IT WAS Valentine’s Day in Brazil when welterweight boxer Roberto Custódio visited his family on a break from training.
Although he is preparing for next year’s Olympics 400km away in São Paulo, home is still Nova Holanda, a dangerous neighbourhood in the Maré favela complex where military police have recently taken over control from the army.
Waiting outside the Fight For Peace academy in a bustling but deprived dead-end street where he started his career, the babyfaced 28-year-old grinned apologetically: “I haven’t got my wife a present yet. Brazilians are always late, right?”
With one year to go until the city hosts the Olympics, officials admit they are not ready. But, they promise, they will be.
As Games fever builds in Rio with the second ticket draw, volunteer applications for the opening and closing ceremonies, and the start of test events, work continues on many of the venues.
While one of the four clusters already had 60 per cent of the infrastructure built for the 2007 Pan-American Games, some facilities – such as the aquatic centre and the golf course – are only due to be finished in the second quarter of 2016.
The Olympic stadium, which will host all athletics events and which was also built for the PanAm Games, has since been closed for structural problems and only reopened six months ago. Work to upgrade the stadium for the Olympics, including adding extra seating and improving lighting, is due to last until at least four months before the Opening Ceremony.
And last month, there was a setback at the lagoon that will host Olympic rowing: federal courts suspended work on the $3 million floating spectator stands over requirements for technical analysis by the Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (Iphan).
In Barra da Tijuca, the neighbourhood on the outskirts of Rio that will be home to the Olympic Park, underground work including lighting, water and sewage systems has reached 90 per cent. Seats are currently being installed at the three flagship Cariocaarenas, which are expected to be finished this quarter.
“The Games start on August 5, right? So certainly, until August 4, there will still be work going on until midnight,” Richard Pound, former vice-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told Folha de São Paulo newspaper last month (JULY).
Nevertheless, a recent survey of the venues found the majority were on course or already completed, with serious concerns over just three: the velodrome, the rowing stadium and the marina where the sailing competitions will take place.
It makes for an improved contrast with the World Cup in which half of the stadiums ran Fifa’s deadlines dangerously close, and delays put one host city at risk of being dropped.
Instead, as a series of test events gets under way this month (AUGUST), Olympic organisers say now is the time to identify what needs to be addressed in the final 12 months.
“The test events are to test things,” said Mario Andrada, director of communications at the Rio 2016 local organising committee. “No country in the history of the world was completely ready one year before the games. Neither are we.
“We’re not going to be worried if something goes wrong because this is exactly the objective of the test events.”
Brazil’s confidence in putting on major sporting events was boosted by the World Cup, which was widely considered a success after months of controversies over delays, setbacks and emergency contracts.
But a year on, and many have questioned the legacy of the Fifa event. Some of the most ambitious stadiums – last year, the stage for the biggest football party in the world – have stood empty and in one case, was temporarily closed, becoming the most tangible sign of a lack of meaningful benefit to the country.
In Rio, the city’s policies to improve public security for the big events have faced serious challenges. A pacification program that promised to bring permanent policing to gang-controlled favela communities was launched in 2008 to improve safety ahead of the World Cup and the Olympics.
But authorities resorted to deploying the army in April last year as police forces struggled to contain gang violence in the warren of Maré favelas near the international airport. Many compared the climate inside the densely populated shanty villages to a civil war before the World Cup.
A year later and troops have only recently withdrawn after a difficult 12 months. The military police plan to install four permanent police units, or UPPs, in the 16 communities that make up Maré but with seven UPP officers killed in Rio so far this year, security forces face continued resistance.
On the academy terrace that overlooks Maré’s slipshod redbrick rooftops, Roberto sits comfortably. He knows well the violence that blights Rio. He was still a schoolboy when drug traffickers killed his father, a bus driver.
Gang bosses had expelled his dad from the community over a fight he had with his girlfriend over drugs, and when he returned, the criminals killed him.
Having already started boxing at martial arts academy Fight For Peace, which was founded by British expat Luke Dowdney, Roberto’s father’s death only made him more determined to succeed in sport.
“I was outraged because my dad was never involved in any trouble,” he said. “It got me closer to the project to avoid being on the streets. I used to leave school and go straight to the project.
“My mom thought I was up to no good. I explained to her I was going to the project. From school, I’d arrive at 4pm and I stayed until 9pm, which was the last training session, then I went home.”
Roberto competed in his first championship in 2006 but it wasn’t until the following year that he won his first title in São Paulo.
By 2008, he was called up for trials by the national boxing federation and was first selected to represent Brazil in 2009. In 2013, he won the gold medal in the 69kg class at the Pan-American Continental Championships in Chile and is one of Brazil’s medal hopes at Rio 2016.
Roberto has become a poster boy for projects like Fight For Peace that give young people the chance to escape the cycle of crime and violence. “For me, this isn’t a project, it’s a family, you know?” he said, looking up at the Fight For Peace logo. “Everything I’ve done in my life has been through this project. I’m eternally grateful. There are many young people who have this opportunity too. They might not all become athletes but they have this opportunity of education, citizenship, they’ll learn a lot.”
But the reality of the challenge still remaining in Rio was laid bare when another Fight For Peace student, 17-year-old Robert Mota, lost his right eye to shrapnel in a shoot-out involving soldiers in July.
Brazil is expected to deploy 60,000 troops and officers for the Olympics, though the security operation is not understood to include soldiers occupying favelas.
“In the community where I live, what bothers me is just the violence and the drug trafficking,” Roberto said. “But compared to previous years when there were shootings all the time, exchange of gunshots between the factions, it was much more violent.
“We were always afraid we would be talking and it would just kick off. Today, shooting between gangs has reduced a lot. The tendency is to improve. Otherwise, the community is super cool. I don’t have anything bad to say about the favela.”
While the latest figures from Rio’s Institute of Public Security show the lowest murder rates since 1991 – with 272 killings in June – there have been several violent robberies this year that have worried the tourism industry.
Last month (JULY), a man was shot inside one of the busiest subway stations in downtown Rio.
With such security challenges, Rio’s official accommodation partnership with temporary rental website Airbnb raised eyebrows as the city prepares to welcome as many as 500,000 foreign visitors.
“In a place that has, let’s say, a reputation for violence, the one downside to Airbnb is probably security,” said Roger Tondeur, president of event management company MCI. “I can’t imagine London was talking about it [ahead of the 2012 Olympics].
“It has to be really well managed so there are no problems.”
Airbnb said it had established safety procedures and expected to match 20,000 guests with local hosts after 100,000 tourists used the website for accommodation during the World Cup.
Hospitality insiders predicted a shortage in hotel rooms with many fans expected to be forced into cheaper, rental options or forced out by the Olympic premium.
Public transport for the Games has also come under scrutiny. In July, a report from the Audit Office for the state of Rio de Janeiro put the expansion of the city’s subway at “high risk”, and said there cannot be any further delays if it is to be working by next year. The $3.4 billion project, which will take the city’s subway line to the edge of Barra da Tijuca, is due to be completed in June, just two months before the Olympics begin.
Luiz Fernando Pezão, Rio governor, dismissed the report and said it was based on outdated information from last year, guaranteeing the metro extension will be ready.
But the government has all but admitted defeat in its battle against pollution in the Guanabara Bay, which will host the sailing competitions.
The original target had been to treat 80 per cent of the waste being pumped into the bay by 2016, but after reaching 51 per cent last year, officials revised their targets as it emerged they would not fulfil the pledge before the Games.
As well as unclean water, the bay is also full of floating debris and rubbish, which caused concern among sailors during the first test event last August.
“I certainly don’t have confidence in the clean-up measures because what is done will only be a cover-up for the Games,” said Martine Grael, the daughter of Brazilian Olympic sailing legend Torben Grael, who will compete in the 49er FX class next year.
But while the city faces a race against time to be Games ready, the athletes are preparing with more confidence.
Last month (JULY), Team Brazil took 600 athletes – its biggest delegation yet – to the Pan-American Games in Toronto as a final warm-up for Rio 2016.
Martine was among them with her sailing partner Kahena Kunze. “Everything is about the details,” she said. “Our plan was not to change much in the Olympic year. The most important thing is to do our best.
“Rio will be really different from London. In Rio, it’s Rio de Janeiro, there’s a whole atmosphere behind the games, and it’s not just the competition.”
In Maré, Roberto speaks proudly of carrying a responsibility not only as an athlete competing in a home Games but also of being an example for children in his community.
“The expectation is very high, it’s here in my city,” he says. “I’m always talking with the psychologist in the national team.
“There’s always this question of being a role model for the kids in the project. The psychologist always says, ‘think of your championships and imagine the Olympics in your city’.
“It’s unique. I’m totally focused. You have to bring this pressure and turn it into a positive force. It’s all Zen,” he smiles again.
But one question stumps him. What about after the Olympics?
“People ask what I’ll do after the Olympics, and I say, ‘mate, I don’t have any plans at all for after the Olympics,’” he says. “I used to think, if I hadn’t come across the project, what would I do? I don’t know. I wanted to be an astronaut. I always liked speed. I thought jets were cool.
“Many kids pass through here; they become criminals, some die. There are several projects I could start. If I get a medal, I’ll have many, if I don’t I’ll have one or two.
“I’m only thinking of the Olympics. Only the result from the Olympics will decide.”
Originally published by SA Weekend