Alexandro Costa left northern Brazil 26 years ago to find a better life in Rio.

Now he bikes around the old port neighbourhood delivering full kegs of beer and taking away the empties. Wheeling the load is hard on his legs, hoisting the kegs is hard on his back. And the work is made even tougher by the times.

The Olympics, he says, hit Rio like a storm.

“It got worse, definitely,” he says as he unloads casks into the back of a neighbourhood restaurant. “Everything got worse.”

Costa’s problem: inflation, a major consequence of the country’s crippling recession and one many locals feel the Olympics has exacerbated.

The revitalized port is a symbol of that rising cost of living. It used to be a rundown eyesore; now it sparkles. Its square, Praca Maua, is the centrepiece of Rio’s multibillion-dollar Olympic beautification. The area’s transformation included converting an overpass into a pedestrian plaza and the construction of a massive interactive science museum.


People relax in front of the Museu do Amanha (Museum of Tomorrow), part of the massive project to revitalize Rio’s port for the Olympics. (Reuters)

But Costa lives about two blocks away near a very different square. It’s quieter and less shiny. Largo Sao Francisco de Prainha, once a settlement of freed slaves, is now home to working class Brazilians, many of whom say they’re struggling to deal with the impact of the Games.

“For us workers, it doesn’t balance out,” Costa said. “Really, who wins with the Olympics are the politicians. We workers don’t win anything. We just lose. Food, gas… the places we rent… everything.”

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Residents of Largo Sao Francisco de Prainha live blocks away from expensive Olympic renovations, but many say they haven’t seen any benefits in their neighbourhood. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

But for a few who live and work in the square, the Olympics have had the opposite effect.

As Costa pedalled away to pick up more full kegs, Antonio Francisco stirred the pot that’s built into his small cart on wheels.

For 28 years, he’s been here, selling pipoca com bacon — popcorn with bacon. Making a buck a bag, things have never been easy. But when the Brazilian economy collapsed more than two years ago, so did his sales.

“It’s difficult, it’s difficult,” Costa said. “The crisis is big, and it’s really hard. I work straight from Sunday to Sunday to make ends meet.”

But now, with the Olympics, the crowds are back.

“Just in the spot where I work, there are lots of people who pass, and it means more sales. Fifty per cent, more or less.”

Antonio Francisco

Popcorn seller Antonio Francisco says thanks to the Olympics, he’s now back on his feet after the recession knocked him down. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

He says the Olympics have lifted him back to where he was before Brazil’s recession. No big trips, no lavish meals, just back to normal.

Others who call the plaza home were affected by the Games in a way that has nothing to do with money.

Seamstress Marina Modego, 57, says for her and everyone in her building, Olympic fever became an actual disease.

“There were a lot of puddles from the new light rail line, and when it rained there was dengue, chikungunya, and lots of things,” she said of the construction period. “Almost everyone in the neighbourhood got sick.”

Marina Modego

Marina Modego says Olympic fever became an actual disease for everyone in her building thanks to construction-related potholes that bred mosquitoes that spread dengue and other illnesses. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

City officials tout the redevelopment of the port as one of the successes of the Games. But Modego says the government shouldn’t have focused on beautifying one specific area for the Olympics while ignoring the pressing needs nearby.

“It’s really pretty here, right, the port area, the work is really pretty,” Modego said. “But at the end of the street, you see total misery. When you go to the other side, it’s pure favela. Lots of drug sale spots.”

What can she do, she asks, but keep her head down and keep working.

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