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Hoping for Games glory, Rio residents still vaulting local hurdles

Many are somewhat optimistic, even as every misstep on the path to the Olympics is a reminder of how Brazil's seemingly endless upward trajectory of years past is now a memory.

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    Claudio Moreira, a doorman in the tony Copacabana neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, watches a pick-up game of volleyball after work July 3, 2016. He is excited for Rio to play host to both the Olympics and Paralympics this summer.
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It wasn’t long ago that Lucia Andrade, a nutritionist and university professor here in Rio, was purely optimistic about her city playing host to the 2016 Olympic Games.

“I was happy when they announced the Games” in 2009, Ms. Andrade says. “I knew we would get investment, especially new transportation, which creates jobs.”

But today her expectations have significantly lowered. Standing alongside a light-rail line in downtown Rio that workers were still putting the finishing touches on just a few weeks before the Aug. 5 start of the Games, she says, “I think [this is] the best we’ll get from these Olympics.”

Amid what is meant to be a unifying moment of global sportsmanship, Brazil continues to face a slew of challenges as it prepares to host the first Olympics in South America:

• An endangered Jaguar – the Olympic mascot – was shot and killed following an official event.

• Foreign athletes have been robbed at gunpoint while training in the city, known both for its dramatic natural beauty and for its high levels of street crime.

• International headlines screech on about unfinished construction, the Zika virus, terrorism threats, polluted water, underfunded hospitals, and an unprepared state and federal government.

This type of doomsday attention is a common feature in the lead-up to mega sporting events worldwide. But the tone here is particularly pointed. Everything that goes wrong – or that hasn't lived up to local expectations – is a stark reminder of how Brazil's seemingly endless upward trajectory of just seven years ago, when Rio was announced the 2016 host, is now a distant memory. Still, there’s evidence among Cariocas (people who live in Rio) of glimmers of hope.

'This city is very exciting'

For some, their low expectations have more to do with the political and economic crises plaguing the government. And despite their laundry lists of frustrations – incomplete construction, displacements, potential white elephants – many locals do let slip that they look forward to the spirit of athleticism and togetherness the Olympics are meant to inspire.

Once the Games start, Brazil should start feeling its typical “good vibrations,” predicts Andrade – “even if it’s only a temporary escape” from the drumbeat of depressing news over the past two years, from Brazil's worst recession in decades to a mammoth corruption scandal and the president undergoing impeachment proceedings.

“It’s a pity that this moment is such a low one for our country,” Andrade says. “We wanted everything to be different.

"I believe in my country and in our athletes. This city is very exciting: the sun, the breeze, it’s a wonderful place,” she says.

Most are hopeful

Andrade isn't alone in holding out hope for a triumphant Olympics in what's nicknamed the “Marvelous City.”

In fact, just over 60 percent of Rio de Janeiro residents surveyed say they believe the Olympic Games are going to be a success, according to a recent poll for leading daily O Globo (a sponsor of the 2016 Games).

Like many people walking the streets and black-and-white mosaic sidewalks here, those surveyed followed up their predictions of success with expressions of concern for myriad challenges that could arise, like security.

Violence is one of the top concerns of both city and state residents, according to the poll, published in early July. An estimated eight in 10 people cite violence as the central reason the Games could be knocked off course.

“The city is not ready for the Olympics, not in infrastructure, security, in any respect,” says Marcelo Holanda, a pizza chef who lives in a small town outside the city in Rio de Janeiro State. “We aren’t prepared.”

The state of Rio’s security budget has been cut by roughly 30 percent compared with 2015, and although it’s illegal for emergency service providers like firemen and police to go on strike, local police stood in the international airport terminal in Rio earlier this month to protest unpaid wages.

Passion for sports

Mr. Holanda’s girlfriend, Elaine Zara, who helps run a homemade jewelry and cheese stall at a monthly crafts market here, says she’s more concerned with the political environment of corruption and mismanagement than the Olympics themselves.

Scores of top politicians and businessmen have been implicated in a kickback scandal involving the state-run oil company over the past two years. And protests calling out public-sector spending on past mega sporting events like the World Cup have plagued Brazil on and off for the past three years.

“After [the Olympics], they’ll sell everything,” Ms. Zara says of projects designed for the Games. “They’ll privatize it all. It won’t be a place for the public.”

But for Claudio Moreira, a doorman in the upscale Copacabana neighborhood, little could dull the magic of watching top athletes descend upon Rio next month.

Still dressed in his uniform of a button-down white shirt and black pants, his eyes are glued to a pick-up volleyball match on Copacabana beach on a recent Sunday afternoon.

“I’m passionate about all sports; volleyball, football (soccer), cycling, all of it,” Mr. Moreira says.

“The Olympics are fantastic for Rio.”

A freelance writer contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro.

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