PtG Comment 03.10.2009

Samba Sim! New rhythms in the dance around the golden Olympic calf

Brazil now faces the challenge to tame the commercial forces around The Summer Olympics and make them serve social development

Friday 2 October near midnight Samba: Sim - blues, karaoke and flamenco: Não!

There was music in the air, and not only the ringing of coins when the four candidate cities today branded themselves in front of the IOC members, who at the end of a long session chose Rio de Janeiro as the host of the Olympic Summer Games 2016.

Sim and não – yes and no.

Money of course does make a difference, but today not as directly as you may have suspected in an Olympic context.

In any case the poorest of four candidate cities – Tokyo, Chicago, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro - came out as the undisputed winner. Votes were distributed quite evenly between the contenders in the first round, but the final voting round between the Old and the News Worlds left no doubt: Rio de Janeiro beat Madrid convincingly by 66 votes to 32, with one abstention. So there was widespread satisfaction in the bar of the Hotel Marriott in Copenhagen Friday evening when IOC members settled after an exciting day.

“Politically, it would have been close to a disaster if Madrid had won. That would be seen as if the IOC was stilled in the firm grip of the old President Samaranch,” one high-ranking Olympic employee told me.

The 89-year old President of Honour of the IOC has appointed 76 of the present IOC members in his time as real President, and the appealed emotionally to the assembly to meet his final wish: “I know I am near the end of my time”.

So perhaps this victory was really the victory of the new against the old world also within the IOC – the dreams of global outreach outnumbered the feelings of loyalty between ailing lodge members.

“It was the right winner, but I would have liked to see another order in the competition”, an IOC member said, referring to the surprising defeat of Chicago in the first round of votes.

In spite of U.S. president Barack Obama flying to Denmark for one of the shortest state visits ever by an American President to put his undeniable charisma behind Chicago’s bid, and in spite of a very emotional appeal by the First Lady Michelle Obama, only 18 IOC members opted for the windy city in the first round.  

“Now we have humiliated the American President, and we have to cope with that,” the experienced IOC member worried.

Proving independence

Probably not even the resurrection of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy or other famous Presidents could have compensated for the stiff, self-assured and uninspiring presentation Chicago gave, so you can hardly blame the Obamas. Moreover, most people Play the Game talked to at the Marriott saw a tactical hand behind the ousting of Chicago that early in the process.

Knowing Tokyo would never win, many members probably granted the Japanese their vote in the first round, partly to console them and partly to weaken Chicago’s standings in the expected final tête-à-tête with Rio or Madrid. But even IOC members were stunned that Chicago fell so deeply, leaving many Americans angry.

Christiane Amanpour, international anchor of the CNN, immediately gave her viewers a nationalistic interpretation: They like our money. But they don’t care the least about America, she said. “So typically American,” another senior IOC member sighed, disillusioned by the American traditional lack of understanding of international diplomacy.

In his views, the Chicago bidding committee had simply been to self-assured and arrogant to convince his fellow IOC members. And resisting the pressure from the presence of the mightiest politician in the world proved the claims that the IOC were politically independent, he said.

“Choosing Rio confirms that it is good that such an independent institution exists in this world. Imagine the political influence if the United Nations were to take such a decision. Which other institution would have had the courage in 2001 years ago to choose Beijing. We did, and it was the right decision at the right time.”

A growth market

There is no doubt that the IOC faces a reconciliation process with the US Olympic Committee and parts of the public opinion in the USA. Undoubtedly it will oil that process that Brazil is as good as Chicago for American TV companies, corporate sponsors, investors and entrepeneurs. The time zone allow competitions to be broadcast in North American prime time. And though Rio may be the poorest of contenders, it is definitely not bidding on a purely idealistic ground.

President Lula da Silva was present in Copenhagen to emphasize how Brazil needs the Olympics as a lever for investment and economic growth. Minutes after the IOC decision the stock market as well as the value of the Brazilian currency rose.

David Abrutyn, Managing Director and Head of IMG Global Consulting said to Sports Business Newslines that the timing for placing the first Olympics in Latin America is good:

“The Brazilian economy is strong and is seen by all as a growth market. And from a commercial standpoint, there is a parallel with Beijing and the impact the Chinese Games had in bringing new companies into a thriving and important BRIC market. A Rio Games represents a big appeal for companies looking to do business and hoping to get into the South American market. It will act as a catapult for their business interests.”

The hard challenge for Brazil will now be to tame the profit-seeking forces that swarm around the Olympics and channel the business energy into projects that will benefit the society as a whole, not only foreign capital and the already super-rich Brazilian elite. An insurmountable challenge will be to keep the construction, marketing and trade projects free of corruption in a country where corruption is rife, and in an international sports community that is not lagging much behind.

Brazilian contrasts in the corridors

Examples of the past are not promising, embodied in two very different persons I just came across in the hotel corridors: The living football icon (1958-?) and former sports minister (1995-1998) Pélé who had to resign from government after trying to normalize, register and tax football clubs like any other business, and who was excluded from the draw for the World Cup 1994 when falling out with Ricardo Texeira.

The latter was at the time not only President of Brazil’s football federation, but – perhaps more important – son-in-law of the immensely powerful FIFA President João Havelange whose legacy of corrupt practices is still thriving at world football’s supreme body.

Pélé looked happy as a boy when he ran past me in the corridor, while the 93-year old Havelange, shorter than before but still with an impressing appearance, entered the lift with the sinister poker face behind which he has made business cards play in his favour.

If corruption shall be overcome and business benefit the population, it is necessary that the Brazilian public get transparent information about all aspects of the preparations of the games, and that the Organising Committee and subcommittees operate in full transparency and under public scrutiny.  

It is also vital that the Brazilian people engage in a debate about what good sport in general and the Olympics in particular can do to the nation. Getting two weeks attention from a global TV audience is a short-lived pleasure and will not bring food on the plate for many years to come.

Is there hope that we won’t just see another round of post-colonialist exploitation under the trademark of five multi-coloured rings? I think so. Latin America is changing. Over the past ten years, the governments and the people increasingly reject to be treated as second-rank citizens in North America’s back-yard. Contradictions are definitely at hand, but the self-esteem and self-conscience is growing.

The Brazilian President Lula was one of the first heads of state to start that trend, balancing the requirements of international capitalism with the necessary social progress and national independence. Now he has the responsibility of laying the foundation and define the main lines of Olympic operation for the next seven years. It will take more than one note to play that samba.