Remembering the Rio Olympics a year after television cameras were shut

To the explosions of massive fireworks over the iconic Maracana Stadium and the nightlong rhythms of samba music, the Rio Olympics ended one year ago this week.

I was there. Although I went to cover the Games as a writer-in-residence for Sao Paulo’s investigative journalism news agency, Agencia Publica, I was fortunate to remain in contact with my eternal base, Nation Sport, through a daily column my editor called Rio Chronicles.

I was hired as a reporter for Nation Sport in March, 1980 and by the time the Rio Olympics came around 36 years later, I was already a former reporter. For this reason, my Rio brief was not to cover the action in the competition arena which was taken care of by a good reporter but to put my finger on the pulse of the Olympic city. Therefore, I haunted Rio’s streets and neighbourhoods, its beaches and restaurants and rode the trains and buses that led me to its cultural centres.

Lapa is the centre of Rio’s cultural life and every night samba plays there with carefree abandon. You can’t go to Lapa and not crave to return. And so even if for six weeks Botafogo Station signified my treasured return home away from home, it is Carioca Station that elicited a mischievous smile on my face.

It meant arriving in Lapa, the samba capital where the problems of the world died and only happiness remained. But although what I cherished most about the Games is restraining myself from touching Eliud Kipchoge on a bend on the marathon course along Flamengo Park in the shadows of Sugar Loaf Mountain on his way to winning us the gold medal, it is neither him nor Lapa on my mind during this anniversary.

It is Heloisa Helena as the embodiment of the mixed legacy not only of Rio 2016 but all Olympic Games. The Games come with a massive price tag to any city that hosts them. They can even bankrupt a country, as they did with Greece. They inspire the building of space age facilities most of which fall into disuse after the Olympic flame goes out even as populations are forcibly transferred to make way for them.

Heloisa was one such casualty. She is an extraordinary person. She stopped the clock on me when I met her in a symposium poignantly dubbed “The Games of Exclusion.”

The symposium, and the protest marches that I attended on Copacabana beach, filled me with guilt; I was having a good time, even amidst a crushing workload, and here were thousands of people holding placards with messages like: “Because of the Olympics, we’re homeless.” “Tell the world about us.” “I lost my home to make you happy.”

Heloisa lost her home in a neighbourhood called Villa Autodromo. It is where the Olympic Park was built. If you have ever met our late Nobel Peace Laureate, Wangari Maathai, you have met Heloisa. Both share a simplicity of demeanour that cannot hide a compelling presence. You talk, you laugh, you drink tea but even amidst all this bonhomie, something at the back of your mind tells you that you are in the presence of a great person.

In one of my Rio Chronicles, I wrote about her lament at losing her home. She had been taken round and round in circles by the authorities before finally finding herself out of the home that she had inherited from her mother. She spoke to RioOnWatch, a community reporting and advocacy organisation, about her David versus Goliath battles with City Hall.

Heloisa described one encounter with an official who had no qualms mocking her deep religious convictions thus: “I returned to the Public Defender’s Office once again and they told me we could resolve everything at the sub-prefecture. When I arrived there, they told me to come back in a week on the following Tuesday, July 14, at 3pm. Upon leaving I said, ‘If it’s God’s will, everything will be resolved next week.’ To this, the negotiator replied, ‘If it’s not God’s will, it will be his enemy’s will.’

“I was offended by this, as I do not worship the enemy of God. Anyone with minimal religious knowledge knows that God’s enemy is Lucifer. I don’t have the habit of saying this name and the negotiator has no right to associate me with this entity. In the end I just replied that my father is God.”

She went on: “When I see my mother’s promise become no more than dust, I feel a physical pain in my heart that flows from me as rivers of tears. I am dispossessed of material goods, and live only for my religion. I am a caretaker for the saints and it is in their name that I negotiate. Nothing belongs to me.

Despite this, I have a great responsibility. I don’t have permission to stop, falter, give up, fail, or go against the wishes of my mother Nanã. But I have fallen!”
When recounting this to me at the symposium, she wept those rivers and we paused the interview to allow her time to regain her composure.

When she was smiling again, she hugged me and said: “I am very happy that I have met a journalist from Africa. Take back a hug to Africa for me. Tell the people of my ancestors that I love them.”

In May last year, Heloisa became the first recipient of the Dandara Award from the Rio de Janeiro State Assembly. The Award is named after a colonial era warrior woman and was established to recognize the exceptional work of Afro-Brazilian, Latin American and Caribbean women in the State of Rio de Janeiro.

She had also received the Pedro Ernesto Medal from the City Council of Rio de Janeiro in recognition of her fight for housing and religious rights.

On the first anniversary of the end of the Rio Olympics on Monday this week, RioOnWatch visited Heloisa in her new home, far away from Villa Autodromo.

She told them: “There’s a sense of impotence, because you really feel that in reality it’s a very big political game.” And she recalled the City’s negotiator who callously stretched out the compensation process before her house was demolished so as to exhaust her and obtain the cheapest price.

She said: “He got pleasure from making people feel worthless. It’s his work; to make someone feel worthless, to leave the person feeling like less. Why? Because he could lower the price of the person’s house and pay basically nothing for it. As they did the demolitions, they destroyed the walls of a house, leaving the debris behind to create a post-war appearance so that the people who hadn’t yet negotiated would feel miserable to the point of wanting to leave that place.”

The Games ended on August 21, 2016. To rest my mind from the heavy thoughts of Heloisa and the thousands of others who lost their homes to make me and the world happy, and to finally breathe out from the grueling task of writing daily with a deficit of six hours, I took a long walk on the Flamengo waterfront and then rested on a park bench.

There were endless kilometres of public beaches. Along the beaches were myriad sports and exercise facilities. There were volleyball, tennis and basketball courts. There were exercise machines everywhere.

Two thoughts came to my mind. First, I asked myself: I hear this country has a lot of corruption; how come the leaders have not grabbed all these public beaches? All the generals who have ruled this country with an iron fist and their friends did not think of stealing such prime property? They left all this to ordinary people? What was their problem? I can’t believe all this is public property.

Later, I told one of my Brazilian friends: “There’s a big difference between your thieves and our thieves. Ours take everything, yours leave some. That’s why you can organize an Olympics. We can’t. There’s no public land left.” She laughed.

The second thought that came to my mind was the free exercise equipment all over the beaches and other open spaces. I said to myself: If these were installed in Jevanjee Gardens or Uhuru Park, they would be stolen before the installation crew gets back to their offices. They would be sold for scrap metal.

How come the people are just using them and after getting tired they just leave them? Oh my God, there must be a problem with these people. These are all free things and they are not even guarded by watchmen. And yet people are not stealing them? Ai! Ai! Ai! Ai! I need an explanation.

At home, people yank guard rails from bridges to enable drivers to fly out of the road if they so wish. Road signage on highways can’t survive a few days after installation. The first train on the Standard Gauge Railway had scarcely done its first Mombasa-Nairobi run when people started vandalizing the line, prompting the president to warn them that they could be hanged.

But in Rio, I could wake up at 5 am, do all the exercise I wanted, cycle safely until my strength ran out and then go swimming in a public beach in either Botafogo, Urca, Flamengo or wherever else I pleased. And all that for free? And all those facilities are maintained by the City Council? At home the only public beach that miraculously survived looks like a beehive with all its members present on Christmas holiday!

As you can see, I remember Rio for many reasons. A final word: if any of you has been there and you have been to a city that is more topographically beautiful anywhere in the world, kindly let me know. I will have a word with my bank manager so as to go there and take a look.

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