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Reinventing Rio

Astrid Prange / dbAugust 3, 2015

More than 50 years after losing its status as Brazil's capital, Rio de Janeiro is getting a boost to its confidence thanks to the 2016 Summer Olympics. The city is busy putting on its new best face.

playing beach volleyball
Image: Riotur/P. Kirilos

More than 200 athletes were gathered at the Copacabana, Rio's famous beach, to quality for participation in the triathlon. 40 kilometers of biking, a 10-kilometer marathon and 1.5 kilometers of swimming - the test run on the first weekend in August drew more Brazilians to the Copa than usual.

"We wanted to see how the triathlon integrates itself into the city as an athletic event," says Delphine Moulin, head of the Test Events sector in the Olympic organization committee. "This test run is very important because all competitions take place outdoors, which immediately affects all the residents."

In Rio, residents and athletes are all currently involved in a marathon of sorts. For the past five years, Rio has hosted one major event after another: after the military World Games in 2011, the Climate summit "Rio plus 20" in 2012, the World Youth Day in 2013 and the World Cup in soccer in 2014, now, the city is getting ready for the Olympic Summer Games from August 5 to 21, 2016.

That means a boost in investment for the city. A large chunk of the roughly 11 billion euros ($12 billion) being spent for the Olympics is earmarked for upgrading public transportation. Trams, express bus routes and a new subway line are designed to get traffic moving again, and that not just during the summer games.

A stroll along the harbor

For years, Rio has resembled a gigantic construction site. Elevated streets are being demolished, tunnels drilled, tracks laid, buildings erected and sports arenas modernized. The city is building new cruise ship terminals and an Olympic Village that is bound to change the face of a largely neglected Rio neighborhood. The derelict harbor area in the city center is also being revamped.

model of Olympic sports arenas
Sports facilities for the 2016 Summer OlympicsImage: Renato Sette Camara/Prefeitura do Rio de Janeiro

"Our competitors Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid already had everything, while Rio - and that was its trump card - wanted to use the Games to improve its infrastructure," says Minister Laudemar Aguiar, responsible for the city's external relations. "Now we have to deliver," the diplomat says.

The timetable is tight but so far, the city has met its deadlines. In time for the opening ceremony, Rio plans to open 155 kilometers of express bus lanes, an extra 16 kilometers of subway line, 28 kilometers of tram and 450 kilometers of bike paths. The new subway line, expected to transport 300,000 passengers per day, links the Barra da Tijuca - where the Olympic Village is being built - and the city center. Travel time will be almost halved to 34 minutes.

Four new express bus routes link the city's two airports and the Olympic Village, and can carry a million people per day. The new tram line runs in the city center, a direct link between the harbor, train station and centrally-located Santos Dumont airport.

Sewer sailing

But Rio's facelift is limited to land. The beaches, lagoons and most of all Guanabara Bay have to make do with cosmetic touches. The Bay the Portuguese discoverers mistakenly called the Rio de Janeiro is still a sewer into which some 80 to 100 tons of garbage are dumped every day.

Guanabara Bay
Rio's sailing and windsurfing venue is tainted by raw sewageImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Sayao

Efforts over the past 22 years by international sponsors, like the World Bank and the Japanese government, to have the bay cleaned up have been unsuccessful. By 2016, about 80 percent of the sewage that runs into the bay was to be treated, but Rio mayor Eduardo Paes has already admitted that no more than half of the sewage is purified.

"Cleaning the Bay was one the most important goals when the city made its bid for the Games," says Valter Caldana, Director of Architecture and Urban Studies at Mackenzie University in Sao Paulo. The slow progress in that area casts a shadow on what is otherwise a successful balance. Now the plan is to set up floating barriers to block the garbage from entering the Bay, and send out ships to pull out the worst debris. Most likely, the 324 Olympic sailors from 34 countries can expect to fight for medals between black streaks, plastic garbage and feces.

Praise from Sao Paulo

At the end of the day, however, Rio is making the right moves, which even nets the city praise from Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest financial center. "A new Rio will emerge from the Olympic Games, and that's very positive," says Valter Caldana. The event is benefitting the city much more than the 2014 World Cup benefitted the entire country, he adds.

The population is already paying a hefty price for Rio's rise to the country's athletic center: real estate prices are exploding, poor neighborhoods are being pulled down and people relocated, in addition to the fear that some of the sports arenas might turn out to be white elephants.

But the advantages clearly outweigh the negative effects, says Laudemar Aguiar, pointing out that finally, the downward spiral has been halted. "For a long time, Rio was regarded as a city on the skids: Consulates were closed down, tourists and investors stayed away," he says. "These mega events have made Rio attractive again."