No, Rio Won't Screw Up the Olympics

Why the success of Brazil's Carnaval bodes well for its upcoming mega-events.

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A Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome, on February 12, 2013. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

For the 2016 Olympic Games, Rio de Janeiro will have to accommodate more than a million international visitors, along with countless Brazilians traveling to the city. For both the World Cup and Olympics, Rio de Janeiro is pursuing major infrastructure renovations and transformations: New highways are being laid and the city is renovating the historic Maracanã stadium. The city insists all will be ready for hosting the upcoming mega-events, but some doubt whether Rio's sunny projections are realistic.

"The expectations that the city has put forward can't possibly be met in the time allotted. Things may look good on the surface, but below the surface, things are the same as they ever were," says Christopher Gaffney, an urbanism professor at Fluminense Federal University.

But judging from Rio's most recent Carnaval, the city may be well on its way to hosting major sporting events successfully in the future.

From the throngs filling the streets every day of Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval this year, you wouldn't know that just a few years ago Carnaval mainly took place within the confines of the official Sambadromo, Rio's open-ended permanent parade ground, with a capacity for 90,000 spectators. During the four nights before the start of Lent, Rio's Samba Schools dance, drum, sing and pull their giant parade floats from one end of the Sambadromo to the other in a juried competition that mixes the competitive passions of futbol with the theatrics of Broadway and the energy of a rock concert.

The growth of Rio's Carnaval de Rua parallels the country's recent economic explosion and is one example of how Brazilians are transforming their cities.

Until five or six years ago, most Cariocas, as Rio's citizens are called, either participated in those parades in some form or went to one of the many evening galas or dances that took place around the city in the evenings. Many took advantage of the long holiday weekend to travel, and the normally crowded famous beaches of Rio seemed deserted. Traditional blocos - Rio's neighborhood street bands propelled by a bateria of drummers and percussionists - certainly paraded, but almost exclusively in the downtown city center, and it was considered a relatively small event. At the beginning of the millennium, the northeastern city of Salvador was the biggest street Carnaval in Brazil, but by 2004, Rio's street Carnaval had grown to an estimated two million people, enough for the Guinness Book of World Records to deem it the biggest street Carnaval in the world. This, however, was only the beginning of the rapid growth of Rio's Street Carnaval.

This year, Rio's "Carnaval de Rua" attracted over six million people, which is equal to the city's entire population. According to the city's tourism agency, the largest blocos alone drew in excess of two million people to downtown Rio de Janeiro. Major arterials throughout the city were closed for much of the week while over 500 blocos with off-color names and colorfully dressed drummers filled the streets. Rio's street Carnaval has grown from a traditional practice kept alive by a passionate minority into the main focus of the annual Carnaval celebration.

Five years ago Rio's mayor Eduardo Paes inherited no plan for the street carnival when he took office in January 2009. With just weeks before Carnaval began, he did what he could and scattered 900 porta-potties around the city. Any coordination between blocos was left to the ingenuity and cooperation of individual organizers. This year, the city registered and scheduled 500 blocos and placed over 17,000 public restrooms around the city. They planned and publicized street closings, sold official sponsorships and concession rights to defray costs and published a daily guide with updated calendars prominently displayed in the metro trains. With this data, several "bloco apps" were developed. Carnaval da Rua has met the iPhone age.

The growth of Rio's Carnaval de Rua parallels the country's recent economic explosion and is one example of the many ways that Brazilians are transforming their cities as the growing middle class reclaims the city's public spaces and updates cultural traditions. Supported by the expanding national economy, declining crime rates and a city hall that is focused on rehabilitating Rio's image ahead of the World Cup and Olympics, the last decade has seen a resurgence in local pride. As one local put it, in a city that was often more appreciated by foreigners than Brazilians, Cariocas began to "to reclaim Rio and its history for Cariocas." Attendance at the few traditional blocos exploded, interest in Rio's samba tradition grew, and a host of percussion workshops around the city emboldened people to form new, informal blocos.

As interest grew, the few traditional blocos like Ceu na Terra (Heaven on Earth) -known for elaborate costumes and great drumming- developed strategies to try to limit the growth of their crowds. They began parading early in the morning instead of in the evening and withheld start times and locations until the last minute. As cell phones became more affordable and then ubiquitous, this last subterfuge failed and the largest blocos succumbed to the inevitable. They now attract tens of thousands of paraders, many of whom never see or hear the actual bateria. Starting before 6 a.m., groups of costumed Cariocas and visiting tourists begin streaming up the hillside neighborhood of Santa Teresa where Ceu na Terra's drummers await. Though costumes used to be a rarity on the streets of Carnaval, they are now an expression of Carioca pride and creativity. One woman, dressed in a red chili-pepper costume complete with a green stem hat gestured at her family members in coordinating outfits and described the change, saying "I used to be considered the crazy Carnaval costume lady in my family, and now look at them!"

Presented by

David Lavin

David Lavin is the founder of XRE Global, a consultancy that supports businesses, international organizations, and social enterprises working in Brazil.

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