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Optimism Grows, But Security Concerns Still Influence Brazilians' Attitudes About Rio Olympics

Military medical personnel attend a drill that simulates a biological or nuclear attack at Galeo Air Base in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, July 15, 2016.
Renata Brito
Military medical personnel attend a drill that simulates a biological or nuclear attack at Galeo Air Base in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, July 15, 2016.

The 2016 Summer Olympics open Friday night in Rio de Janeiro. Like soccer’s World Cup two years ago, the event has drawn the world’s attention to Brazil’s largest city and raised questions about health, security, and the country’s economic and political climate.

University of Oklahoma anthropologist Erika Robb Larkins has spent the past year living and working in Rio. She told KGOU’s World Views Brazil has a track record of succeeding when it throws parties on a global scale – from the annual Carnival festival before the Lenten season, to the annual New Year’s celebration.

“Brazilians are amazing hosts, and they are very proud of their country even though they know that it's passing through a difficult moment,” Larkins said. “The atmosphere in the last week has started to shift from a lot of criticism or ‘Why did we do this?" Why are we hosting these Olympics? These are not good for the Brazilian people,’ to ‘Well, the Olympics are going to happen, and because they're going to happen, let's try to put on the best show possible and show people the spirit and the enthusiasm of the Brazilian people.’”

Larkins says security has always been an issue in Brazil due to the high levels of income inequality that contribute to the type of street crime typical of most of the world’s largest cities. After the 2015 coordinated attack in Paris that left hundreds of people dead and other smaller-scale attacks across Europe inspired by the Islamic State, there are concerns jihadists could target the high-profile, three-week gathering of the world’s best athletes, The New York Times reports:

American officials have been training Brazilian antiterrorism units on chemical and biological attacks. They are helping to identify soft targets like restaurants, night clubs and shopping malls that are away from well-guarded Olympic sites. And they have been working for many months to train Brazilian law enforcement and military personnel at large American sporting events, including the Super Bowl in February. The cooperation reflects a notable thaw in ties after the anger in 2013 over American surveillance of Brazil’s political leaders by the National Security Agency. And the shift came into sharp relief last month, when Brazilian investigators revealed that the F.B.I. had helped them identify and track several of the 10 men arrested on suspicion of planning attacks for a Brazilian Islamist militant group called the Defenders of Shariah.

Brazil doesn’t have the history of terrorism that the United States and western Europe do, has never been a target, and has few enemies in the world. Larkins says most Brazilians in Rio she’s talked to blame the new security concerns on the teams and tourists visiting their city.

“Suddenly you find people paying attention to ‘abandoned items’ in the street. You find them more alert in the metro. There's been a whole process of sensitizing the population to this,” Larkins said. “There's a lot of discussion among Brazilians about what does it mean for our country to have become to have terrorism on the mind that we've never had before. And what might that mean for us after the Olympics, given that we're a country that doesn't have this tradition.”

World Views is a collaboration between KGOU and the University of Oklahoma’s Collegeof International Studiesto bring internationally-focused reporting and interviews to listeners in Oklahoma and beyond. Help support these efforts with a donation online.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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