The Rio Olympics: A cautionary tale?

Photo: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasíl/Flickr

The Rio Olympics' Closing ceremony. Photo: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil/Flickr


The Rio de Janeiro Olympics were sold to the population as an opportunity to transform the city and build lasting legacies. Now that the Games are over, not even winning the Olympic gold in the national sport, football, can cover up the disappointment over the missed opportunities, the failed promises, and the tremendous cost, says Juliana Barbassa in this comment piece in which she asks if it was all worth it. Her answer is no.

Somehow, even the Olympics in Rio had to come down to soccer, and to the Maracanã. There we were, again, 200 million Brazilians hanging on every dribble and shot at goal by the team in canary yellow jerseys. And on the other side, Germany, in black.

Two years after the devastating 7-1 World Cup defeat to Germany on home turf, and after decades of grasping for Olympic gold in the sport that is woven into its national identity, the country had a table-turning victory within reach.

The match, tense throughout, tied and went to penalties. Those in the stadium cringed, gritted teeth, buried their face in the flag. Germany shot, and scored; Brazil shot, and scored; goal by goal, the teams remained tied 4-4.  At home my family members paced toward the TV, pivoted away in anguish, turned toward it again, unable to resist. Then Germany’s Nils Petersen took his shot, a low kick. Brazil goalie Weverton dove, stretched, and blocked it.

This was Brazil’s chance. It was down to Neymar. He started toward the ball with a loping run, cut to a short, choppy shuffle, and kicked. He scored. The Maracanã roared as tens of thousands of voices raised in celebration. Around our apartment building, fireworks broke out, neighbors whooped and yelled, and we let out let our breath. On the field, Neymar buried his face in the grass and cried.

With that goal, Brazil won. It won the game; it won its first Olympic gold in soccer; it also won its largest-ever Olympic medal haul. Lavou a alma, my mother said, using a very Brazilian expression. It washed our soul.

Even as I joined in the celebration, I thought of how neatly this would fit into a broader, and very familiar, Brazilian narrative. This country has long seen itself through soccer. Often the game was a kindly mirror, showing us at our best. But even the 7-1 defeat, in the national psyche, had been a reflection of ourselves. It marked a larger downturn: in the economy, Brazil slipped into a recession; in politics, corruption charges brought down powerful figures, and the president faced impeachment; and in futebol, where mismanagement and malfeasance took a clear and painful toll on the quality of the game.

Soccer had been used strategically to lift the mood of the country in the past, and it would be used in this way again.  It started immediately after the match.

"This restores our self-esteem," Brazil coach Rogerio Micale said.

Three days after Neymar’s victory lap, it was the turn of Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes, still riding high on the victory, to claim the city’s laurels for a successful Olympics.

“We would do everything again,” he told reporters gathered for a concluding press conference. “We have become a better city.”

The Olympic victory over Germany provided a moment of euphoria and unity for a nation that desperately needed something to celebrate. More than that: for most Brazilians, who don’t know fencing from pole vaulting, the soccer win helped shore up the sense that the Games were a moderate success, after facing scares over the Zika virus, polluted water, and the safety of athletes. In Rio, the good will it generated helped smooth over the social tensions and public spending questions that had rumbled just beneath the surface during the hometown Olympics.

The Rio Olympics were about far more than soccer, however. From the beginning, they were about more than sports.

A new plus-size Olympics
These Games were an exponent of a new sort of Olympics-plus fostered by the International Olympic Committee through their choices of ever-more-expensive bids for ever-bigger, ever-grander events. When Rio de Janeiro was elected as the host of the 2016 Olympics, its $11.1 billion bid was by far the most costly and spread out of the competing cities, which included wealthier Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo.

Even as Brazil sunk into an economic morass and the state of Rio fell into a financial emergency, with shuttered hospitals and public servants, from police officers to university officials, going without pay, that number would only go up. Experts ultimately put the total cost of the Rio Games at nearly $20 billion.

The terrific expense was justified because the Olympics would be about more than sport: they would “transform a city, a region and a country,” serving as “a catalyst for social integration” and leaving “a lasting and affordable legacy,” according to a very positive IOC report issued one month before the Oct. 2, 2009 IOC vote.

That was the basis on which Rio de Janeiro was chosen to host the 2016 Olympics, and the reason why it cost so much. The Olympic bid specifically promised that “the people of Rio will see long-term needs addressed, with improved infrastructure and opportunities.” A subsequent document, the Plano de Legado Urbano e Ambiental, or Plan of Urban and Environmental Legacy, gave details.

Those documents, and subsequent promises made by elected officials about social legacies in areas like housing, should the basis on which the success of the Games should be judged.  A soccer win, or a good medal haul (19 total, with seven gold, still very modest by the standards of other Olympic hosts) does not change this.  By those standards, was it all worth it?

In a word, no.

Legacy not all that was hoped for
The face of Rio was transformed during the lead-up to the Olympics. For years, the city felt like a great construction site. In addition to the Olympic venues, congregated in four main clusters, great new transportation infrastructures were put in place, including Bus Rapid Transit lanes and a metro extension. An elevated highway was knocked down, once again opening the port area to the ocean; and a new bike path was built alongside one of Rio’s granite mountain faces, high above the ocean, with the idea of drawing local residents into physical activity and enjoyment of their beautiful city.

Socially, too, Rio felt the impact of great investment and a rise in expectations in areas such as security, with the expansion of the UPP program (Unidades de Policia Pacificadora, or Pacification Police Units) that brought permanent law enforcement presence into favelas. A housing improvement program billed by Rio’s mayor as the main social legacy of the Games promised to bring basic services like sewage treatment, running water and safe electricity to all of Rio’s favelas. And of course, there was the biggest promise of all: to clean up pollution in Guanabara Bay, the site of sailing competitions. 

But Games over, the legacy was not as positive as promised, or hoped for. The bike path, which collapsed in April, three months after its inauguration, plunged two people to their deaths in the ocean below and became a symbol of our fears: that the construction done for the Olympics would be poor in quality and crumble before our eyes. By the time the Olympics started, deep budget cuts had imperiled the UPP project and violence was on the rise. Heavily armed soldiers in full camouflage guaranteed security during the Games, their silent clusters a disturbing sight among the coconut stands and popsicle vendors in Copacabana, Ipanema and other touristy beaches. The housing improvement program was never implemented, without a word of official explanation to the public. Months before the Games started, Rio’s governor acknowledged that sewage continued to pour into Guanabara Bay.

As for the transportation improvements: Rio’s traffic is one of the worst in the world, so they are useful, but they tore through low-income communities and were not what the city’s residents needed the most. The BRT lanes and the metro extension all connected to the city’s wealthy west side, home to the main Olympic cluster. This is Rio’s real estate frontier, an area of rapidly valuing property characterized by highways, gated communities and shopping malls that often draws comparisons to Miami. Injecting more investment into this area through Olympic projects only exacerbated the city’s trademark inequality.

Arguably the most successful physical transformation was the refurbishing of the port area, a project estimated at R$8 bn or $2.5 bn. Once the elevated highway was knocked down and warehouses revamped, the population took over. On a recent holiday, the two-mile promenade was packed with locals taking photos of the graffiti murals, visiting the impressive Museum of Tomorrow, and generally enjoying the open public space in an area that severely lacked alternatives.

Failure in capturing nation
Within venues, vast swaths of empty seats stole attention from the competitions themselves and embarrassed organizers. Packing the arenas was always going to be a challenge: the faltering economy and rising unemployment took their toll. Tickets to some of the most popular events cost R$900, more than the monthly minimum wage.

Beyond Rio, the Games largely failed to capture the nation. Even before the event started, Brazil’s dominant open-television channel, Rede Globo, decided to keep the tradition of airing soccer games on Sunday – in this case, the Brazilian Championship – instead of Olympic events. If Brazil won a significant Olympic medal, the match’s narrator would alert the audience, the television station reported. The biggest audience during the Olympics? The soccer final, of course.

Despite the preparation for the Games most Brazilians remained unfamiliar with the majority of Olympic sports, and the infrastructure for athletes remains poor. There was an important program to bolster the national medal count by giving high-achieving athletes a living stipend, and a program within the Armed Forces that supported its athletes, Brazil remained focused on soccer – and male soccer at that. Female soccer players still get little support at home. They have no competitive league of their own and their cup, which starts Wednesday, will not be aired by any television station.

This means that even after the Olympics, too many Brazilian athletes will be like judo gold medalist Rafaela Silva, from the Cidade de Deus favela: exceptional people who achieved victories despite the lack of institutional support for their sport, not because of it.

As Rio stumbled toward the Games, the IOC often expressed concern and even frustration. Post-Games, this has led to questions about whether it was premature to move the Olympics outside of the core of wealthy countries that have traditionally hosted in Europe, Eastern Asia and North America.

Rio’s Games have certainly been a lesson in the volatility of developing economies. But more than that, they should also be a cautionary tale about this model of ever-bigger Olympic Games that promise much more than sports. Rio’s Olympic project was expensive and challenging for the same reason it had been so appealing on paper: it fit perfectly well within the IOC’s own grandiose, and ultimately misguided, concept that a sporting mega-event should drive urban transformation.

The IOC has spoken in the past about making the Games affordable and sustainable. Let Rio be a case study in what not to do.


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