Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Myths and Realities in Rio

Just read this article in the NYTimes about the Pan-American games in Rio next month. The games are the western hemisphere's Olympics held every four years. They're going to be a big deal, and Rio is hoping to use them to convince the powers that be that they deserve a shot at the 2016 Olympics.

As usual, though, Rio can't get mentioned without the crime. This paragraph is so typical of the "Rio's frickin gorgeous but it's so dangerous" story I always hear:
Nestled between verdant mountains and an azure sea, Rio is without question a stunning site for the games, and more than $1.5 billion has gone into the preparations, including the new 45,000-seat João Havelange Stadium. But as hospitable as the city can be, it is not without problems for visitors, particularly when it comes to safety.
And then elaborating on the dangers:
It is no secret that Rio is crime-ridden and quite violent, and becoming more so: the heavily-armed gangs that control the hillside squatter slums known as favelas are growing increasingly bolder in their assaults and threats, even in the city's most elite neighborhoods.

The above paragraph is generally the truth, though for people that know nothing about Rio they will read that and get a dramatically different picture than reality. There's a huge disconnect between what people read in newspapers and what is actually happening, even if what they read is true. I think people read something and assume that's normal. But it's news for a reason.

Here's something that happened last Tuesday in Rio. Read it and guess its coverage in the newspapers.

- two vans full of rifle toting men from one favela traveled to another favela and opened fire on the drug posts. Nobody died, and one person was injured by a stray bullet. The police temporarily blocked off traffic in the surrounding neighborhoods but everything was back to normal by the end of the day.-

Having only read things about Rio prior to coming, I would have assumed that happened 10 times a day based on some accounts. But that was front page news, including a full page spread after the jump. That also warranted a detailed 7-step infographic, a timetable, and a detailed map. Granted the particular favelas involved made it a bigger story, but I think you get the point.

Back to the NYTimes article. Finally, here's another paragraph urging caution that ends with an accusation that makes it sound like Rio basically has gunfights going across 5-lane highways every day:
Particular caution may be in order for those events, which include soccer, track and field, that are to be held at the João Havelange Stadium. Access looms as a potential problem there, especially when competitions end after dark. The stadium is near a highway — the LinhaAmarela, or Yellow Line — that is regularly the site of assaults and gunfights between the police and gangs, and other routes go through neighborhoods that many Rio residents prefer to avoid at night.
Aren't there plenty of neighborhoods in most American cities that you would avoid at night? And I would say most US sports arenas/stadiums are in those areas. Head one block south of Chase Field or US Airways Arena and you're in sketch-town.

Granted, it's dangerous. Absolutely. The drug gangs and police fighting each other causes a lot of crime and tourists get robbed a lot (but mostly in Copacabana, which is famous but basically sucks and is more dangerous for a tourist than actually being in a favela).

But stories like this make it seem like Rio the Wild West, as if the gangs are just having open season with machine guns on the tourists. In fact, the last thing the drug gangs in the favelas want is to draw attention to them, and there's no better way to draw attention to them than doing something during the Pan-American Games. I predict there will be minimal crime problems at the games. By the end people will be talking about the scenery and the warm people more than the favelas and crime.

And Rio is safe to visit. If you come before I leave here, I'll even show you a favela. Come visit!

PS: Oh and another myth: Any supposedly "Pan-American" soccer tournament that doesn't include a single Brazilian team needs to stop the false advertising.

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