The Other Olympic Big Ben

He’s on his way home now, but before he left Daryle Williams sent us another Olympic update from Rio. Williams is Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland and co-editor of The Rio de Janeiro Reader: History, Culture, Politics.  Follow him on Twitter @DaryleWilliams and with the hashtag #RioReader.


“Ele é o nosso Big Ben.” “He’s our Big Ben.” That short phrase stuck with me when I heard it my first time in Rio in 1988 and it came back to me when I headed out to watch Olympic canoe slalom in the Deodoro X-Park. I knew little about this extreme sport, but I tried to make sense of the competition by thinking about an iconic clock tower in London and its Carioca counterpart. Neither the English Big Ben nor the 135-meter tower above Central do Brasil rail station is located anywhere near the white water stadiums of London 2012 or Rio 2016, but I figured the pair might serve as a shorthand guide to this Olympic experience.

In 2012, the Elizabeth Tower was a grand symbol of British traditions, familiar the world over. On Opening Day, the Union Jack and Olympic Rings were projected onto the Houses of Parliament, alongside the golden illuminated clock above the Thames. The Rio tower, completed in 1943 atop a train station that dates from the 1850s within sight of the Morro da Providencia, could have figured in the praiseworthy 2016 Opening Ceremonies that told the story of Rio to a global audience of 3 billion. The structure hung a huge banner for World Youth Day (2013) and the Rio state government has used the tower for a public campaign against homophobia. In August 2016, however, the quadrilinear spire remained outside the frame of a nighttime flight from Maracanã stadium across the illuminated city to the white sands of Ipanema.

That omission was not so surprising, as the symbolism of the Carioca Big Ben is hardly stirring. The Central do Brasil station is a crush of human, car, bus, and train traffic devoid of greenery, baristas, and chill. The tower fronts Avenida Presidente Vargas, a soul-sucking thoroughfare that runs from Candelária to flood-prone Praça da Bandeira. In February 2016, the notoriously unreliable clock face was vandalized by a 21-year old whose daring feat — posted on social media as an act of protest over earlier acts of police brutality — fed white upper-class disgust for disorderly, anti-social grafiteiros. Without having to see Walter Salles’ 1998 masterpiece Central do Brasil, most residents of Grande Rio could associate the tower with the scene when Dora (Fernanda Montenegro) is denied a seat on her miserable trip home to a shabby apartment along the suburban train tracks. Although an icon of the Olympic City, surrounded a great many landmarks of Rio’s development as independent city and national capital, the clock tower at Brazil’s Central Station keeps the time of urban alienation.

Accordingly, the SuperVia train trip to a new extreme sports park began in a decidedly un-marvelous way. Prior travel to the Olympic Park in Barra had been highly orderly, surveilled, and virtually commerce-free. Conversely, the trip to Deodoro began with a fend-for-yourself navigation through the gates, grates, and public urinals that surround the station entrance. Beyond the McDonald’s installed in a repurposed ticketing office, the station’s cavernous hall was filled with vendors, buskers, and hustlers. The air was filled with a cacophony of megaphone announcements for trains to Rio’s suburbs in the Zona Norte and Oeste and the far-flung municipalities of the Baixada Fluminense. Olympic signage, volunteers, security, and bilingual welcomes were plentiful, but it was impossible to overlook the muvuca of everyday commuters headed to and from work, home, shopping, assignations, errands, appointments, worship, and school. (Rio state schools would theoretically be on break, but a prolonged teacher strike had forced schools to make up lost time, Olympics notwithstanding).

IMG_7411While waiting for the train to depart, we passengers were bombarded with offers of Bauducco cookies, Kit Kat bars, Grapette, Guaraplus, Antarctica beer (ice cold, Olha a Boa!), iPhone covers, keychains, wallets, and knife sharpeners sold by a legion of casually-dressed, unlicensed vendors who walked up and down the train corridor barking off product names, promotional discounts (one for R$2, three for R$5!), and the promise of refreshment and problems solved. One man, dressed in slightly more respectable attire (a worn blazer and jeans) attested to his former life of sin, asking that we join him in salvation. Another demonstrated the amazing efficiency of a manual cheese grater (first carrots, then potatoes, and zucchini too). Just five reais. Cin-co re-ais! A saucy thirtysomething women talked of the fireworks to follow when her candy pop-rocks touched your tongue. Like the other vendors, she was a woman of color. Passengers were mostly pardos, morenas, and negros of varying skin shades, hair textures, and ages.

As the train pulled out of the station, into former industrial suburbs towards what remains of rural Rio, most Brazilian passengers looked on dispassionately, toying with their smartphones, reading, or sitting quietly. Before the Olympic visitors disembarked at the exceptionally militarized park adjacent Vila Militar, a handful of passengers gave in to the temptations of an impulse purchase.

As we passed gritty yet functional train stations that extended to Japeri, the faces of the Olympic tourists (also dressed casually, with a few tell-tale additions like money pouches and pocket maps) ranged from bemused to confused. It’s unlikely that the outsiders were specifically thinking of the train station that we had left behind, but I could guess that our journey confirmed preexisting expectations of a popular class, mixed-race, ingenuous, and slightly dangerous Rio. It was a glimpse into the lives of authentic Rio. It was an antidote to homogenized, globalized Rio in Barra. The Cariocas and Fluminense passengers surely had a much more nuanced read of the journey — making distinctions between Méier, Madureira, and Marechal Hermes, noting the cleverness of one vendor over another, perhaps identifying with the narrative of redemption. Yet together, locals and visitors shared a part of a Rio nowhere in sight of the warm oranges, yellows, and greens that frame Rio 2016’s visual identity of Cristo Redentor, Pedra da Gávea, the cable car at Sugarloaf, and the sinuous lines of Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx. Together, we moved to Carioca rhythms different from the pasteurized bossa nova piped into the frighteningly over air-conditioned MetrôRio line between Ipanema and Jardim Oceânico.


On the return from Deodoro, another legion of vendors sold their wares. The train was extra crowded, but a woman selling homemade empadas still managed to weave through the crowd, telling us about the quality of her fare. When the train slowed suddenly and those standing had to take a slight jump to regain balance, she began a little fancy footwork, half-laughing about the need to samba to get through life, before quickly moving on to the next sales pitch. Like the Opening Ceremonies, this mini-performance of Carioquice (Rio-ness) ended in samba. But in the shadows of nosso Big Ben, this Olympic-time samba spoke to something different from the postcards and panoramas of our television feeds from Copacabana, Lagoa, and Barra. For me, and perhaps for all of us heading out and back to Deodoro, nosso Big Ben and the Cariocas it serves shall form an equally indispensable part of the global imaginary of an Olympic City.

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