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Do Brazil’s Olympic Preparations Bode that Their Current Form Is Unsustainable for Beijing?

Jul 29 , 2016

When Brazil was awarded the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in 2009, the country was on a roll. The economy was strong, growing at Asian rates. Citizens were advancing from the lower to the middle classes, and poverty was declining by millions each year. The country was exhibiting new confidence on the world stage and demanding a greater say in global governance. Massive oil finds in the deep water off the coast promised to finance infrastructure improvements for the Olympics while creating a new income stream for social development well into the future. Under the leadership of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s development capabilities finally seemed to catch up with Brazilian aspirations. The International Olympic Committee recognized this by selecting Rio de Janeiro as the first host ever in South America and only the second in Latin America after Mexico City, despite a personal appeal by new U.S. President Barack Obama for his own home city, Chicago.

Of course, the mood has soured considerably since then, and the litany of concerns is growing as Brazil counts down to the August 5th opening ceremonies. The economy has suffered steep declines for the past two years and is now in recession; 2016 is proving to be another difficult year. Unemployment is up, incomes are down, and a massive corruption scandal has rocked the commanding heights of the Brazilian economy, slowing investment and reducing business confidence. Politically, the nation is in the midst of a constitutional crisis and will technically have two presidents—one awaiting an impeachment trial—when the Games begin.

Significant reductions in oil prices have hit Rio hard, kicking the stool out from under the budget projections that were used to underwrite Olympic planning and the urban renewal the Games promised to bring. Health budgets, infrastructure development, and social services have all been impacted. At the same time, exogenous factors have added to concerns, including the threat of the mosquito-borne zika virus (which is now much reduced given the cooler winter temperatures in Brazil) and, more importantly, security in the wake of recent terror attacks in Bangladesh, France, the United States, and elsewhere. As the head of the Rio 2016 Olympic Organizing Committee indicated when he was in Washington in June, the well-being of athletes and spectators is paramount, and security is the top overall concern and arguably the most likely threat to the Games themselves.

Now Brazilians are on edge and wondering how the country ever came to face such a dismal cocktail of bad news rather than the global coming-out party that was originally promised. Some of this is natural, a touch of buyer’s remorse once the bills come due and opportunity costs are counted. Furthermore, given heightened global scrutiny and the power of the 24-hour news cycle, it has become routine for outside observers to predict disaster for virtually every major global sporting event, until the event begins and the focus becomes the competition itself rather than pre-event planning and logistics.

Much the same scenario can be anticipated for Rio. There is no question that the path to the Games has been anything but smooth, with greater complications, it seems, than normal. But a focus on Brazil’s economy or politics or the plight of the favelas threatens to conflate two separate issues: the Games and the circumstances within which the Games will be held. And on the latter, it appears that Rio is actually ready. Venues have been completed using private rather than public financing, test events have successfully been conducted, and the scenery and hospitality are, as ever, stunning. True, environmental projects such as the clean-up of Guanabara Bay remain very much a work in progress, but organizers have contingency plans in place to move affected events as may be required. And Rio is practiced at successfully hosting major events, including the 2007 Pan American Games, the 2013 visit of Pope Francis, and the 2014 World Cup, among others, which generally go off without a hitch.

The difference now is that expectations have exponentially increased and the definition of success has ratcheted significantly higher with each Olympiad. Whereas once the Olympics were basically a large, self-contained sporting festival, now they have become unwieldy, hyper-expensive, and infused with expectations for a longer-term legacy including urban renewal, community development, poverty alleviation, human rights protections, environmental sustainability, and social inclusion, among other priorities. They are also open to the real time scrutiny of the traditional media and also, more recently, the Twittersphere and broader social media worldwide. These are not issues unique to Brazil, but they may go a long way in explaining the skepticism of Brazil’s readiness to host the Games and growing speculation that the ultimate cost of hosting will outweigh the benefits. After all, the headlines before previous Olympic Summer Games, in London, Beijing, and Sydney, to name a few recent examples, all highlighted anticipated forthcoming disasters which failed to materialize.

Nonetheless, as the next three Olympic hosts, all in Asia, observe the run-up to Rio, they must understand the broader implications of hosting the Games and the global expectations that have now been layered on top of this sporting event. At this point in history, the Olympics may have grown too big, too expensive, and weighed down by too much external baggage to be sustainable in their current form, and that will have to be taken into account going forward. But for now, future Olympic hosts must focus on managing expectations for the Games while also understanding that their role extends to issues well beyond the competition itself. It may not be what they signed on for, but it is how the Olympic movement has evolved, and the ultimate determination of success now takes these broader social development issues into account. Future and aspiring Olympic hosts, take good note.

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