Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The country of tomorrow

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American satirist H. L. Mencken once famously said: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populous alarmed - and hence clamour to be led to safety - by menacing it with and endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

I suspect there are a similar group of Cassandra-like sports journalists eager to do the same.

Before the 2016 Summer Olympics we were bombarded with negative comments telling us why the tournament was a disaster waiting to happen. This is typical pre-games reporting and the perceived wisdom leading up to the Rio extravaganza was that danger lurked everywhere. A Zika epidemic, infested waterways, a political and economic crisis and a soaring crime rate.

Alright, the Aussies found early on that the plumbing in their village was sub-standard, and some prima-donna American swimmers were held up at gunpoint by a bunch of pseudo-policemen waving badges and robbed of everything except their passports, watches and other desirable items on their personages. As far as I know the Ockers were eventually able to flush away their ablutions and of course the swimmers terrifying robbery was a work of dubious fiction.

In the event the games were a triumph and we were all reminded, thanks to the exceptional television coverage, with the colourful venues and theatrical stadium entrances, just how captivated we are every four years.

To be fair, beyond the television spectacle there are weighty issues that Brazil is facing and I too was sceptical about how the politically unstable country was going to handle the potentially damaging exposure.

I spent six weeks in Brazil in 1986 leading a Rotary Group Study Exchange team to the northern area called Amazonia. We were billeted with Rotarian families and started our study tour in Belem, an equatorial city at the mouth of the Amazon. We then journeyed into the hinterland staying in smaller towns, ending up at a city called Manaus known at the time as the murder capital of the world.

Poverty in all these areas was endemic and there was no social welfare system for the populous to fall back on. The homeless build crude dwellings, known as favelas, on land that most would find worthless. These hillside shanty towns didn’t feature too much in the gilded Olympic television coverage.

You won’t believe these figures, but back in 1986 inflation was running at 300 per cent and interest rates were 1400 per cent. The government had told the citizens to add three noughts to their currency, known as the cruzeiro, so a ten cruzeiro note became a ten thousand cruzeiro note. This is crude, but I’ll tell you anyway; banknotes were so worthless people used them as toilet paper. Toilet paper was in short supply and expensive.

Cruzeiro’s were withdrawn from circulation in 1994 and replaced with the “real.”

Brazil’s slogan was “The Country of Tomorrow” and one industrialist I met reckoned this was their problem. “Tomorrow never comes,” he said, “And so we are drifting further and further into poverty without anyone needing to redress the situation.”

Well thirty years on, from the comfort of my couch, the images looked pretty appealing.

Perhaps tomorrow has finally arrived.

“Finishing second in the Olympics gets you silver. Finishing second in politics gets you oblivion.” - Richard Nixon


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