Thousands protest against Olympics before Rio opening ceremony

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RIO DE JANEIRO: The Olympic flame wound its way around Rio de Janeiro’s iconic landmarks on Friday (Aug 5) as protesters unleashed a fresh blast of anger ahead of the opening ceremony of the trouble-plagued sporting spectacle.

The carnival capital of the world is hoping Friday’s extravaganza at the Maracana Stadium will draw a line under a turbulent seven-year build-up dogged by recession, rising crime and doping scandals.

But as the clock ticked down to the start of the first South American Olympics in history, demonstrators took to the streets to vent their fury at Brazil’s rulers and the multi-billion-dollar cost of the Games.

Waving signs reading “No to the Olympics!”, about 3,000 blocked gathered outside the luxury Copacabana Palace Hotel where many Olympic athletes are staying.

Brazil has spent more than US$10 billion on new infrastructure and preparing for the Games at a time of economic crisis. But the billions lavished on the Games has angered many Brazilians as the country grapples with a tanking economy and a grim litany of social problems.

Further protests are expected near the Maracana later Friday as the 78,600-seat venue hosts a parade of athletes from 207 teams and dozens of world leaders.

The four-hour ceremony launches 17 days of sporting drama featuring about 10,500 competitors, including the likes of sprint king Usain Bolt and swimming superstar Michael Phelps which wraps up on August 21.

“I hope the opening ceremony can be a kind of anti-depressant for Brazil,” said one of the show’s creative directors, the acclaimed “City of God” film-maker Fernando Meirelles. “Athens was classical, Beijing was grandiose, London was smart – ours is going to be cool,” Meirelles added.

CRISIS-RIDDEN BUILD-UP

The party will kick-off after the most crisis-ridden build-up to an Olympics in history, with a biting recession, double-digit unemployment, soaring crime and a public health crisis caused by the Zika virus just a few of the problems ravaging the city.

A political crisis led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, meaning the Brazilian leader will miss Friday’s ceremony. Interim president Michel Temer will take Rousseff’s place, but could face a hostile reception from the crowd.

Brazilian media reports say that music will be turned up as soon as he finishes speaking to mask any booing from protesters.

“We want to take advantage when the world’s attention is on Brazil to denounce what’s happening, how we are on the path to dictatorship,” one demonstrator, Ubiratan Delgado, a 59-year-old engineer, told AFP.

A vast security blanket of 85,000 military personnel and police – twice the number on duty at the 2012 London Games – will be draped over the city to ward off the threat of street crime and terror attacks.

Not even that though has been able to offer total protection, with a spate of thefts from the Olympic Athletes village. Danish, Chinese and Australian delegations have all reported items being stolen. Journalists covering the Games have also been targeted for thefts.

DRUG SCANDAL

Anticipation for the sporting battles has been eclipsed by the fallout from the Russian doping scandal that has divided the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The IOC’s decision not to impose a blanket ban on Russia following revelations of a state-sponsored doping program opened the door to legal turmoil that left the precise make-up of the Russian team in limbo.

On Thursday, the IOC confirmed the Russian team would be made up of 271 athletes, with 118 eliminated because of the drug scandal.

Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov said the team was “probably the cleanest in Rio” because of all the tests and checks they have undergone. The first gold medal should be awarded on Saturday in shooting.

All eyes will be on American swimming star Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, when he returns to the swimming pool in the first week.

Track and field will see Jamaican star Bolt aim to defend his 100m, 200m and 4x100m crowns by clinching all three for the third straight Games.

Gymnastics meanwhile could see the world find a new darling with America’s teenage star Simone Biles while new sports making their debut in Rio will include seven-a-side rugby and golf.

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