A gunboat patrols the bay. Helicopters fizz overhead. Fencing two metres high protects a chunk of the world’s most emblematic beachfront. Welcome to Copacabana, primed for lift-off as the flame ignites the XXXI Olympiad.
The exaggerated metalwork woven across the sand marks the perimeter of the Olympic beach volleyball enclave. There really was nowhere else this event was going. And this, of course, is what it is all about, what the Brazilian government thought value at $4 billion, the spend for a global advertising campaign flashing up the best of Rio over 17 days of Olympic competition. And the worst.
The horror stories are out there, peppering this visually arresting backdrop with malign arrows. How quickly news spread of the shooting dead of a criminally inclined desperado by a Russian vice consul in the vicinity of the Olympic village 24 hours before the opening ceremony.
More alarming perhaps than the episode itself was the enthusiasm for the gore displayed by the first world army of commentators, the gusto with which the visiting media swept up the details and raced each other to divulge the gruesome content.
Once again the mighty west descends upon a troubled spot and holds it to account according to its own sense of right and wrong. It was ever going to be so. For Victor, a marketing executive reassigned for three weeks to Olympic duty, this barrio is his life. Born and bred within a stone’s throw of the waterfront, he has been perambulating along this promenade for more than 30 years, and will be here long after we are gone.
He is thrilled to be involved, excited by the window Rio has opened on the divided society from which he hails. Wherever poverty and wealth abut without state-levied welfare to soften and massage the edges there will always be a kid on a motorcycle trying to nick a Rolex from rich men in limos.
A dole cheque and an education would ease the plight of both communities but Brazil is too entrenched in diabolic corruption to wrench itself into a palatable present. Or at least that is our perception. Victor senses a shift in the Brazilian tide. Change will not come via a lecture from us in how to be a good society but from within, brought about by a populace that recognises that failure to act takes them all down.
Victor tells of his eight-year-old son advising him that he need not worry since when he grows up he will make enough money to take care of the whole family. Victor was lucky, born to a mother who cobbled a wage to send him to private school, just as he is doing for his son.
It is the necessary response to an imperfect construct that Victor believes will improve thanks in part to these games and the harsh light they shine on a country exhausted by separation.
Few places highlight the degrees of difference like Rio, a vivid concentration of humankind toiling beneath the evangelising gaze of Christ the Redeemer, a totemic slab of Swedish concrete peering down from the mountain.
More than a quarter of its 6.5 million dwellers live outside the system, pinned to the hillsides under corrugated roofs, a powerful rebuttal of the world view projected by Rio’s iconic landmark. For them the Games mean little, but they might have reason to thank the great monolith that watches over them should the political class and industrial elite grasp the opportunity.
The rich man turned shooter is as much a loser as the great unwashed if he cannot walk freely among his own. Let us hope the soaring deeds of the world’s athletic community leave a meaningful imprint on the soul of Brazil. Should the Olympic experience nudge this nation of 200 million even an inch towards a brighter tomorrow, it will have done its job.
So let the Games begin, let the good stories dwarf the bad, let the doom be banished and the light flood in, let new heroes emerge to warm and charm us, let the days ahead be rolled in gold. Goodness knows we will be back to the muck and bullets soon enough.