The Olympic torch’s road to Rio was paved with parallels to Brazil

A torch-ured journey.
A torch-ured journey.
Image: Reuters/Roosevelt Cassio
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Three months and 22,500 miles after the start of its relay, the Olympic torch arrived in Rio de Janeiro last week, stopping at 329 Brazilian cities in the process. Throughout its journey—helped by 12,000 carriers and a handover every 650 feet—the torch became an unlikely source of strife. There was an incident with a jaguar in Manaus, and another with a fire extinguisher in Cascavel. There were beautiful Brazilian landscapes, but also deeply impoverished slums. As the flame wound its way to the site of the 2016 Olympic games, it seemed to illuminate one thing most of all: a country with new hopes being consistently felled by old problems.

A legacy of inequality

After stopping in Greece and Switzerland, the Olympic torch arrived in Brazil via Brasília, the country’s capital. While its route passed through all 26 Brazilian states and one federal district, a closer look shows that the developed southern states were favored over the less developed regions in the north. Overall, the flame stopped at 230 southern cities, versus 99 in the north.

To be fair, the north is less populated—particularly the region where the Amazon is located, which averages 2.6 inhabitants per square kilometer (the region around Rio has 67.7). But even within each state, the Olympic organizers privileged small cities with high scores in the Human Development Index—a summary of indicators of quality of life, including life expectancy at birth, longevity, access to education, and standard of living—over larger cities with lower scores. According to BuzzFeed (link in Portuguese), large, poorer cities like Codó in the northeast were skipped, in favor of smaller, richer neighboring cities.

HDI scores range from 0 to 1; overall, one in every 10 Brazilian cities the torch passed through had  a score between 0.8 and 1, compared with one in every 125 cities in Brazil as a whole. According to the World Bank’s Gini index, which measures countries’ income distribution, Brazil is the 14th most unequal country in the world. (South Africa is the first and the United States is the 64th.)

An environmental apathy

On June 20, about halfway through the torch’s journey to Rio, a ceremonial handoff at a military training center in Manaus was attended by two jaguars on display. After the event, the chain holding one of the animals broke, and the animal was shot as it charged a nearby soldier.

The incident drew criticism from around the world, and Olympic organizers issued an apology, while the army was fined in R$40,000 (US$ 12,200). But the slap on the wrist was mostly symbolic: In the north of Brazil, it’s not uncommon for wild animals to be exhibited in military parades—getting permission to do so requires just one authorization from the Amazonas Environment Protection Institute.

Brazil’s complicated relationship with wildlife goes even deeper: In the country, some 1,200 species (out of 12,250) are currently endangered, including the jaguar. Much of that is due to poaching and deforestation. While hunting, owning and trafficking wild animals is a crime in Brazil, it is still one of the biggest exporters of wildlife (link in Portuguese).

Poaching levels are hard to measure, but Brazil’s deforestation is visible in satellite imagery. Between August 2014 and August 2015, trees were stripped from 2,200 square miles of the country’s forests, an area almost five times the size of Rio. One contributing factor: Half of Brazil’s forests are on private property, where regulations have recently been made weaker.

A penchant for protest

Of course, the best way to upend a torch relay is to extinguish the flame, and in Brazil, many tried. Some used water, others soda, and at least one wielded a fire extinguisher. Some were practical jokes, others social media stunts, and many politically motivated. Overall, the the torch’s journey saw at least eight attempts across five southern states to douse the Olympic flame.

Two of those attempts took place on the same day, June 29. In Maringá, Celma Eliane tried to extinguish the flame with a sign that read “Fora Temer,” or “Temer Out” (although she later said the sign touching the flame was an accident). In Cascavel, Daniel Ferreira used a fire extinguisher. He was also protesting against Michel Temer, who took over as acting president in May after Dilma Rousseff was removed in the wake of impeachment proceedings.

Both Eliane and Ferreira were arrested; the former was released after paying a R$ 880 (US$ 270) bail, while the latter was detained for two days. A judge ultimately dismissed the case against Ferreira (link in Portuguese), calling the incident a form of political protest, but Cascavel’s chief officer said the detention set a justified precedent for future would-be activists.

Finally, on July 27, protesters did manage to steal the torch, and extinguish its flame. The incident happened in Angra dos Reis, after the torch arrived in the state of Rio. This time the protest was against the local government, which spent R$ 45,000 (US$ 13,800) on the torch ceremony, all while salaries of the municipal government employees are overdue and the region is grappling with an unemployment crisis.