Olympics: Special report on the Rio De Janeiro that the world won’t see

By Oliver Holt - Sports Columnist Of The Year14/10/2009

With a gang war looming, the 2016 Olympics have suddenly given Arthur and other Rio slum kids a chance to dream

Rio Carnival


A cloud fell across the face of Arthur’s mother and her son bowed his head as she began to speak.

She was afraid, she said, because everyone knows there will soon be a war in the favela of Rocinha where she and her family live.

The government is trying to win back control of the slum from the drugs gangs and install police militias to run them before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

And when the police attempt to take Rocinha and the gun battle with the Amigos dos Amigos happens, Arthur’s mother knows it will be close by.

Arthur, who is 12, and his family live behind a metal door in a tiny apartment above a teeming alleyway. At the end of the alley lies the Via Apia.

It is here that the motorbike taxis wait to take their fares higher up the mountain into the dark heart of the slum, here where many of the Amigos dos Amigos have their homes, here where they will make their stand. They are called the Amigos dos Amigos, or Friends of Friends, because they are allied to the Third Command, the most feared drugs gang in Rio de Janeiro.

Arthur sees them every day in his alleyway, many of them kids little older than him, armed to the hilt, carrying machine guns as casually as if they were school satchels.

And they will not give up Rocinha lightly. For one thing, it is the biggest slum in South America, home to 200,000 people living in shacks clinging to the hillside.

But it is also close to the affluent suburb of Sao Conrado, where Manchester United stayed when they played in the World Club Championship in 2000. So there are handsome profits to be made from the rich kids who make the quick journey across the highway to score their drugs.

The example many of the kids in the favelas look up to, said Alfredo Sirkis, a prominent Rio politician, is a trafficker with his AR-15 rifle and his Nike shoes.

"It’s a way to become a man. The girls notice him and he can fight his enemies, who are youths like him. Now some of the gangsters are as young as 10. It’s like a Middle Ages phenomenon, feudalism and warlordism without any purpose other than living day to day."

Arthur has never been tempted to join the gangs nor have they exerted any pressure upon him. Most of the kids get to know gang members by buying small amounts of drugs from them, he says, and soon become dealers themselves.

Instead, Arthur dreams about making something of his life through his education and competing in the 2016 Olympics here.

The Daily Mirror is paying for him to attend a school in a safe area outside Rocinha where he can sit in lessons without hearing the sound of gunfire.

And his sporting ambitions are being fostered by a pioneering organisation called the Instituto Reacao, run by Flavio Canto, who won Olympic bronze in judo for Brazil at the Athens games in 2004.

Canto set up judo academies in four favelas, including Rocinha and the Cidade de Deus, the City of God, to give the children of the slums an alternative to joining the drugs gangs. Now his projects are massively over-subscribed and he is hoping that some of his students will compete in the London Olympics in 2012 and then in Rio in 2016.

"The kids in the favelas are vulnerable because they face two constant challenges," Canto says. "Either falling victim to the violence or choosing to become a young perpetrator of it.

"The kids have it toughest. They are told every day: ’You’re not going to advance. If you are born in the favela, you’re going to die in the favela’. And that’s an idea that we try to break."

So Arthur goes to his new school from 7am until 1pm and then trains in judo every afternoon before having two more hours of lessons. He’s a fan of famous local team Flamengo and his knowledge of European football is encyclopedic but ask him whether he is looking forward more to Rio’s World Cup or its Olympics and he says the Olympics because maybe he can compete in it.

Rio is still alive with the thrill of being awarded the Games last week. It is the new world capital of sport now and the excitement has united its extremes of rich and poor like nothing else could.

There are very few here who argue, as many of us have in London, that the billions being lavished on the Games would be better spent elsewhere.

When we left Arthur’s apartment in Rocinha, I asked Canto whether the £9billion that Rio is dedicating to its Olympics might not have been put to better use helping the people who live in the favelas.

"I don’t believe so," he said. "This money would not have come to Rio without the Olympic Games.

"A big part of this budget is going to be spent on transport, on better roads, on extending the subway and building a new fast train link to the suburbs and transport is a key point in social inequality here.

"My hope is that we will use the Games to attack the biggest problem in Rio, the big social inequalities and injustices and the big distances between the many with the little and the few with a lot.

"One reason we have so many slums in Rio is because we do not have fair transportation.

"If you live a long way away from where you work, you have to spend a lot of time and money getting to work because the traffic is so bad.

"Much of the available work is in the city but the housing close by is too expensive for most people and the transport system is bad so they are driven into the favelas.

"But if we get mass transportation that can avoid traffic jams, people will be able to live further away from work and suddenly they will not have to live in the favela any more."

If the plan works, Arthur’s life may change even more. Both his mother and his step-father work in restaurants in the affluent part of Rio between the mountains and the sea.

With better transport, they could keep their jobs but move away from Rocinha, away from the Amigos dos Amigos and the police militias, away from the stray bullets and the kids with grenade belts and the sound of gunfire in the darkness.

And Arthur, who is already working so hard to escape the fate allotted to the children of the favelas, may soon remember the moment that Rio won the Olympics as another day that changed his life.

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