Olympic gold-medal sailor tells of gunpoint robbery in Rio

By STEPHEN WADE 24 May 2016, 12:00AM

Spain's Olympic gold-medal winning sailor Fernando Echavarri said he was fortunate to have escaped with his life after being robbed at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro as he and two fellow Spaniards walked to breakfast.

"We were a bit naive, a bit too daring and we are lucky to have survived," Echavarri told The Associated Press as he trained on Monday at Rio's Olympic sailing venue. "We were too confident, and being confident in Rio is not a good thing."

Echavarri and two other members of the Spanish sailing team were robbed Friday morning when five young men — "not more than 16 years old," Echavarri said — poked pistol barrels into the Spaniards' ribs and chests.

Echavarri said they handed over their cellphones and other minor electronic gear, satisfying their assailants who ran off.

The Spaniards, who have been in Rio for almost two weeks, were staying in Santa Teresa, a hilltop neighborhood popular with tourists and dotted with restaurants and bars, and a 20-minute walk downhill to the sailing venue.

"We made a big mistake," Echavarri said. "We should have caught a taxi, taken a car and avoided a thing like this. We have to be careful, but the city needs more policing."

Echavarri, who won gold in the 2008 Olympics, said he was also robbed at knife point in 2009 in the Copacabana Beach neighborhood while competing in the Volvo Ocean race. He called that situation "controlled" with experienced thieves who knew what they wanted.

Last week was different.

"This was a completely uncontrolled situation," he said. "I think they were nervous and on drugs. They were really small guys. They were kids."

Street violence is endemic in Rio, a city separated by the wealthy — who live in the south and west of the city — and the poor who live in hilltop slums.

"There should be no problem here, but if at some moment you go wrong ... you wind up with a big problem," Echavarri said.

About 85,000 soldiers and police will guard the city during the Olympics, twice as many as London four years ago. Last week the head of security for the state of Rio de Janeiro, Jose Mariano Beltrame, called for soldiers to immediately start patrolling the city.

Beltrame recently cut $550 million from this year's security budget, about 20 percent, as Brazil battles the deepest recession since the 1930s.

Security is near the top of a long list of problems plaguing Rio with the Olympics opening Aug. 5, including the Zika virus, water pollution, slow ticket sales and budget cuts.

Andy Hunt, who heads the World Sailing governing body, was in Rio on Monday and called the robbery "a very, very scary experience."

Hunt said he would ask city officials and Rio organizers for more security, particularly around yacht clubs that line Guanabara Bay — the sailing venue.

Most Olympic competitors will stay in the Athletes Village. However, Hunt said many of his sailors will not, staying in hotels near the sailing venue, which is located at least an hour's drive from the Olympic Park in the suburban area of Barra da Tijuca.

"We want the city to make sure they are providing as much protection as possible," Hunt said. "Equally, we need to make sure the athletes take every safety precaution they can — not to put themselves at the point of danger."


By STEPHEN WADE 24 May 2016, 12:00AM

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