By Stephen WadeAP Sports Writer
RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s former head of public security expects protesters to target the torch relay for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
The relay around Brazil kicks off May 3 in the capital Brasilia. Colonel Jose Vicente da Silva told The Associated Press that the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff and the countless problems surrounding South America’s first Olympics make the torch a convenient symbol of discontent.
“Wherever the torch goes, there will be a camera on it,” Silva said. “There will be banners for or against President Rousseff. There is a chance of big protests during the torch relay.”
Brazil is buried in its deepest recession since the 1930s, made worse by numerous graft and corruption investigations that have touched many of Brazil’s most powerful politicians – from Rousseff to Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, who has been the main force behind the Olympics.
“The Olympics as a whole are a big stage with a lot of spotlights,” Silva said. “Everyone in the world will be watching and that stimulates opportunism.”
The relay visits 329 cities and towns, ending in Rio’s Maracana Stadium at the opening ceremony on Aug. 5. Organizers say it will reach 90 percent of Brazil’s 200 million people, with 12,000 torchbearers carrying the flame.
“To make it even more complicated, the relay will begin in Brasilia – home to all politicians,” Silva said.
Rousseff is fighting impeachment charges and could be out of office when the relay starts. She could also be out of office when the games begin, raising questions about who will officially declare the Olympics “open”, with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach standing alongside.
The lighting of the Olympic flame will take place April 21 in the Greek city of Olympia, before the torch is handed over in Athens for the trip to Brazil.
The relay is backed by several top Olympic sponsors including Coca-Cola, which is believed to pay about $100 million for its sponsorship deal with the IOC.
Asked by AP about possible protests, Coca-Cola declined to comment in an email.
Coca-Cola, which is also a FIFA sponsor, got caught up in protests in Brazil during the 2013 Confederations Cup. At one point, it was forced to cover a giant Coca-Cola bottle in front the Maracana Stadium, hiding it from the view of cameras.
In 2008, the IOC and Beijing organizers conducted an international torch relay that traveled around globe to celebrate China’s first games. It was targeted by violent anti-China and pro-Tibet protests, prompting the IOC to do away permanently with the international portion of the relay.
Nike, which is not an Olympic sponsor, last month canceled the presentation of a new strip for Brazil’s national soccer team. This came a day after protests against Rousseff’s choice of former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva as her chief of staff.
While protests are expected against the torch, at least one activist group —The Popular Committee — is planning alternate events just days before the games open.
Committee member Orlando Santos said “The Exclusion Games” would be staged in downtown Rio, far from the Olympic Park in suburban Rio.
“There will be too much security around the Olympic Park, and there will not be space for us,” Santos said.
The group also staged a “Poverty Torch Relay” several days ago, highlighting the fate of 77,000 people that Rio’s city hall says have faced forced eviction since Rio was awarded the games in 2009.
The activist group contends that the Rio Olympics will benefit only real estate and construction interests, leaving ordinary citizens with few advantages and most of the costs.
Mario Andrada, the spokesman for the Rio games, said organizers were aware of possible problems on the torch relay, which dates from the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
“We can’t run the risk to having the torch taken as a main piece for manifestations (demonstrations),” Andrada said. “So we need to make sure we tell the story of the torch in the best possible way.”
AP reporter Mauricio Savarese contributed to this report.