The Rio de Janeiro you see advertised in videos promoting the Olympics is the iconic one everyone knows: Ipanema, Sugarloaf Mountain, the statue of Christ the Redeemer. But that’s just a tiny slice of this sprawling metropolis of 12 million people, most of whom live miles from the beach. You can see the other Rio, their Rio, as you drive into town from the international airport, past the walls enclosing the freeway: a sea of red cinderblock shacks stacked precariously atop one another, with narrow roads snaking in between. One in seven Rio residents make their home in so-called favelas like these.
When Brazil won the right to hold this year’s Summer Games back in 2009, it seemed ready to vault into the club of developed nations. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, then the country’s wildly popular president, pitched the Olympics as an opportunity to develop Rio’s infrastructure, and remake the city into a new world capital. But this was also a rare moment of Brazilian self-confidence—one ultimately undone by hubris.
Seven years later, Lula’s Olympic dream seems a distant memory. Despite an ambitious government campaign to pacify Rio favelas ruled by violent drug gangs, since last year homicides are on the rise. With sewage lines still lacking, world-class rowers and sailors will compete in waterways tainted by drug-resistant bacteria. Meanwhile, amid Brazil’s deepest recession in decades, Rio’s governor declared a “state of public calamity” last month because—thanks in part to the Olympics—his administration had run out of money to pay for public security and healthcare. Cops and firemen have taken to camping out at the international airport, holding banners that read “Welcome to Hell.”