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Golf is not a sport that naturally lends itself to association with the upcoming Olympic Games in Brazil, unlike the national obsessions of football and beach volleyball.
Yet it is in the area of golf that the 2016 Rio Olympics will leave one of its more idiosyncratic and, it is hoped, lasting legacies with the city’s first public golf course.
Earlier this year, the city chose US-based Hanse Golf Course Design to deliver a facility to host what will be the first golf tournament played at the Olympic Games since 1904.
Unlike the city’s two private courses, this facility in Barra da Tijuca, a newer part of Rio that will host many Olympic events, will be focused on developing the public’s interest in golf.
“The idea is to build the first public golf facility in Rio, to focus on developing the sport, teaching children and training professionals,” says Arminio Fraga, a former central bank governor and member of the Rio 2016 golf advisory committee.
In a developing city such as Rio de Janeiro, a metropolis of around 6m people, the question of legacy has to dominate any attempt to stage important international events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games.
City officials working on the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics two years later know they have a limited time to prove the value of the events to residents struggling with such everyday urban problems as traffic congestion, poor housing and sanitation, and urban violence.
For this reason, the golf course is only one of many legacy projects that officials are promising the two events will bequeath to the city. The others include radical improvements in policing, particularly in the most violent favelas, or slums, and better public transport to ease congestion, particularly in areas that are off the tourist trail but are where most of the people live.
“We are taking advantage of the Games to do what we need to do for infrastructure,” says Maria Silvia Bastos Marques, president of Rio de Janeiro’s Municipal Olympic Company, the body in charge of co-ordinating projects for the games.
Perhaps Rio’s most lauded achievement in the four years since the city won its bids for the two events has been improvements to law and order, particularly in the wealthy beach-side areas of the Zona Sul district, near Ipanema and Copacabana, but also in less touristic areas further to the north and west.
The government has systematically cleared armed drug traffickers from the favelas around the upmarket southern suburbs and to the north in the Complexo do Alemão, and has installed specially trained community police units, known as UPPs, to maintain order.
The presence of the state has also allowed for the introduction of city services, such as rubbish collection, as well as the beginning of ordinary commerce. Already, a number of banks, department stores and supermarkets are beginning to enter the “pacified” favelas. Property values are on the rise.
The UPPs have occasionally faced problems of police violence and a sporadic return of crime as a result of the power vacuum sometimes left by the departure of the gangs. Only a small number of the hundreds of favelas that spread like patchwork across the city have been pacified. But the programme has so far proven a success and is said to be popular with residents.
“Everyone wants a UPP to come to their area,” said Sany Pitbull, a disc jockey specialising in “funk Carioca” dance music who plays in the favelas.
Residents are waiting to see how the big sporting events will benefit the creaking transport infrastructure. Marques says the government’s plan includes a new bus and rail rapid transit system.
The Olympics organisers estimate public transport use will rise to more than 60 per cent, from 20 per cent now.
Another legacy project is the rejuvenation of Rio’s charismatic old docks area with estimated investment of R$8bn ($3.87bn) and including light rail, hotels and some operational centres for the games.
While Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes recently easily won re-election, not everyone is impressed with his plans for the international sporting events and the city.
Residents in areas that are to be cleared to make way for Olympics facilities, such as those in some favelas in Barra da Tijuca, argue that many of the projects are little more than elite real-estate schemes.
Others believe the new public transport links will make life more convenient only for residents in upscale suburbs, while leaving many of the peripheral, poorer and overcrowded neighbourhoods as disconnected from each other, and the rest of the city, as ever.
Even the golf course has come in for its share of criticism because it will swallow up part of a protected area. But local reports have said that another nearby parcel of land will be set aside as a nature reserve.
Despite the reservations, the people of Rio are generally optimistic about the projects linked to Olympic Games and the World Cup, including the golf course, which is expected to become a tourist attraction in its own right. “A lot of people will …want to play the course that hosted the Olympics,” says Fraga.
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