."

Even the governor of Sao Paulo state -- Jose Serra, the leading candidate for next year's presidential elections -- set aside the rivalry between his turf and Rio to shower hopeful praise for a city that could use it.

"The Olympics will reinforce the international visibility of our country, and will reinforce its main showcase -- the Marvelous City," he wrote in Rio's O Globo newspaper.

Brazil's government says preparing for the Olympics will create 120,000 new jobs each year until 2016, tourism is expected to spike, huge infrastructure projects are planned to improve transportation, and Rio's state government says it will increase community policing programs to tamp down crime.

All of which may sound like a skipping record for some of Rio's residents -- there has never been a shortage of politicians promising and then failing to clean up the city.

But with massive international pressure and responsibilities of hosting an Olympics in just seven years, there are reasons for people to be hopeful.

"The security situation is not under control, so now they have to do something about it," said Fernando Pol, a 62-year-old Ipanema resident. "So many times in the past years, Rio has been pushed aside for projects that went to Sao Paulo or other cities. Now, we are back in front getting attention and every Brazilian is pulling for us."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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