Rio de Janeiro, host of Rio 2016, is home to three major problems that athletes and travellers to Brazil for the summer games should properly understand.
The situation in the South American country is considered so bad that Brazil has landed a spot on Canada’s travel advisory list of places to exercise “extreme caution” when visiting.
“It’s having its worst political crisis in modern history, its worst economic crisis ever, and it’s always had a problem with crime and violence,” said Philip Oxhorn, a political science professor at McGill University.
Oxhorn, who’s studied the region since the ’80s, explains that Brazil is “one of the most unequal countries in the world.” In Rio and Sao Paulo’s favelas and slums — which he says are “everywhere” and among the “worst slums in South America” — “it’s a war zone.”
Even if you stay at a fancy hotel chain in Rio, chances are there’s a favela close by.
“If you go to the left you’re OK. If you go to the right, you’re in trouble.”
Here’s a closer look at the three biggest threats travellers to Rio may encounter this summer.
Brazil is the murder capital of the world, according to a report by Public Security and Criminal Justice released in January. It has 22 out of the 50 most deadly cities. Rio is not actually on the list, though.
The city’s homicide rate (which was 18.6 per 100,000 in 2015) spiked 15 per cent in the first four months this year compared to last, according to The Washington Post, which also reported that street robbery climbed 24 per cent. The Guardian reported in 2015 that the country saw 58,000 violent deaths.
By comparison, there were 516 homicides – total – in Canada in 2014.
Oxhorn feels most of Rio’s crime happens far away from tourist spots and sporting venues.
“It takes place in the slums and favelas, where athletes and tourists shouldn’t go anyway,” he said.
Of course there have been exceptions.
Two members of the Australian Paralympic sailing squad were robbed at gunpoint near their Rio accommodations in June.
“There were people around but no one came to their assistance. This is a major concern,” Kitty Chiller, Australia’s Olympic team leader, said after the incident.
A month before that, Spain’s Olympic gold-medal winning sailor Fernando Echavarri and two friends were held up at gunpoint by five men.
In another incident just a week ago, a New Zealand jiu-jitsu fighter (who isn’t competing in the games) said he was kidnapped by two men in police uniforms, taken to ATM machines and forced to withdraw cash.
The Canadian government refers to these as “express kidnappings” and says they are rare, but do occur. It recommends avoiding bank machines at night, and only using those that are in well-lit public areas. Rely on your common sense.
When confronted by muggers, the recommended course of action is to just comply and hand over your belongings without arguing.
There also tends to be greater safety in numbers. Anyone travelling at night is encouraged to order a licensed taxi by phone or via the taxi app (99 Taxi or EasyTaxi). You can purchase your fare from licensed taxi offices at the airport when you arrive in Brazil. The government offers more advice on getting around here.
Brian Ward, a professor at McGill’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, admits “the area around Rio has been hit pretty hard by the Zika outbreak.”
He cites different reports that say:
• 1 of every 4 cases in Brazil have occurred around/in the city
• the incidence may be as high as 160/100,000
There’s reportedly been a steady decline in the number of reported cases of Zika in Brazil over the past 12 months, with some saying that transmission in and around the city peaked earlier in the spring.
Ward says he hasn’t seen any hard data to back that claim up though.
“And transmission could certainly pick up again with the introduction of 500,000 Zika-naive tourists.”
Pregnant women, or those considering starting a family, are at the highest risk.
They should use all protective measures not to get bit, including wearing mosquito repellant and loose-fitting clothing.
Travellers should also practice safe sex.
Worst-case scenario: a competitor will get MRSA, a flesh-eating bacteria that infected Olympic sailor Erik Heil last August after he took part in a test event in Rio.
An Associated Press investigation found astronomical viral levels from untreated sewage in all of Rio’s water venues, where 1,400 swimmers, rowers, sailors, canoeists, and triathletes will compete.
Kristina Mena, an expert in waterborne viruses at the University of Texas, said in December she doesn’t think any of the venues are fit for swimmers or boaters. Athletes who ingest three teaspoons of water have a 99 per cent chance of being infected by viruses.
READ MORE: Activists denounce sewage in Rio de Janeiro
Daniel Becker, a Rio pediatrician, told The New York Times the situation is quite worrisome.
“Foreign athletes will literally be swimming in human crap, and they risk getting sick from all those microorganisms.”
Renata Picão, a microbiologist at the Federal University of Rio, has reportedly “refused to step foot in the water since she began sampling it three years ago,” according to The Times.
“She said the pathogens, potentially fatal to those with compromised immunities, probably come from local hospitals that discharge untreated waste. Although superbacteria may not pose a threat to healthy people, the organisms can remain in the body for years and wreak havoc if a person becomes otherwise sick.”
WATCH: Rio de Janeiro’s water quality similar to sewage ahead of next year’s Olympics
Are Canada’s athletes concerned?
If our Olympians are worried, they’re not letting on.
“There’s the water concerns everyone is talking about with the water pollution, or the Zika virus. But for us it’s a lot of common sense stuff,” said Canadian rower Will Crothers.
“Keep your hands clean, don’t touch your face while you’re out on the water, you know… We’re quite confident we’ll be fine when we go down there.”
A couple others pointed out the games have, historically and regardless of the host, been mired in controversy.
“Before Beijing there was a SARS outbreak and everyone was talking about that,” said Rhian Wilkinson, who’s on the women’s soccer team.
“London it was security,” added swimmer Ryan Cochrane. “It seems to be the different viruses in Brazil.”
Luckily, he said, Team Canada has enough support staff who “worry about that stuff” so the athletes don’t have to.
“We have our physiologists, our biomechanists, our doctors, our coaches… I trust that they’re doing everything that they can to ensure that we’re safe.”
Wilkinson echoed those sentiments, saying it may not be the place to be if you’re pregnant, but it’s Rio 2016.
“It’s a huge event. We’ll do the right things to take precautions.”
Oxhorn is also confident that, just like at the World Cup in Rio and South Africa, this event will offer a “miraculous” sort of protective “bubble” of security not normally seen in the area.
“When it comes time, and push comes to shove,” he said, “things work a little better than we’d expect.”
With files from The Associated Press