Olympics: Volunteering and Partaking

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Sunset over the Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca, a district of the West Zone of Rio.

I am currently sitting in an upscale mall called Botafogo Praia Shopping, in a Starbucks that has become my working office on the days that the Promundo headquarters is closed. During the Olympics the city changes—streets close when triathlons and bike races need the space, bus lines are rerouted to give priority to the flows of tourists around Zona Sul, and probably most important for my own work, the month of August has been declared a month of ferias, or holidays, to give workers time to enjoy the Olympic Games or else go on vacation. Although I’m enjoying the mad influx of tourists that crowd the boardwalk along Copacabana beach and pass constantly through this coffee shop as I work, I’m cognizant of the annoyances they bring to residents of Rio. Last night, while I ate dinner with José and Josie, my old host family in Rocinha, a friend of theirs described her experience of a foreigner stopping her on the street to ask her a question in English, to which she could not respond because she only speaks Portuguese. Many other cariocas have told me similar stories, being stopped by a confused tourist and spoken to in English while going about their private business in a public space. It must be frustrating for both parties, and it makes me happy that I can speak Portuguese and be of use to people on both sides of the exchange.

Going to Rocinha is always a walk down memory lane for me; walking certain becos brings fresh memories to mind of the wonderful people with whom I shared seven weeks of travel and learning two years prior. It is especially nice to visit José and Josie, with whom I can speak more and more comfortably as my Portuguese improves, as well as Marlene and Alzira, the women I stayed with when I first arrived in Rocinha. It gives me so much pleasure to see them and talk to them about their lives, and I hope to return more often in the future, perhaps to take part in an initiative organized by Project Favela, an NGO that works in Rocinha. An English volunteer from the NGO told me about a weekly girls’ empowerment workshop that invites girls from the favela to meet foreigners, discuss their visions of their future, and learn more about the world around them. I am anxious to learn more and hopefully attend this meeting the next time it convenes.

Additionally, during this month I’ve volunteered for an initiative organized by a government committee called “Comitê de Proteção Integral a Crianças e Adolescentes nos Megaeventos do Rio de Janeiro”, or the Committee for Integral Protection of Children and Adolescents in the Mega-events of Rio de Janeiro. This committee organized an initiative to identify children in various event sites hosting crowded events in order to prevent lost children and decrease children’s vulnerability to kidnapping and exploitation. I volunteered in Praça Mauá, a plaza in the city center with a large screen and various music events taking place at night. I approached families with young children and asked if they would like to identify their child with a bracelet that would have the child’s name and the parent’s name and cell number. The work was easy and generated warm responses from the majority of parents we approached. We managed to identify at least seventy children over the course of several hours. The initiative is a concrete way of increasing the safety of children during Olympic events, and I was happy to participate as a volunteer.

 

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Another volunteer from Promundo puts an identification bracelet on a child with his mother watching.

 

I was also given the chance to attend the Olympic Games yesterday and watch several diving heats, as well as several rounds of women’s wrestling. Both competitions were compelling to watch, and although I do not plan to revisit the Games I am glad that I was able to see them as they took place in Rio. Not only were the sports an interesting spectacle, the people in attendance also provoked a lot of thoughts about the divisiveness of the Games. The composition of the crowd was very different from the average street scene of Rio de Janeiro: most people were light-skinned, including the Brazilian fans, and were dressed well, sporting jewelry, watches, and nice clothes. The rallying cry of numerous resistance movements to the Olympics, “Jogos da Exclusão”, or Games of Exclusion, ran through my head more than once as I walked the park taking in the scene around me. The situation elicited a mixture of guilt, hypocrisy, and denial, and I caught myself searching for any subtle differences in clothes, appearance, or behavior between myself and the other tourists that would evidence a larger ideological difference between us. I am a researcher, I am here to study the exact inequalities that I am observing here. I’m not like these people, were the thoughts that ran through my mind as I watched groups of girls taking selfies with the Olympic rings in the background, and parents buy R$20 hot dogs for their children. Of course, no matter what I want to tell myself, I unquestionably belong to this elite group. I have the time, resources, and luxury to take a day away from work to partake in the mega-event, and moreover I have the social connections to secure a free ticket to watch these Games. Not everyone is so privileged, and it serves to bear in mind as I grapple with issues of inequality and poverty: problems that I have never had to feel in the acute sharpness in which they affect many of the subjects I study.

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The diving arena of the Barra Olympic Park. Allegedly, the pool below the diving platform is the same pool that famously turned green a week ago.
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