Great party, shame about the legacy

The Olympic torch is lit, the stadiums are mostly complete and the athletes are in the final stages of their training, but instead of celebrating Wednesday’s 100-day countdown to the Games, many people in Rio de Janeiro are wondering: “What more could possibly go wrong?”

Initially seen as a blessing that prompted jubilation when it was first announced in 2009, South America’s first Olympics is threatening to become a curse for the shell-shocked host city. From political turmoil to economic recession, Rio has been hit by a series of national and local calamities that have overshadowed preparations, undermined confidence and prompted questions about who stands to benefit from the mega-event.

Among the litany of problems were: an impeachment vote against Dilma Rousseff that has divided the nation; the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history; the deepest GDP decline in decades; the region’s worst health crisis – Zika virus – in memory; and water pollution so bad that Guanabara Bay, which will stage the sailing contests, stinks of excrement.

Recent headlines only add to the sense of dismay. On Monday, an ombudsman reported that 11 workers have died so far working on Olympic projects, compared with eight for the 2014 World Cup and zero for the London Games in 2012. Last week, at least two people were killed when a new cycle path collapsed into the Atlantic Ocean just four months after it was opened. Earlier in the month, tourists and shoppers in upmarket Leblon were shocked by grenade explosions and machine gun fire during the latest outbreak of gang violence.

Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about public spending cuts, which have prompted strikes that have paralysed hundreds of schools, sparked warnings from medical unions that the health system is ill-prepared for Zika, and forced Olympics organisers to find alternative funding for the air conditioning in the international broadcasting centre. More worryingly, it also prompted the state police budget to be reduced by R7.9billion, despite intelligence warnings that Islamic State radicals could see the Olympics as their next target.

Add to this appalling traffic congestion (ranked third worst in the world), poor ticket sales (barely half of Olympic seats and one-fifth of Paralympic seats have been sold), rising unemployment, worsening inflation, persistent challenges with inequality, police killings of black youths and statements in favour of torture, misogyny and military dictatorship by the city’s most-voted-for politician, Jair Bolsonaro.

It all means Rio enters the Olympic home straight looking more like an old-school Latin-American republic than the modern emerging economy that is about to take its place at the global top table.

But there is far more to Rio, and perceptions can change quickly. With about the same amount of time to go before the 2014 World Cup, the focus was on possible protests and delays in stadium construction. Neither proved to be major problems and the event was widely considered a success, despite the pain of the host’s 7-1 semifinal defeat and the legacy of expensive white elephants. Compared with that, the Olympics appear to be in a healthy position with no major protests and most infrastructure on time and on budget – though there are lingering concerns about the velodrome and a subway line extension.

Organisers of Rio 2016 say there is much to be proud of. Although they admit the public is distracted and somewhat demoralised, they see the Olympics as part of the solution for Brazil rather than the problem.

“I think the Games are one of the few good things that will happen this year,” sports minister Ricardo Leyser said. “It can reanimate the country and generate jobs. In this hard moment, the Games help us to reactivate the economy and bring in tourists.”

Mario Andrada, a Rio 2016 organising committee spokesman, expects the mood to pick up after the torch relay, which started last week in Athens, reaches Brazil, with the public then getting excited once Brazil wins its first gold. But for the moment, he admits the situation is tough. “I am not glossing. You saw the cycle path. But I am confident,” he says. “We are now in the most difficult time, the last 100 metres. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. But as soon as we get the torch going and the athletes in Rio, then the energy changes.”

Many participants are equally optimistic. Some hope for more economic and political stability by August. “I don’t think the crisis will get in the way and if everything goes well things will have gotten better by then,” predicted the yachtsman Fernanda Decnop.

Uncertainties persist, particularly about national leadership. In this period of intense political tumult, Brazil has gone through three sports ministers in little more than a year and could soon see a fourth if the vice-president, Michel Temer, forms a new government while Rousseff undergoes impeachment by the senate.

Sérgio Praça, an academic at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, is scathing about the political climate. “I don’t think there is any mood for the Olympics in Brazil, and much less so in Rio de Janeiro,” he says. “Everything we’ve seen up to now is really bad, very negative. There hasn’t been any good news about the Olympics. It’s 100% the fault of city hall, the federal government and the state government.”

For him, this is part of a bigger problem of staging huge sporting events, which serve the interests of a small segment of society at the expense of the majority.

“For the politicians, the Olympics can be great. But for the population in general, these mega-events like the World Cup and the Olympics are bad. It moves people from their homes, triggers a lot of public investments that aren’t necessary. We have empty stadiums that aren’t being used from the World Cup … These aren’t events for the Brazilian population – the price is too high.”

For others, it is a missed opportunity. Luiz Martins de Melo, a specialist on the economics of sport at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, was part of the team that drew up the city’s bid for the Olympics in 2004. He is disappointed that more was not done to clean up Guanabara Bay, but he says the event can still be a short-term success.

He expects the political situation to stabilise and for Cariocas – as the city’s residents are known – to ensure the Games are fun, because sociological studies have shown they are more predisposed to public displays of joy than people from other cities.

But with job losses expected after the Games, he is pessimistic about the longer-term impact. With the exception of Barcelona and London, he says most hosts fail to benefit. This is because the Olympics is designed for wealthy nations, he adds. “In its current mould, these are events for developed countries due to the logistics, infrastructure and the luxury of the installations, particularly for sports that only exist in rich countries,” he says. “Who is going to watch badminton in Brazil? Who is going to watch rugby sevens in Brazil?

“The party will be great. The legacy for the city will be garbage.” – © Guardian News & Media 2016

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Jonathan Watts
Jonathan Watts works from Bristol, England. Copywriter, Classics MA and author. Bristol, books, gigs, dogs. Jonathan Watts has over 100 followers on Twitter.

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