Pan Am Games - Rio de Janeiro
At Pan Am Games, Play It Safe and Enjoy
By LARRY ROHTER
THE World Cup ended nearly a year ago, and the next Olympics are both a year off and on the other side of the world. But for sports fans hooked on international competition, an opportunity is coming up in July: the quadrennial Pan-American Games are being held in Rio de Janeiro.
On July 13, an elaborate opening ceremony at the Maracanã soccer stadium, on Rio's working-class north side, will include 7,000 dancers and be directed by the choreographer — Doug Jack — who has done similar productions for the last four Olympics.
Over the next 16 days, more than 5,500 athletes representing the 42 countries and dependencies of the Western Hemisphere will be competing in more than 30 sports, ranging from basketball, boxing and swimming to field hockey, bowling and fencing. The United States' delegation alone consists of more than 600 athletes, many of whom have Olympic aspirations, and Puerto Rico will be sending a separate delegation of 240. The competition will conclude on July 29, also at Maracanã.
Nestled between verdant mountains and an azure sea, Rio is without question a stunning site for the games, and more than $1.5 billion has gone into the preparations, including the new 45,000-seat João Havelange Stadium. But as hospitable as the city can be, it is not without problems for visitors, particularly when it comes to safety.
It is no secret that Rio is crime-ridden and quite violent, and becoming more so: the heavily-armed gangs that control the hillside squatter slums known as favelas are growing increasingly bolder in their assaults and threats, even in the city's most elite neighborhoods.
Brazilian authorities have sought to dampen concerns about security and the possibility of terrorism during the games with a pledge of intense patrolling of the city by units that will include both the police and the armed forces. They note that in 1992, when the United Nations sponsored a global meeting on the environment in Rio, the event went off without incident despite predictions of a crime wave.
For the Pan American Games, Rio overcame concerns about security by promising to hold about two-thirds of the events in a sparsely-populated area, far from the city's most perilous neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, wherever you are in Rio, it pays to be careful and to observe certain basic safety precautions. Do not flaunt jewelry or expensive cameras and video equipment, especially on the beach. For those who do not speak Portuguese, it is also advisable to move about in groups rather than alone, preferably with a local guide or translator.
Particular caution may be in order for those events, which include soccer, track and field, that are to be held at the João Havelange Stadium. Access looms as a potential problem there, especially when competitions end after dark. The stadium is near a highway — the Linha Amarela, or Yellow Line — that is regularly the site of assaults and gunfights between the police and gangs, and other routes go through neighborhoods that many Rio residents prefer to avoid at night.
Getting around the city also promises to be even more complicated than usual. Rio de Janeiro's original bid for the games included a promise to improve the overtaxed municipal transit system with a major expansion that included a pair of new subway lines and even a hydrofoil boat service from the heart of the city to sites on the west side, near major competition venues.
None of those projects ever got off the ground, though, due in large part to disputes among the municipal, state and federal governments, and even the creation of new bus lines has been ruled out. Since parking space is also scarce, organizers of the games are doing everything they can to discourage the use of private cars around the competition sites. That leaves buses and expensive taxis as the most viable means of transportation.
Most of Rio de Janeiro's better hotels are in areas like Ipanema and Copacabana, far from most of the events. But one way to ease the time and cost of travel is to stay at a hotel in the comfortable and fast-growing Barra da Tijuca area, which is the neighborhood closest to the majority of the competition sites. Several hotels have been built there in recent years, including a Sheraton, and some of them still had rooms available in late May for some dates in July.
Reservations can be made, of course, through a travel agent in Brazil or abroad. But the official Web site of the games, www.rio2007.org.br, also offers that service, along with maps and other useful information.
Municipal officials have discounted concerns about traffic jams or bus shortages during the two weeks the games will be played. They argue that July is the peak of Brazil's winter vacation period and maintain that many cariocas, as natives of the city are known, will be away, thus reducing demand on the transportation system.
In addition, they have announced that they are setting up special lanes on expressways and other roads to make it easier to get to and from events. But skeptics point out that the winter vacation season historically also brings a large influx of visitors to the city for sightseeing and cultural events.
As for tickets, nearly two million of them can be bought at the games' Web site, which is in English, Spanish and Portuguese. Prices range from 10 to 120 reals, about $5 to $60 at 2 reals to the dollar, depending on the sport and location of the seats (opening and closing ceremonies go to 150 and 250 reals); purchases must be made with Visa credit cards. To inhibit scalpers, buyers are limited to six seats a game or session.
Organizers said that tickets will also go on sale on July 1 at ticket booths in Rio. A limited number of daily passes are also scheduled to be available at those booths, allowing fans to watch several designated events for 20 reals.
The hardest seats to obtain, of course, will be for those events that are the most popular with Brazilians, who are expected to account for the bulk of the crowds. So expect to have to turn to a scalper and pay a hefty premium for key soccer games — all of which are to be played either at the Maracanã, site of the 1950 World Cup final, or at João Havelange Stadium — as well as basketball and volleyball.
But soccer fans who would also like to see Rio's four main professional teams play during the Pan-Am Games will have to leave the city to do so. The teams have some spectacular players who have contributed to Brazil's record five World Cup championships, most notably Romario, star of the 1994 cup winners in the United States. But they have been prohibited from playing home games while the Pan-Am Games are on so as not to distract from the competition.
Baseball, however, is an altogether different story. Because Brazilians do not know the sport, games are to be played at a temporary stadium that has fewer than 5,000 seats. But the level of competition promises to be high, with the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico and especially Cuba sending strong squads in hopes of winning the gold medal and the hemispheric bragging rights that go with it.
July is indeed technically winter in Brazil, but the climate promises to be balmy. In recent years, unseasonably warm temperatures in Rio de Janeiro in July and August (average highs are in the 70s) have meant that the city's famous beaches have been crowded on some days. So there is a good chance for another recreational option for tourists when their favorite teams are not competing or have been eliminated.