When the music started blaring, kids barged one another aside to snatch free sodas at Coca-Cola Co.’s bayside fan center. To get in, visitors queued for hours on Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Boulevard.
Two blocks back from the water there were only a couple dozen spectators at an Aug. 13 show of dance, drumming and capoeira in a plaza. That’s bad news for Afoxe Filhos de Gandhi, the city’s oldest group promoting Afro-Brazilian culture, which had hoped to profit enough from the event to repair the roof of a former slave market that is its headquarters.
The re-vamping of Rio’s historic downtown port area in advance of the world’s biggest sporting event costs billions of dollars and was meant to showcase gleaming new office towers, museums and a host of historical sites to lure tourists, residents and companies. The region owes much of its soul to Africa; freed and escaped slaves settled in the area, and samba was born on its cobblestone streets. As the games cruise to a conclusion, it’s the sponsor venues that have hogged all the attention.
Last weekend alone 350,000 visitors flocked to the waterfront Boulevard to see the Olympic flame, eat at food trucks, and watch live musicians playing in the shadows of a massive cruise liner where U.S. basketball players reside. Less than two blocks back from the bay, the Valongo Quay, a recently-excavated site where more slaves made landfall than any other port in the Americas, was empty. Partly because there were no signs to direct tourists.
Maria Vittoria Branchini, 16, whose Italian family watched the Olympics opening ceremony live on the Boulevard, said they never would’ve found Valongo without a guided tour. The group of nine was led by Rayane Rosignoli, who said there’s a need to talk more about “the B-side of Brazil’s history,’’ which includes favelas and slavery. The opening ceremony didn’t gloss over Brazil’s stained past, with slaves marching to a soundtrack that featured a whip’s lash.
On the Boulevard there also aren’t signs pointing to a nearby archaeological center that’s atop a slave cemetery. It hasn’t seen an increase in visitors during the Olympics, according to its founder, Merced Guimaraes.
Back at the Coke gift shop kids could pick up a plastic Coca-Cola cup, a pair of personalized sandals, or Olympic pins released daily that form the shape of a bottle when complete. “They’ve become a craze,’’ says store manager Mauricio Lima Salvador.
The beverage company set a target of 80,000 visitors during the Olympics, and is set to surpass it by 10 percent with lines lasting as long as four-and-a-half hours. “We’re going for gold,” spokeswoman Kate Hartman said in an e-mail.
Coke paid about 1 million reais to rent its warehouse, according to Antonio Mello, who has been Rio’s tourism secretary since before the city won hosting rights. He estimates the company shelled out another 12 to 15 million reais to “activate’’ the space. It was just one of the Olympics sponsors called upon to help bring alive the port area, which is in the midst of a roughly 8 billion-real overhaul. Coca-Cola declined to comment on its marketing budget.
“Some sponsors came in, others didn’t,’’ Mello said. “I’m sure those that didn’t—Claro, Visa—must regret not being on the Olympic Boulevard. They could’ve been there exposing their brand, getting brand experience. And it’s a success.’’