On the day of the 2016 Opening Ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, Paste arrived at our AirBnB on Copacabana Beach at the exact same time as the Olympic torch came running by, followed by a parade of local residents and tourists excited to be a part of the city’s new Olympic legacy. A few hours later, a different type of parade came marching down the same Avenida Atlântica from the other direction—protestors proclaiming “Fora Temer!” or out with the current interim president Michel Temer, whose current approval rating of 31% is lower than that of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump.
And that’s the overarching theme of these Olympic Games: the duality of Brazilians excited to partake in the world’s biggest party, while also frustrated at the cost and corruption as their government has prioritized stadiums over much-needed social projects throughout a country in deep recession.
In the early evening we stopped by the Olympic Boulevard, which stretches three kilometers along the waterfront in Rio’s historic port district. The site that once served as the entry point for more than a million African slaves now serves as party central for Olympic fans not lucky—or deep-pocketed—enough to get into the Marancanã Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies. The park was packed with revelers singing along to Brazilian hits spun by a local DJ before watching director Fernando Meirelles’ stunning spectacle on the big screen.
We left the park during the parade of athletes to get a different view of the events, speeding straight up into the Mangueira favela on the backs of motorcycles. Our guide was Thiago Santana, a representative of the favela’s residents’ association, who was as eager to show off the amazing view of the Olympic Stadium as he was to discuss all the ways the promises of the Olympics bringing improvements to the favela have gone unfulfilled. Of the billions of dollars spent preparing the city for the Olympics, he explained, none of it had made it to the favela. The only sign we saw of government expenditure rolled past in the form of military-style police shining lights mounted on semi-automatic rifles into the darkened corners of the neighborhood.
But tonight, many of the favela’s residents were just proud to be Brazilians with the eyes of the world on their city. Teenaged girls gathered next to a handmade cardboard “torch of dignity,” looking down upon the stadium, watching the ceremony on a mobile phone display. Cariocas, as residents of Rio are known, lived up to their reputation as warm, hospitable people. The Olympics may prove to be a giant boondoggle for their city, but right now, they seem determined to enjoy the party while it lasts.