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Rio de Janeiro is ecstatic as IOC chooses it for 2016 Summer Olympics

Decision gives Brazil a vote of confidence as an emerging global player. Despite a personal pitch by Obama, the IOC swiftly rejects Chicago in favor of giving South America its first Olympics.

October 03, 2009|Chris Kraul and Marcelo Soares

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA, AND SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — The weight of a troubled history has taught Brazilians not to expect too much. Their country, it is often said, is the "nation of the future -- and always will be."

On Friday, the International Olympic Committee declared that the future is now.

In a leap of faith recognizing an emerging player on the world stage, officials awarded the 2016 Games to Rio de Janeiro, giving it the honor of staging the first Olympics in South America.

The selection of Rio over rivals Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid set off a joyous celebration in a city known in roughly equal measure for its beaches, its carnival and its vast, crime-ridden shantytowns. Although Chicago backers in particular reacted with stunned silence, in Brazil the decision was met with a fervent hope that the country might finally be approaching its vast potential.

"I say with all frankness: Our time has come," President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared. Like President Obama and officials of the other finalist countries, Lula made a personal appeal to the Olympic Committee before its vote in Copenhagen.

After the vote, a teary-eyed Lula told reporters, "I confess to you that if I died now, my life has been worthwhile."

Back home on the famed Copacabana beach, an estimated 1 million people had gathered to await the decision. Many were prepared for disappointment, expecting another instance of a less-developed country getting the short end of the stick.

Teacher Lucio Correia da Silva said he was worried when he found out that Obama was going to Copenhagen.

"The mood now is of vindication, as if Brazil had proven a point to the world," he said.

Brazil pursued the honor vigorously, promising to spend $14 billion -- twice as much as the next highest candidate -- to overcome daunting logistical and social challenges. About 85% of Rio residents supported the Olympic bid, according to the IOC, compared with 55% in Chicago.

Brazilians regard the Olympics as an event that will raise the status of their country, an increasingly important economic power, on the global stage and transform Rio much as the 1992 Games helped establish Barcelona, Spain, as a tourist and meeting venue.

Unlike much of the world, which is still extricating itself from recession, Brazil's economy is expected to grow by between 4% to 6% next year. The country is helping propel Latin America out of recession, according to a forecast released Thursday by the International Monetary Fund.

Brazil's economy has benefited from strong demand for natural resources such as ironand timber and crops such as sugar cane and soybean. The discovery of major offshore oil deposits is expected to make it a major energy exporter by 2012. And under Lula, the government seems to have broken a cycle of hyperinflation, currency devaluations, bank failures and credit crises.

Rio's selection is also a testament to Lula's influence at home and growing prestige abroad. Nearing the end of his second term, the former union official who was once jailed by military rulers still enjoys approval ratings of around 80%.

Framed by Sugar Loaf mountain, the Atlantic Ocean and the towering Christ the Redeemer statue, Rio is a city of enormous charm and festive spirit.

It is also a city of extremes. Luxury hotels and condominiums along Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are ringed by impoverished favelas, or shantytowns, known to moviegoers through films such as "City of God."

Rising cocaine use and trafficking are at the root of much of the crime.

Tuesday, for example, was a typical day on Rio's crime blotter. At dawn, an unidentified man was found shot to death in the trunk of a Renault that had been stolen from an executive transportation company. A couple of hours later, a gang invaded a Copacabana apartment building, robbed 30 residents and got away. About the same time, police closed in on drug dealers in a favela, killing a juvenile, arresting six people and seizing weapons that included two homemade bombs.

Faced with that level of crime, corporations have fled, and the tourist and convention business has suffered in recent years. To maintain order during the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio, the country sent 18,000 extra police officers and soldiers into the streets.

Jorge Barbosa, who heads an advocacy group for slum residents, said that nothing in the Olympic bid addressed residents' need for education, better housing and security.

"We're insisting that the government give social meaning to these Olympics by investing in the favelas," Barbosa said.

Nevertheless, crowds took advantage of a citywide holiday Friday and streamed toward Copacabana beach to await the decision. The country's Olympic organizers erected an enormous pavilion there to announce the outcome.

Travel agent Ana Lucia Perez da Costa cheered and cried for joy. "I'm very happy because this will help sports and give a boost to kids of all ages and social classes," she said.

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