It didn’t take long for the golden glow of winning the Olympics to turn into a harsh spotlight for Rio de Janeiro. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Fears that Rio de Janeiro is not safe for the Olympics surely were rekindled in the favela gunfire of the past week. Two dozen are dead, including three policeman who perished after their helicopter was shot down.
It was the all-too-common sort of trauma in Rio de Janeiro that could have happened during the closing days of the bid. But it didn’t, sparing the need for explanations and assurances that all will be well in 2016.
Today assurances aren’t needed to win IOC votes. (Given the large margin of victory for Rio, it’s possible that even an eruption of trouble like this might not have killed the Brazilian bid.) Now the assurances must convince the world – including key stakeholders such as media, sponsors and athletes – that their experience in Brazil will be trouble-free.
Other Olympic Cities have faced security challenges. Athens organizers were confronted with bombings from a terrorist group that was dismantled in 2002.
The joy of winning the 2012 Olympics was short-lived in London four years ago when bombs exploded on public transit only hours after the IOC vote. With more than 50 people dead and hundreds injured, it was a scenario that has driven security planners in London to prevent from happening again – whether tomorrow or in the midst of the 2012 Olympics.
This instant jolt in London likely removed any shred of complacency for Olympic security planning – and so too must be the case for Rio de Janeiro.
Unfortunately for Rio, the ingrained culture of violence that darkens life in the otherwise Marvelous City won’t end overnight. Given the history, more shootouts are likely as Rio de Janeiro prepares for the Olympics – as well as the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
There seems to be an absurdity of tracking urban violence as a milestone of preparation for events meant to symbolize the way people can gather in peace. But such accountings will be unavoidable through the coming years.
People want to feel safe about coming to an exotic destination, a world away from their homes.
By and large, Rio is a safe place. We can say this based on numerous visits to the city by ATR staff members for the past 10 years. We have heard about people (some connected with visits for Olympics-related meetings, others with the 2007 Pan Am Games) who have been victims of street crimes that could take place in any large city. But so far, the nasty gun battles between gangs have not snared anybody connected with world sport.
The 2007 Pan Am Games, hailed as a major boost for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic bid, were free of trouble, aided by a significant presence of local and federal law enforcement.
It’s one thing to build stadiums, roads and other physical manifestations of an Olympic Games.
But how do you eliminate an evil in society that has festered for years?
Gang leaders aren’t about to be shamed into a truce based on the harmful image their malevolence creates about Rio around the world.
Rio de Janeiro and Brazil will have to dig deep to come up with solutions that work quickly.
Over the next seven years, thousands of people will head to Rio de Janeiro to work on preparations for the Games, to attend meetings or to compete in test events. The first time something even minor occurs for one of these visitors, the publicity could be savage, not to mention the reaction should violence be involved.
Rio de Janeiro has to make sure there is no such first time. And if there is – Rio government leaders as well as the organizing committee – need to be open and transparent about the bad news.
At the same time, Rio also needs to spread the word about what is happening to make the city a better, safer place. The world will need to hear about social programs, policing and urban renewal projects as evidence that Rio is changing.
Leaders of the Rio bid never shied away from talking about crime when asked, never downplayed the issue. But despite the city’s standing as perhaps the most violence-plagued among recent bid cities, crime never seemed to emerge as serious concern while Rio de Janeiro was a candidate.
With Rio de Janeiro now under the glare of the Olympic spotlight, dealing with crime is inescapable. That realization could be the good for Rio that comes from this latest spasm of violence.
Written by Ed Hula
Op Ed is a weekly column of opinion and ideas from Around the Rings. Comments, as well as guest columns are welcomed: firstname.lastname@example.org
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