By Doug Gray, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Filip Polc of Slovakia was the winner in a historic mountain bike race this weekend in Rio de Janeiro. The Dona Marta community situated on the hill separating Laranjeiras and Botafogo, became the first favela to host an international sporting competition, and the spectacular surroundings and smooth running of the event will doubtless prove to be another feather in the cap of the city’s 2016 Olympic Bid.
The favela has had an intriguing history since its inception in 1935; its once notorious gangs were finally ousted at the end of 2008 in the first of a series of police operations to seize control back from the drug lords. In 1995, Michael Jackson shot scenes for the video to ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ with the locals, and this weekend the cameras returned for an altogether different event, The Red Bull Desafio No Morro or ‘Hill Challenge’.
Ten Brazilians and six overseas challengers took to the hill on Saturday chasing an R$8,000 first prize, with the first day’s qualifying session whittling the contestants down to ten for Sunday’s final. That final offered just one chance per contestant to record the fastest time in completing the course.
That ‘course’ included lengths of purpose-built wooden ramps and track, but also sections of untouched street and the infamously steep steps that snake around the community, providing a stunning location for the high-speed thrills and spills.
Four Brazilians qualified for the final day’s racing along with two Englishmen, a Canadian, a Chilean and an Ecuadorian. One of those Englishmen, Gee Atherton, is the current Downhill World Mountain Biking Champion, but his hopes were shattered by an unfortunate punctured tire incident, leaving compatriot Dan Atherton to pick up third place.
The biggest cheer of the day from the partisan crowd was saved for the only Brazilian in the top three, Markolf Berchtold, who came in second. The afternoon really belonged to Filip Polc, whose time of 01.39:91 was nearly two seconds faster than that of his rival.
Dona Marta has been in the headlines recently for the wrong reasons following the building of a wall designed to demark the limits of illegal building of houses on the hill. The Prefeitura has come under fire from human rights groups for its construction, but were instrumental in making the event run smoothly and the positive coverage for the favela comes as a welcome break to the headlines.