Kiszla: Olympic city of Rio de Janeiro filled with both grit and beauty


RIO DE JANEIRO — How much does it cost to dance?

In a city where both the beauty of Christ the Redeemer standing high on a hill and the stench of putrid water standing in a lagoon can take your breath away, I went to a dinner club where the samba music played until midnight.

Couples moved in perfect rhythm across the floor to the music’s distinctly Brazilian beat. Hips swayed. Long dresses twirled. And everywhere, there were 70-year-old women wearing their finest clothes, dancing and laughing with buff men less than half their age.

This seemed a bit odd, I thought. Not odd at all, I was told.

The young men, quick to offer a flirtatious wink and share a drink with women old enough to be grandmothers but young enough to get up and samba, were paid to be charming. They are known as dancarinos. For about $75 per night plus the cost of dinner, these men in tight shirts are dates for hire. There’s no sex in the service, but much samba and many smiles.

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“The women like to dance. But they do not have a partner. Maybe because they are a widow. Maybe because there is a husband at home who does not like to dance,” Mira Mourre said. “The dancarino is a nice solution. It is nice for the women, don’t you think?”

The torch of the Jogos Olimpicos is running toward Rio de Janeiro, chased by protestors angry that this two-week sports extravaganza will cost an estimated $20 billion, when that money could instead be used to buy math books for elementary school students, unsnarl the traffic that brings rush hour to a dead stop on streets that encircle the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, or pay the police asked to keep the peace when the world descends on Rio to samba at the most extravagant party in sports.

Less than 40 miles from where the opening ceremony will be celebrated Friday, in the workingman’s town of Itaborai, where there isn’t enough work to go around, the torch was greeted by demonstrators. In a video posted on Youtube, the dissenters carried a banner that read: “While the torch passes lit in Itaborai, jobs, health and education are put out.”

It costs money to dance.

These are the Summer Olympics that Chicago wanted to host. The Windy City was shocked to be the first of four finalists eliminated in the selection process, and Jerry Colangelo, who serves as chairman of USA Basketball, suspects the vote was rigged from the start in favor of Rio.

“I would much rather be in Chicago than Rio. How’s that?” Colangelo told the Chicago Sun-Times.

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We Americans are sore losers. And so these are the Games that are supposed to prove the Olympics are broken. Yes, photographers living in Copacabana have been warned at least one of them will almost certainly be robbed by some desperate citizen in a city where an iPhone fetches $900 and the median per capita income is less than $10,000 per year. But a two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Rio costs $508 per night when booked through organizers of the Games. So tell me: Who’s the real thief here?

Ask almost any Brazilian about the threat of the Zika virus, and the response will be laughter rather than the screaming headlines of doom we have read back in the USA. But newly crowned Wimbledon champion Serena Williams, 34 years old and as big as any star at the Games, arrived Wednesday in Rio schlepping her own five bags through the airport.

After the U.S. tennis team’s first practice in Brazil, I asked Williams how seriously she took the Zika threat and if it made defending her gold medal from 2012 a difficult decision.

“I think I weighed it very heavily. I think everyone here on this team weighed it heavily. We really were able to educate ourselves about what to do and how to prepare,” Williams said.

Her Olympic spirit is stronger than a mosquito.

“To be able to have this opportunity, we just couldn’t say no,” said Williams, who will play doubles alongside her sister Venus.

Yes, raw sewage floats in the water. And heavily armed soldiers cruise the streets of Rio. But award the Olympics to South America, and what did you expect? Perfection? C’mon, man. Isn’t that our arrogance talking?

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This is my 10th trip to the Games, and what confounds me is why cities literally erect walls to hide the warts and erect elaborate Olympic Parks in an effort to turn the whole spectacle into something as pretty — and no more real — than a Hollywood set.

Rio de Janeiro is not Disney World. It is gorgeous beaches and awe-inspiring mountains that go on forever. It is a family of four happily riding together on the same bicycle. It is the extreme poverty in the favelas. And it is an old woman with a gleam in her eye, doing the samba in the arms of a strong young man.

You want to dance? You’ve got to pay. That’s not sad. That’s life.

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