Rio's unruly beaches taste "shock of order"

RIO DE JANEIRO Wed Dec 16, 2009 12:56pm EST

Beach-goers play with a soccer ball on Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro November 22, 2009. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

Beach-goers play with a soccer ball on Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro November 22, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Sergio Moraes

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - One minute Victor Javier was rapt in a carefree game of beach soccer; the next he was a hapless victim of Rio de Janeiro's "shock of order" crackdown.

Two city guards in crisp uniforms marched across the sands and ordered Javier and his friend to stop their game, a "keep-up" between several players that is much loved by Rio beach-goers.

"It's ridiculous. No one's here, it's a public beach," said Javier, wearing swimming trunks and gesturing at the near-empty section of beach on a recent afternoon.

No matter. Under rules aimed at bringing order to Rio's famous beaches, ball games are among the undesirable activities being curtailed or banned as the city that will host a World Cup and Olympics within seven years seeks to clean up its act.

But the shock of order policy is running into resistance on Rio's sands, amid worries that it will kill the soul and spontaneity of beaches like Ipanema and Copacabana, which have been celebrated in many a samba and bossa nova song.

Up to 2 million people pack Rio's beaches on a sunny day, bringing together high society and slum dwellers in an otherwise sharply divided city.

"The beach is the most democratic place in Rio -- everyone from the son of a banker to the robber of a bank can come here and play ball together," said Javier's friend, 26-year-old civil engineer Renato Franca.

The beach is just the latest target of a city-wide campaign to bring order to Rio, where traffic and other rules are often seen as optional. Though in place for nearly a year, the effort gained urgency with Rio's selection as 2016 Olympic host.

Rio state this month hired former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who takes credit for cleaning up the Big Apple, to help advise it on the Brazilian city's crime problems. Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes recently told Cariocas, as Rio residents are known, to stop being such "pigs," referring to their habit of leaving piles of garbage on the beach.

The man in charge of carrying out the new policy, public order secretary Rodrigo Bethlam, said the beach's central place in Rio life made the battle for order there crucial.

"The beach is an emblematic place. If we can succeed in organizing the beach, it means we can organize the city," he told Reuters.

CHERISHED FREEDOMS

He denied criticism that the rules would drain the spontaneity of beach life, saying most of the changes were aimed at improving precarious safety and sanitary conditions.

Under the new beach rules, being enforced initially by 143 municipal guards, ball games such as "keep-up" cannot be played at the sea front between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. City officials say kids have been hurt by flying feet and balls.

Among other cherished beach freedoms being withdrawn are sales of food on skewers such as shrimp and cheese that are hawked by entrepreneurs plying the sands. No longer will beach-goers, known here as "banhistas," be able to bring coolers for drinks or play music on stereos.

The main targets of the new policy are the hundreds of "barracas," or huts, that dot Rio's beaches, renting out deck chairs and selling everything from beer to barbecued meat.

Often emblazoned with their owner's name, they are colorful, if chaotic, fixtures of beach life that laugh in the face of sanitation rules but have their own loyal following.

Under the new rules, names or advertisements are out and they must accept being outfitted with all-white tents and equipment that, while smart-looking, are somewhat bland.

"They are putting in place their own law, but it's wrong," said Marcel Damasceno de Matos, a 39-year-old who said he has worked his patch of Ipanema beach for 10 years.

"I have customers from the United States and other countries who come back year after year and look for my name. Now there's going to be a lot of confusion."

Still, in a country with no shortage of laws but a glaring lack of enforcement, not everyone on the beach is convinced that the shock of order will end up being so shocking.

"The law exists, but you're in Brazil," said Bernardo Braga, a 26-year-old model and student who was playing "keep up" on the Ipanema seafront.

"You just have to walk along here to see all the rules being ignored."

(Editing by Eric Beech)

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