It's probably too late for a good first impression as the world gears up for the first Olympics ever held on the continent of South America. Between the Zika virus, political unrest and worries of an under-prepared city of Rio de Janeiro, the 2016 Summer Games, beginning Aug. 5, have a lot of people nervous.
But it wouldn't be the first time an Olympic games was threatened by external forces.
"The Olympics is a universal event that puts any country on the map," said New Berlin pastor Martinho Sander, a native Brazilian who has overseen the congregation at Blessed Savior Lutheran Church for the past 13 years. "There are really no obstacles large enough that can mess with the spirit of the Olympics. Over the years, (examples include) the antics of Hitler against Jesse Owens, the antics of the last Olympics in Sochi, all the talks that we heard the village for the athletes would not be ready and so forth … it all disappears during the Olympics, it all goes away."
That's not to say Sander is naïve to what's going on in his home country. He's lived in the United States for decades and does not hail from the Rio area originally, but he frequently visits with his wife and three now-grown children, most recently in 2011. He's paying close attention to the issues surrounding the Olympics.
"I think much of this is media hype," he said. "One report I read, for example, said that the special branch of the subway/metro that will transport the athletes from their housing to their Olympic events would not be ready. I saw a video of them testing it last week. It was ready. The governor of Rio and its mayor declared emergency because they wanted to legally trigger federal funds to guarantee security and transportation and so on. The same applies to the 'polluted lagoon,' where swimming and rowing events will take place. My wife, children and I swam in that lagoon dozens of times in the past three visits, including in 2011.
"I am absolutely confident that the Games are going to be a joyful thing for the world, though Brazil should really never have applied to host it, given its economic woes."
Those woes are also related to government corruption. A kickback scheme involving government-controlled oil magnate Petrobras involved more than 500 government officials. Sander said more than 100 state employees and officials at oil companies that were part of a massive collusion scandal are already serving jail terms.
"A young judge called Sergio Moro has proven, so far, to be above bribing," Sander said. "There was an organization within the Government of Brazil that systematically paid a monthly bribe to certain heads of departments that appointed the officials of the statal companies, who then chose the contractors that gave them the highest bribe. All this cost the Brazilian taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars. Brazil could easily be the most prosperous country in South America were it not for its ruling party (the Partido Trabalhista, or "Workers' party") being controlled by Fidel and Raul Castro, communists from Cuba."
Sander said the widespread corruption lasted for up to three decades, with the regular payments even getting termed "The Big Monthly." The plot was just brought to light two years ago. Interim president Michel Temer is trying to clean up the mess after a vote to impeach Dimsa Roussef, who Sander said mocked the Brazilian people by coming to the rescue of her predecessor, Lula de Silva.
Sander said Roussef created a new department in the government and named de Silva secretary, shielding him from certain levels of prosecution as an active member of the government.
"Lula owns a triplex apartment in Ipanema that cost several million dollars and a cattle farm (Atibaia) worth 12 million dollars," Sander said. "This he bought with his presidential salary of $130,000 a year, after two four-year terms. Before becoming president, he was a lathe worker in a tool-making shop. His two sons are multimillionaires themselves. How? Bribes."
The threat of civil war loomed over Brazil between those loyal to the old government and those who wanted to see reform. Even with a tenuous peace established now, there remains concerns over quality of water and the Zika virus, as well as infrastructure.
"I was disappointed by the bike trail, built along the rocky coastline, collapsed and caused the death of two people," Sander said. "That is purely the result of dishonest engineering and constructing, cutting corners and pocketing the surplus. Zika is virtually nonexistent in Brazil, and I think the athletes who stayed away alleging Zika did so for other reasons."
Sander said he has no problem drinking water from the faucet, though members of his family elect to consume mineral water when vacationing in Brazil, given that they don't have the antibodies from drinking the water at an early age.
Can handle crowds
Sander added that Brazilians are very "amiable and malleable," which he said partly explains why government corruption was so permitted but also foretells a positive experience for those traveling to compete and witness the upcoming games.
He cited the recent example of a papal visit to Rio, where 600,000 onlookers crowded the beach, as a sign of how well-built the city is to handle an influx of people.
"It's just rows and rows of hotels, and very affordable," Sander said. "Right now for Americans, it's attractive because the money exchange is so favorable. It's almost four reals to a dollar. You go to a restaurant in Rio, one of our favorites right on Copacabana Beach, you pay by the weight of the food. A kilo is $4. Who eats a kilo? A kilo is 2.2 pounds of food."
He said the city's Atlantic rainforest contains perhaps the biggest concentration of fauna anywhere in the world.
"It's luscious, very green," Sander said. "Those mountains come to within about 600 yards of the beach, if not all the way to the water. You have apartment buildings and commerce along the beach, but also a beautiful sector downtown with charming buildings from two centuries ago. It's very rich with history. Rio was the capital until Brasilia opened in 1964."
Though August technically counts as spring, with June and July as winter, the definition doesn't align with what we experience in Wisconsin.
"We went to the beach every single day (last time we went during Brazil's winter), and it got all the way down to 74 one day, but that was the coldest," Sander said. "It never broke 80. At 80, Brazilians go to the beach. Under 80, no way. We were by ourselves on the beach, virtually."
Perhaps it's a strange dysfunctional paradise, but Sander's optimism shines through when he talks about his home.
"They know how to deal with crowds, kind of like Washington, D.C.," he added. "No matter how large the crowd, they know how to transport, feed, to host. I encourage anyone that has never been to an Olympic games to go."