Making its final pitch to the International Olympic Committee, Rio de Janeiro emphasized the history to be made in Brazil. The city’s bid representatives campaigned with a world map that grouped previous Olympic hosts by continent. South America and Africa appeared glaringly empty. The message was simple: A vote for the white-sand beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, the land of samba and caipirinhas and Carnival and Christ the Redeemer, was a vote for the first Olympic Games in South America.
It was a shrewd, yet obvious, strategy. The IOC views the Olympics as a powerful catalyst for all kinds of good, for redevelopment, for social and economic change, for peace and cultural understanding. And nothing plays to the IOC ego better than making history, bringing its aspirational brand to new places still awed by the rings and acquiescent.
“I understand why they did it,” said professor Aldo Musacchio, director of the Brazil and Latin America Initiatives at the Brandeis International Business School. “[Former Brazil president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva] needed to put Brazil on the map. It was like a coming-out party and the coming-out party included the World Cup [in 2014] and the Olympics. But it’s a very expensive coming-out party.”
When Rio won the right to host the Summer Games, Silva wept openly beside a teary-eyed Pele, and Brazilians partied the way only Brazilians can — on the beach and with complete abandon. The country and Cariocas, the name given Rio natives, swelled with pride.
But that was 2009 with Brazil and its economy ascendant. Now, seven long, tumultuous years later with the 2016 Rio Olympics days away, it’s clear the Games will be historic in ways worthy of celebration and ways worthy of condemnation. These Olympics have been very expensive, exacting a price that goes well beyond the billions spent, though that lies at the root of it all.
For all the athletic firsts and world records to come, there will be the sobering reality of corruption scandals, dangerously polluted water, incomplete transportation projects, violent crime, and hundreds of families displaced when officials bulldozed their favela near the Olympic Park. All this set against a backdrop of Rio and Brazil in economic and political free fall. And while financial chaos, evictions by force, and impeachment proceedings against suspended president Dilma Rousseff would have been tough to manage under any circumstances, the Olympics have put Brazil and all its problems on display for an international audience.
“Brazilians wanted to show off to the world a country in which the future — their own as much as the nation’s — was bright and within reach,” said Brazilian-born Juliana Barbassa, author of “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink.” “Now Brazil is hobbled with a recession, political turmoil, and an ugly and expanding corruption investigation that includes even the construction companies charged with building Olympic venues. There’s not much to show off, not much pride in the moment, or in the country. Yes, this will be the first Olympics in Brazil and in South America, but what impression will the world take of us?”
Of course, the answer depends on how well Rio actually pulls off the Games.
History on the track, in the pool, in soccer stadiums, on the golf course (after a 112-year absence), on the rugby pitch (after a 92-year absence), on tennis and basketball courts has the power to redirect the international spotlight. If Jamaican sprinters Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, US swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, Brazilian soccer superstars Neymar and Marta, British distance runner Mo Farah, US decathlete Ashton Eaton, US gymnast Simone Biles, Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura, and other big names in their respective sports perform as expected, then many, if not all, troubles plaguing Brazil and Rio Games will be pushed aside until the Olympic flame is extinguished.
At least that’s what the IOC and Rio organizers hope happens.
No one recognizes and accepts his role as rescuer and redeemer more than Bolt. Speaking at a media availability in London recently, Bolt said, “I know the sport needs me to win — and come out on top [in Rio].” It was a comment prompted by the recent Russian doping scandal that critically damaged the integrity of his sport and prompted the International Association of Athletics Federations, the world governing body for track and field, to bar Russia from the Summer Olympics. But the truth is, Rio organizers and the Olympic movement need Bolt to win, too.
No doubt they would also like to see Phelps make more history with more gold medals and Ledecky break more records. Same goes for world record-holder Eaton in the decathlon. Another double-gold for Farah in the 5,000 meters and 10,000? That’ll hold Britain and track fans rapt for days, if not longer. Add continued dominance by Biles and Uchimura and more new Rio story lines take shape. And if Neymar and Marta can win Brazil’s first Olympic titles in men’s and women’s soccer, respectively, it couldn’t get much better.
But with reports of new problems surfacing daily, it becomes increasingly difficult to shift into sports celebration mode and appreciate the history to be made in Rio. It doesn’t help when those reports include a mutilated body washing up near the beach volleyball venue, the troublingly late hiring of Olympic security screeners, and an Athletes Village initially deemed uninhabitable by some national teams because of plumbing and electrical problems.
And those are the stories that make the most headlines because of their direct connection to venues and athletes.
In mid-July, Liz Martin, the Boston-based founder of Brazil Police Watch, traveled to Rio de Janeiro to raise awareness of police brutality in the Olympic host city. Her nephew Joseph was killed by a cop in Rio in 2007. And homicides by Brazilian police officers are a persistent problem that draws denunciations from international human rights organizations. There were 645 officer-involved shootings in 2015 in Rio state compared with 416 in 2013, the year before the World Cup.
“When they [Rio organizers and government officials] talk about security, it’s about how secure the tourists or the athletes are going to be,” said Martin. “It’s not about the police and their record of brutality.”
But the party will go on. It always does. As Cariocas await the Opening Ceremony, excitement mixes with worry mixes with frustration. Some see an opportunity for a momentary escape from Brazil’s woes. On a recent visit to Rio, Musacchio talked with Uber drivers and owners of beachside businesses, all expecting a flood of customers. But a few-week boom cannot erase reality.
“This Olympics, much like the World Cup, was in one sense a wake-up call for Brazilians,” said Barbassa. “Beyond the physical transformations in the city, the Games will also leave a reinforced distrust of authorities. The political and economic elite who worked hard to bring the sporting events to Brazil are now deeply embroiled in corruption investigations, facing charges of funneling public money into private pockets. The sporting events, whatever else they may represent, are also seen as fitting into that scheme.”
For better or worse, history has a hold on Brazil and its Summer Games.
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.