In a Rio favela, the true spirit of the Olympics abides

David Vieira Bisbo, a bar owner in the Chapeu Mangueria slum, holds the Olympic flame after his Olympic torch run along the streets of Copacabana, as the torch makes its way to the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.
David Vieira Bisbo, a bar owner in the Chapeu Mangueria slum, holds the Olympic flame after his Olympic torch run along the streets of Copacabana, as the torch makes its way to the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. AP

A mural along the steep, narrow street leading up to the favela called Chapeu Mangueira says the shantytown is “hard to find, hard to forget.”

Here, the spectacle of the Olympics seems distant and surreal. While VIPs watched Friday night’s Opening Ceremonies inside Maracana Stadium, the two million people who live in Rio’s 1,000 favelas watched on TVs jury-rigged to electrical lines. The Copacabana beach volleyball venue is less than half a mile from Chapeu Mangueira, but that is as close as residents will get to Rio’s Games, which are costing $6 billion in a city that is in such financial straits it can’t afford to pay its police officers, stock its hospital pharmacies or provide toilet paper to schools.

Still, the people who live in Chapeu Mangueira — named after a hat factory that used to stand on this site — and the adjacent Babilonia favela seem more excited about hosting the Olympics than their richer neighbors down the hill in Leme.

“Ever since I was a child I dreamed about what it would be like to have the Olympics in Rio,” said David Bispo, who was a torch bearer during the relay when it passed through the city on Thursday. “Now is the time to value the Olympics and appreciate how sports can bring people together.”

Bispo, 44, owns a small eatery with delicious food, Bar do David. He’s lived here all his life. His father, the late Lucio de Paula Bispo, was leader of a movement to preserve Chapeu in the 1960s when the government wanted to tear it down.

“My father saved the slum, and now I am proud to run my business here,” he said.

As the Brazilian national anthem played on Bispo’s TV, customers and employees sang along. Waitress Andria de Souza enjoyed the show, especially the hip-hop performance by favela kids and the parade of nations.

“It’s an opportunity for the kids to display their talents on the world stage,” she said. “I like that each country isn’t just carrying a flag but also carrying a Brazilian plant, and they’re going to create a garden.”

But she is critical of the government and Olympic organizers for not keeping their promises, including one to build sewage treatment facilities for the favelas, where fetid waste runs in the gutters.

“We would like more low-income housing and more parks, soccer fields and basketball courts for the children,” de Souza said.

She grew up in Chapeu and never felt threatened by the types of drug gangs that rule other favelas. Chapeu was also part of an experiment in community policing that sent “pacification units” into slums, but the units are being phased out because of a lack of funding and police misconduct.

People in Chapeu are fortunate they were not among the 70,000 poor Rio residents displaced for the Olympics, which have caused so much frustration and disruption. Olympic Park is next to a community that was cleared out for the Olympics. Nothing was sacred — an environmentally protected area was turned into the Olympic golf course. The governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro declared “a state of public calamity” over budget shortfalls for transport, public safety and education. A security force of 85,000 — double that of London 2012 — has been deployed. A corruption scandal involving 318 members of Congress has added to the chaos.

Police in riot gear were called in to quell a protest against the Olympics at 6 p.m. near Maracana. Photographers in gas masks rushed to the scene, where a person dressed in a Spiderman outfit confronted authorities.

Acting President Michel Temer was booed when he spoke, following demonstrations against him all day. A convoy of Olympic and political leaders in black sedans was cursed on its way to the stadium.

But in Chapeu there was a neighborly, friendly vibe. Men got their hair trimmed at the barbershop. Children practiced judo and boxing in the gym. Samba drummers and singers rehearsed. A little girl pulled a toy car fashioned out of plastic soda bottles. A little boy played with a puppy. An old man digging in a dumpster chatted with police. Daiane Silva sold grilled skewers of chicken.

“I’m excited to see Neymar play,” she said of the soccer star.

Residents gathered at Bispo’s pesujo “dirty feet” pub to drink beer and watch the ceremonies, which director Fernando Meirelles hoped would be an “anti-depressant” for Rio. He directed “City of God,” the movie about one of the city’s most violent favelas.

“I think the Olympics will uplift Rio’s spirits,” Daniel Alves Lima said as dancers in Carnival costumes performed on TV.

“I’d like the Olympics to go on forever because there are so many beautiful women and happy people,” Dionisio do Viera said. “The Olympics can bring positive change to Rio.”

Bispo hopes to persuade Usain Bolt to come visit, eat his famous seafood salad with black-eyed peas, “and inspire the slum kids,” he said.

It’s a long climb to Chapeu, unless you hop on the back of a motobike for $2. And the poorer you are, the longer the climb from your job in the hotels or restaurants below. The smallest shacks are higher on the hillside.

The favela of Tabajaras rubs up against the million-dollar homes on Vitoria Regia street at the top of a mountain. Gunshots hit the walls of the mansions earlier this week.

But it’s calm in Chapeu, a place that’s hard to find, hard to forget. The people understand the Games are an illusion, but they don’t mind playing along.

“The Olympics bring peace,” Bispo said as the sounds of bossa nova, samba and tropicalia wafted from his TV. “The world will see Rio in a good light.”