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.

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!"

Small startup blocos are an outlet for those who wanted to participate in a more traditional street carnaval at a more manageable scale. Fernando Sergio, a local dentist, co-founded a small bloco called Me Esquece (Forget Me) in 2004 after participating in the early drum workshops. Back then, he says, "these first parades were really just a few friends. We used to make a loop around the neighborhood and that was it." Then other friends started forming blocos. These startups revived and popularized traditional songs from the 1930's and 40's and wrote new compositions. Over time, they too grew in size.

This year, Fernando estimates Me Esquece attracted 15,000 people. They paraded with a bateria of 230 people, and their song for the year won this year's prize for best lyrics.

For his part, Fernando feels the city's participation has improved Carnaval na Rua. "I think the city does a good job of balancing the rights of those who aren't participating in Carnaval to get around the city with the logistics of street Carnaval.

The scheduling and logistical support makes it much easier to put on a bloco in the street and also forces the more disorganized blocos to improve their own planning. As a result, things run much more smoothly and everyone is much happier, performers, spectators and non-participants alike."

To be sure, not everything this year was perfect. The biggest concerns for public safety were the overcrowded metro system and the lack of sufficient on-site medical attendance in the streets. Rio's metro lines are overtaxed at peak hours during normal times, so with millions of people leaving or arriving in the same place at one time, the metro often became dangerously crowded. And even at the most highly attended events or in the most central locations, ambulances or medics were difficult to find.

"Hundreds of thousands of people went to the beach during Carnival, where, in part because of the inadequate and overtaxed waste treatment system, the human coliform levels in the water were incredibly high," Gaffney said. "So maybe you can cycle six million people through the city in a week, but it stresses every single system we have, including water, sewer, waste, transportation."

There is little disagreement about the source of the logistical issues. Brazil's government is famous for overlapping jurisdictions and a lack of coordination between the state and local officials. Rio's mayor and governor are known for working very well together, but as the street Carnaval has exploded, legislation, regulation and coordination have simply not adapted quickly enough to the city's changing needs.

The press has reported on the issue repeatedly, and there is at least frank talk about addressing the problem by municipal and state representatives. Years ago, the public response would have been a collective shrug of the shoulders, as corruption and lack of adequate service had become expected. Now, in public fora and on social media, the public is pressing for improved conditions and service.

By most accounts, though, especially given Brazil's reputation for a more casual management approach, this year's Carnaval was a very well run affair. In a city whose reputation for violence once rivaled that of its beautiful beaches, security was not a major issue. Public toilets, while not always adequate, were fairly ubiquitous. Streets that were trash-strewn in the aftermath of 2 million people were mostly cleared for the next day's onslaught. Many see these events as a helpful test run for the upcoming mega-events, and Rio's governor and mayor are well aware that Carnaval is a prime opportunity to reinforce or diminish the image they're trying to create of Rio as a safe and organized city.

Seth Colby, Visiting Scholar at the Centro Brasileiro de Relações Internacionais put it this way: "If the Brazilian government managed everything as well as the city managed Carnaval, this country would be in a much better position than it is today."

Rio's citizens are getting more of the services and protection they deserve from their municipal government, even while the increasing popularity of events like Carnaval put added stresses on the municipal infrastructure and logistical processes. If the city government continues to respond to mega-event challenges as it is with the annual Carnaval, the city will be far better prepared for the upcoming World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games of 2016 than many predict.