As the 2016 summer Olympics wrapped up with a razzle-dazzle closing ceremony at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium, Brazilians breathed a collective sigh of relief. It was most audible among cariocas, as Rio’s residents are known. The city’s success at hosting the games confounded doom-mongers, with their warnings about Zika, terrorist attacks, widespread crime and transport gridlock. Sure, there were minor niggles: the athletes’ quarters were not quite ready on time, there were long queues outside some of the venues, the water in the diving pool inexplicably turned green. But in the end, everything went according to plan, more or less. And the sport was spectacular.
Which is just as well, as Brazil – and cariocas in particular – needed a morale boost. The economy is tanking, the president is about to be booted out over dodgy accounting, and much of the rest of the political class is engulfed in a huge bribery scandal. The dealings of Brazil’s government make Rio’s filthy Guanabara bay look pristine by comparison.
Visiting the city in the run-up to the Olympics, I overheard numerous conversations – in the street, on the metro and, this being Rio, on the beach – between residents fretting about something going wrong and their city being humiliated. When I returned during the games, the chatter was mostly about the performance of Brazilian athletes. Yet for all that, Rio still felt fundamentally insecure. Partly, it’s a matter of personal safety. Talk to cariocas about their city and conversation soon turns to the problem of violent crime – Rio is as famous for its criminals as it is for its corniches.
Indeed, the producers of the Olympics opening ceremony allegedly planned to have Gisele Bündchen mugged as she catwalked across the Maracanã to the swaying rhythm of “The Girl from Ipanema”. (Thankfully, they saw sense and the idea was dropped.) So bad was Rio’s reputation for crime that the American swimmer, Ryan Lochte, and his pals felt they could fib about being held up by robbers – before CCTV cameras showed that in fact they had caused a ruckus at a petrol station, damaging a toilet door and soap dispenser before having to be pacified by armed guards. It’s telling that just about everyone bought the swimmers’ tale. To people who know Rio, it seemed all too believable. Not a night went by at my hotel in the hip bairro of Santa Teresa without gunshots ringing out from a nearby favela; at least five policemen were gunned down in and around Rio during the Olympic fortnight.
But crime is not the only thing bothering cariocas. Once they’ve finished grumbling about ineffectual law and order, they will inevitably start griping about São Paulo. I’ve heard the same refrain from an intellectual in Ipanema and a poor pensioner on a suburban train; from a former mayor and a social worker in a favela; from an industrialist and a biscuit-seller on the beach. Typically, they argue that Rio’s crime and traffic is no worse than what you’d find in Brazil’s business capital (even though, statistically, São Paulo is considerably safer and a touch less gridlocked). They’re on steadier ground with their claims that Rio is prettier and less stuffy.
Rio is indeed spectacular (at least its postcard bits are; much of the rest ranges from nondescript to plain ugly). And it is, despite its crime, a friendly city: the warning in English to mind the gap between the metro train and the platform ends with an informal “thanks!” But there can be a fine line between laid-back charm and indifference. Just ask anyone trying to get the attention of an easily distracted waiter in a street-corner boteco. Natural gifts can breed complacency, forming the basis of that peculiar carioca cocktail: a strong sense of entitlement with a dash of bitter inferiority.
The rivalry with São Paulo is, it’s worth noting, entirely one-sided: ask a paulistano about his city and Rio won’t come up. São Paulo’s importance is self-evident. It has been Brazil’s industrial heartland since the 1920s. Since the banking sector migrated from increasingly decadent Rio in the late 1980s, it has become its financial hub, too. Nearly all the multinational corporations and big Brazilian companies are based there. Especially painful for cariocas, who pride themselves on having given the world samba and bossa nova, must be the fact that São Paulo has emerged as Brazil’s pre-eminent cultural centre. It boasts finer cinemas, theatres and galleries. It hosts more international acts. The restaurants are better, too (not to mention cheaper).
The Olympics boosted Rio’s global standing, and reinforced its image as Brazil’s carnivalesque picture postcard. They gave the city a much-needed dose of urban development: parts of the historic centre were spruced up and new public-transport links were built. But no two-week extravaganza, no matter how successful, was ever going to reverse a long-term decline. Six decades after the federal government decamped to the new, purpose-built capital in Brasilia, Rio is yet to find its vocation. Many cariocas will tell you it doesn’t matter. Rio, they contend, remains Brazil’s beating heart. Perhaps. But if so, then São Paulo is its pacemaker.