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Harsh realities of life in an Olympic city

The Barra Olympic Park might be the epicentre of the Rio Games, but the heart and soul can be found 20 miles away in the vibrant and colourful Copacabana.

Measuring 1.18 million-square metres, the sprawling Olympic Park is the main hub and meeting point for the event; a cluster of nine sporting venues including the baroque-style Aquatic Centre and the Velodrome.

Transformed from a former Formula One racing circuit that hosted the Brazilian Grand Prix on a number of occasions, the West-Rio site is more than just a series of sporting facilities where athletes perform superhuman feats.

It also houses the main press centre, the international broadcast centre and a substantial restaurant serving bland and uninspiring cuisine.

The complex can be dry in atmosphere and does not seem to reflect or celebrate the city's diverse heritage, perhaps the result of many cultural events being drastically slashed because of a shortfall in the budget.

Absolutely nothing about the Barra Olympic Park screams “Rio”.

The same cannot be said for Copacabana — home of arguably the world's most famous beach — set beneath the picture-postcard backdrop of Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain.

Yes, Copacabana feels like the authentic Olympic experience.

It's not just the iconic landmarks that make Copacabana such an assault on the visual senses — it's the party-loving people who have helped turn the seaside neighbourhood into a mini wave of yellow and green.

Flags fly proudly from apartment balconies while modest crowds of people wearing replica Brazil football shirts gather around television sets, beaming the fortunes of their sporting heroes from the countless bars fringing the balneario beach.

It's no surprise that the beach volleyball competition at the temporary 12,000-seater Copacabana Stadium is proving particularly popular in these parts.

Six other open-air sports are being hosted in the bairro, including triathlon where Bermuda's Flora Duffy is among the medal favourites.

After a slow start, hardly helped by the media bashing in the Games' rocky run-up, interest in the “greatest show on earth” has gathered momentum and it feels like the festivities — while not of carnival proportions — are at least in full swing.

* * *

In stark contrast to the secluded pink-sand beaches and turquoise waters of Bermuda, Copacabana Beach is a flurry of activity day and night.

Beach-volleyball enthusiasts, football-loving favela kids, body-beautiful men in ridiculously-tiny trunks and string-bikini-clad women — Copacabana Beach is a sight to behold.

Regardless of age, race, nationality, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation, everybody seems welcome to the long scallop-shaped beach.

It certainly appears to be a haven of inclusivity and liberalism.

Although I'm not sure how I'd feel should the swimwear hot pants, popular with the male Cariocas, catch on in Bermuda.

They're certainly not for the faint of heart, leaving very little to the imagination, with their reach extending far beyond the beach, which can be disconcerting.

Most would feel self-conscious wearing the abbreviated shorts in the safety of their own home, let alone a busy city street.

And it's difficult to know where to look when someone sporting the “spray-on” garment comes towards you on the sidewalk.

It's fair to say the men of Rio like to take care of themselves and they do want you to notice.

Working out seems a way of life, with runners sharing the promenade with cyclists and roller-skaters from morning to night.

It's probably a necessity rather than a choice, really, when short shorts are the order of the day.

* * *

It will probably come as no surprise to most but prostitution is rampant in Copacabana.

When Dolly Parton sang, “Working nine to five”, she certainly wasn't referring to the neighbourhood's sex workers.

It is, I imagine, a helluva way to make a living.

Escorts of all races, shapes and sizes converge outside most bars and restaurants along Avenue Atlantica — the main beach road — from nightfall until the early hours of the morning.

They can also be found draped over sofas in lobbies of the so-called love motels dotted around the city, one of which I am staying in.

Sit or stand still for long enough and kisses are blown in your direction, followed by the confidence-boosting pick-up line, “You beautiful, baby.”

About 12,000 prostitutes, many descending on Rio from other Brazilian states, are hoping to take advantage of the Olympic tourism and make fast cash.

Almost more shocking than that staggering number is the laissez-faire attitude of the locals towards the city's sex industry.

It's considered just a harsh reality of life in Rio.

* * *

Rafaela Silva became the darling of Brazil after winning her country's first gold medal at the Rio Games in judo last week.

Silva's story captured the imagination of the world's media as the 24-year-old grew up in the famous City of God favela.

She is also black and was on the receiving end of a tirade of racial abuse on social media after her disqualification at the London Olympics in 2012, one saying that “the place of a monkey is in a cage.”

Silva has become a symbol of hope for many who are inspired by her tale of triumph over adversity.

The crowd sang her name, “Raaa-faaeee-lllllllla” after she defeated Mongolia's Dorjsurengiin Sumiya in the final of the women's 57-kilogram competition.

It's just a shame there were not more black people there to watch her moment of glory.

The overwhelming majority of spectators attending the Olympics seem to be startlingly white, with very few black people, if any at all, in the aisles.

This contrasts greatly with the racial profile of the city as a whole, which is 50 per cent black or mixed race.

More than half of the people living in Rio's favela slums are black and have simply been priced out of the Olympics.

Racial inequality is another harsh reality of life in Rio.

* * *

The Brazilian Government has certainly beefed up security for the Olympics, with more than 80,000 police and soldiers patrolling Rio's streets.

Armed guards are stationed in their masses at Olympic venues, tourist sites and other strategic points in the city amid fears of terrorist attacks.

Athletes, spectators and media face airport-style security checks including metal detectors before entering any of the Games 32 venues.

But despite the city's crime-laden reputation — there have been about 2,000 murders this year — the coastal beaches and touristy areas such Copacabana, Ipanema and Barra da Tijuca feel as safe as any Western city.

Still, danger undoubtedly lurks in Rio and there is a need to remain vigilant.

Violent crime, petty theft and drug dealing are not going to stop just because the Olympics have rolled into town.

* * *

It would be entirely misleading to claim that the Olympic Games are universally popular in Rio.

This has been reflected in the large numbers of empty seats at some of the venues of the less traditional South American sports.

Some of the Cariocas I have met are not so much apathetic towards it but downright angry about hosting an event they consider morally bankrupt.

Rio is financially a very different city to the one awarded the Olympics seven years ago, with Brazil now in the midst of an economic crisis.

And many locals believe the millions of dollars being poured into the Games could have been better spent elsewhere such as improving hospitals, schools and the lives of the poorest people in the city.

Others feel the Olympics are bringing much needed joy and emotion to Rio, and are relishing the sporting feast.

You can't please them all, I guess.

* * *

Perhaps long jumper Tyrone Smith wasted his deposit at the sperm bank after all.

Smith froze samples of his man seeds prior to the Olympics amid fears about the Zika virus in Brazil.

The mosquito-borne virus can cause babies to be born with brain abnormalities and undersized heads.

Smith joined fellow long jumper Greg Rutherford, who won bronze in Rio, in freezing his sperm beforehand just in case.

In an open letter to the World Health Organisation prior to the Games, signed by international scientists, doctors and medical ethicists, it was argued that recent findings about Zika made it unethical for the Olympics to go ahead.

All that buzz, however, is barely audible in Rio, which has not been hit as hard by the virus as other parts of the country. Plus, cooler temperatures mean the population of mosquitoes spreading the virus has diminished.

Cameron Pimentel could hardly hide his boredom when asked about Zika last week. The Bermuda sailor said he has spotted just one of the pesky insects in the five weeks he has spent in Rio.

Smith may well be asking for his deposit back when he returns to Houston.

Brazil's darling: Silva, centre, celebrates with supporters after winning the gold medal of the women's 57-kg judo competition (File photograph by Markus Schreiber/AP)

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Published August 16, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated August 16, 2016 at 8:48 am)

Harsh realities of life in an Olympic city

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