Dire news about Rio de Janeiro's preparation for the 2016 Olympics has been well documented. But even if Brazil's economy had managed to avoid recession and officials had met all their infrastructure targets, visitors would still be arriving in a city that offers starkly different versions of itself. Rio’s 32 Olympic venues are scattered among pockets of wealth and extreme poverty, along its famous Copacabana beach, and in neighborhoods where the murder rate is as much as eight times higher than in the U.S. Visitors to Rio could come away with very different impressions of the city, depending on the events they choose to attend.
Since being awarded the Olympics in 2009, Rio officials have been criticized for taking steps to sanitize the less flattering portions of the city. Squatters occupying an abandoned building were evicted by police. Some slum dwellers living near Olympic facilities saw their homes bulldozed to make way for new roads. Other slums were concealed from view. Officials have denied that an apparent sound barrier erected on the main highway to and from the airport primarily serves to hide the sight of sprawling slums along the route from visitors and athletes. The efforts are reminiscent of the Chinese government's efforts to wall off residential eyesores and close factories to reduce air pollution before the 2008 Games in Beijing.
But no amount of concealment could hide the diversity of the city’s neighborhoods. Organizers have clustered the games into four "competition zones" that span neighborhoods ranging from wealthy and mostly white to more diverse lower-middle-class areas. The most recent data that allow analysis on a neighborhood level are from the 2010 census, though these figures still reflect the wide gap in wealth across the city that persists today.
Some of the game’s marquee events, including track and field and the opening and closing ceremonies, will take place in the city's decidedly lower-middle-class areas. But more than half of the events are based in Barra da Tijuca, a wealthy planned community developed in the 1970s. With its abundance of open space, walled-off housing compounds, shopping malls, chain restaurants, and wide thoroughfares, Barra resembles American suburbia more than it does the rest of Rio.
Lagoa, one of Rio's toniest neighborhoods and host of the canoeing and rowing events, has a median household income more than six times that of Rio as a whole. Its monthly income of 11,000 reais was roughly equivalent to $6,252 in nominal dollars at the time. So a visitor who planned to see only rowing in Lagoa and gymnastics, diving, and tennis in Barra would experience parts of Rio that are about 90 percent white and significantly wealthier than the city as a whole.
Visitors could have a very different experience in Rio, however. Fans of rugby or whitewater rafting, for instance, will find themselves far from the city’s trendy beach districts. The neighborhood of Vila Militar, which hosts the largest concentration of events after Barra, is dominated by the presence of a large military base and surrounded by some of the city’s poorer and more dangerous neighborhoods.
Rio's overall homicide rate is more than triple that of the U.S. Still, this actually represents progress compared with 20 years ago, when the murder rate was quadruple what it is now. Vila Militar is generally perceived as being relatively safe compared with the rest of the city. Its police precinct includes Realengo and other surrounding neighborhoods where crime is more prevalent.
Of all the Olympic event locations, the murder rate is highest in the area near the archery venue, which traditionally serves as a parade area for the Rio Carnival. The police precinct that includes the venue had 40 homicides for every 100,000 people, compared with 19 for the city and five for the U.S.
Although the murder rate is low, visitors to Copacabana should beware of another crime: theft. Each year, one of every 22 people, on average, has something stolen from him or her. The explanation is simple enough: The neighborhood is one of the most popular with tourists, who all too often get careless about securing their valuables while strolling its streets or relaxing on its famous beach. Those with tickets to watch the swimming marathon, triathlon, or beach volleyball would do well to heed the common warning to keep an eye on their belongings.
With athletic venues spread out across Rio, first-time visitors can rely on their Olympic itineraries to experience the city's diversity. Tourists heading to the opening ceremonies, the marathon finish line, or some of the more obscure events, such as mountain biking and canoe slalom, will take in a more complete picture of the city, warts and all. Meanwhile, those electing to stay in Barra the entire time could be forgiven for thinking they've landed in an upscale part of Miami.