Several days before the opening of the Summer Olympics, a 63-year-old street performer appeared in a bustling square in central Rio wearing a yellow Brazil soccer-team shirt and doing tricks with a ball.
“This is the Olympics!” Francisco Leão shouted, as he entertained lunchtime crowds in the Lago de Carioca square by keeping the soccer ball, a tennis ball and a marble in the air using his feet, head and shoulders. At times he did all this while balanced on the edge of a skateboard placed on its side.
His performance illustrated how many of Rio’s 6 million residents see the Games: as a balancing act they hope won’t go horribly wrong.
“The Olympics are the biggest event on the planet,” said Leão, in an interview. “Brazil is not ready. It has prepared, but it’s not ready. Let’s hope it’s a success.”
Brazil has been deluged with bad news this year — the Zika epidemic, a severe recession, and a controversial impeachment process that replaced an unpopular president with an equally unpopular interim government.
There was also Rio state’s recent declaration of a “state of calamity” in its finances, and a rise in violent crime.
In April, a section of a new shoreline cycle path that should have wowed Olympic tourists collapsed when a wave struck it, killing two people. Cariocas, as Rio residents are called, are crossing their fingers that new Olympic sports arenas and bridges have been constructed with a little more attention to detail.
Security is a worry for many. “It’s not safe for anyone. Not for us, not for visitors,” said Divana Coelho, 46, referring to the increase in crime in the city. Further frazzling nerves is a new fear, of a terrorist attack, something that has never happened in Brazil.
Consequently, many people regard the Olympics with trepidation, rather than excited anticipation. A July poll indicated 50 percent of Brazilians were against the Games and 63 percent believed they would bring more losses than gains.
Paulo Martins, 25, a messenger who works in the city center, said he does not know anybody who is looking forward to them.
“I am not excited,” he said. “They are spending so much, and there are so many more important things, like health and education.”
Nearby, a new tram trundled by. The tram line, opened in June, was trumpeted as an benefit brought by the Olympics, and a transportation solution for the traffic-clogged city center. But fears over accidents mean each tram is preceded by a member of the security forces on a motorbike.
The packed trams pass a renovated port area where art and science museums have opened on a square called Praça Mauá, which has been turned into a pedestrian area. Both have a low entry fee, and Praça Mauá is a picturesque, safe space that fills with life at weekends.
Called the Wonderful Port, this is a real Olympic-related benefit in a city that is divided between its few rich and many poor.
It’s a shame that, perhaps inevitably for Rio, accusations of corruption hang over the port’s development. In addition, the government’s promises to clean up the polluted bay beside it haven’t been met.
Rio’s pugnacious mayor, Eduardo Paes, says the city has changed for the better since it won the Olympic bid in 2009 — arguing it has been able to use the Games to reinvent itself after decades of neglect and mismanagement. His second term ends this year
When he was asked in an interview if the VLT service would continue after the Games have gone, though, he was non-committal.
“I hope so,” he said. “I won’t be mayor. How can I guarantee it?” Prosecutors attempted to delay the tram’s inauguration over safety concerns but a judge overruled them.
The city is about to open a new metro line to the traffic-clogged West Rio suburbs where the Olympic Park and Village are located. New bus rapid transit routes also extend to these areas.
Some Brazilians suspect the biggest beneficiaries of the Games will be real estate developers planning yet more condos around the Olympic Park — a real estate hot spot whose values will soar with the new transport links — and the politicians they believe are in cahoots with them.
Pedro Neschling, an actor and scriptwriter, said he believes that Rio will pull off the Games because it knows how to manage big events such as the annual Carnival and the 2007 Pan-American Games.
“The problem is the process that came before and what comes afterwards,” Neschling said, adding that too much money had been badly invested, and questioning the results that would be left behind for city residents.
“People are tired and want things to change. They want a wonderful city and not just a postcard.”
There are postcard views from Vidigal, a low-income hillside community, called a favela, perched on a steep hill overlooking Rio’s famous beaches. Felipe Santos, 30, drives a motorbike taxi up and down it. He said Olympic spending will benefit visitors at the expense of poor residents.
“They are going to spend so much money on tourists they could spend on Cariocas,” he said.
Not everybody is down on the Games, though. A similar cloud of gloom existed before the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament in Brazil, and it lifted once the party started. The tournament was ultimately celebrated as a success.
“The Olympics is bigger than all this. They are not responsible for all the bad things in Rio,” said Cristian Nascimento, 40, a taxi driver, praising the Wonderful Port and new transport links. “A lot of work got done that would never have happened.”