AN OPINION PIECE/TRAVELOGUE
When Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s showpiece city, was awarded the honor of hosting the Summer Olympics in 2009, the country erupted in euphoria. It had had a roaring decade, with a broadly popular president (Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva) overseeing sustained economic growth, poverty reduction, and a growth in international clout. Brazil had newfound aspirations to be a global power — not just in soccer, music and art, but politically and commercially. Brazil has always seen itself as a member of the First World yet felt a kinship towards countries in the Third World thanks to its geographical location, historic poverty and chronic economic problems like inflation and debt. Winning the Olympic Games was an international vote of confidence in the country and a perfect opportunity to prove that the less developed world could host the Olympics instead of the usual succession of North American, European and Northeast Asian countries.
Since then, Brazil’s international image has taken a heavy beating, as I outlined in my previous post. Its economy stagnated, then sank into depression in 2015, with GDP shrinking by almost 4% that year. A big corruption scandal involving kickbacks to construction companies by the state-owned oil firm, Petrobras, mutated into something involving 16 companies, with over 10 billion reais ($3.8 billion) laundered, and toppling President Dilma Rousseff this year (not to mention permanently tarnishing Lula’s image). Preparations for the games themselves were overshadowed by a storm of controversies and things to stress about: the Zika virus, which causes birth defects; a rise in crime and violence; the foul state of Rio’s waters; building projects running past deadlines.
So how did the Games go? Based on my perspective, they were a success. Rio de Janeiro is a beautiful city with lots to see and a world-famous beach and nightlife culture that’s perfect for an international congregation of attractive young people. The Olympic Park was impressive and vast. Brazilian fans were raucous and noisy and respectful of other countries. Despite what an American Olympic swimmer claimed, no athletes were robbed. The opening and closing ceremonies were impressive spectacles, showcasing Brazilian diversity, history and culture without blowing too much money on extravaganzas. It’s fun to be surrounded by people from all corners of the world, and there were moments of joy and inspiration you’d only find at the Olympics — a North Korean pistol shooter congratulating the South Korean winner and hoping for a unified Korea; runners from America and New Zealand helping each other after a collision in the 5,000-meter race; the favela (shantytown) dweller who triumphed in juudou; the refugee team, including a Syrian-German swimmer who’d pushed a boatful of fellow refugees for 3 hours in the Aegean Sea; little countries like Azerbaijan and Jamaica trouncing bigger, better-funded competitors.
Of course, there were problems. Rio failed to clean up its bay before the Olympics, a victim of widespread flouting of its water regulations and a lack of enforcement of them. Some of the athletes’ facilities were uninhabitable. I was disappointed that the promised subway line to the Olympic Park only went part of the way there, forcing spectators to transfer to a (very efficient) bus line… and then walk another 10 minutes to the actual park. The food at the Olympics was unimpressive, to say the least, and I usually had to settle for mediocre meat-and-bread combos or tiny cheese pizzas with a single olive in the middle. Often food stands would run out, forcing spectators to eat biscoito pouvilho (puffy cassava biscuits) for lunch instead. Language barriers were a constant issue, but the volunteer army that did the heavy lifting was generally patient, polite, and helpful considering the obvious stress they were dealing with, and realistically there isn’t much you can do about language issues when so many different nationalities are gathering in 1 place.
Most of these problems are the same issues we’ve heard at every Olympics in recent decades, and every time they become insignificant once the Games actually begin and the athletic awesomeness commences. (Well, O.K., disease and crime anxieties are new.) I was fairly confident, despite the misfortune Brazil has recently experienced, that it would be the same story this time. And I think I was right. The Modern Olympics are still one of the world’s best ideas, an excellent opportunity for people from all over the world to come together in 1 place and celebrate sport, determination, and good times. Host cities put on their best face and welcome their visitors with improved infrastructure, facilities, and tourist attractions. You can watch quirky sports rarely seen in most countries (like handball or fencing) and meet people you’d seldom encounter in most countries.
That being said, I’ve noticed in recent years that anti-Olympic sentiment is growing. The scale and spectacle of the Games has grown and grown and grown to the point where it’s scarcely sustainable for much longer. The expense of the 2004 Olympics were 1 of the factors behind Greece’s economic collapse. Hosting a $12 billion sports tournament in the midst of a depression, when Rio is struggling just to pay its government employees, is frankly a bad idea. The International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s top brass make millions in paychecks, while the Games themselves are mostly staffed by hard-working volunteers paid by thanks and a song at the closing ceremonies. Hosting the Games in a developing country like Brazil exerts a terrible cost by diverting money from urgently needed education and health care investments. Walking through the Olympic Park and staring at the giant arenas and vast praças (plazas), I couldn’t help but wonder: What will Rio do with these after the Olympics? (O.K., use them for the Paralympics, the Olympics’ neglected sister, but what then?)
I firmly believe that the Olympics are a net benefit for humanity and an awe-inspiring spectacle of peace, goodwill and friendly competition. They are worth keeping for sure. But the IOC needs to take the complaints against it much more seriously. Olympic bids are getting less and less enthusiasm, with authoritarian countries hungry for glory like China and Kazakhstan doing better. The IOC needs to shoulder more of the burden of its own Games and make fewer demands of its hosts. Although designating 1 city as the permanent location of the Games might seem like a good solution, I think it would give the home team a long-term advantage, lead to a nasty fight for the honor, and ruin a lot of the Games’ appeal. But many, many more of the Olympic facilities need to be temporary structures that can be dismantled and reassembled in different cities to cut back on the waste and redundancy. Trimming the Games’ budget would also reduce the scope for corruption, which is always a problem in developing countries (and Brazil, as mentioned, is no exception).
And what about Brazil? I saw mixed reactions to the Olympics. Brazilians were welcoming and good-natured about it, and cheered for their home team with gusto. But there was also widespread apathy about the Games and resentment over the waste of money. Like the World Cup in 2014, they saw it as a government strategy of offering them “bread and circuses” like the ancient Roman emperors. It was a cruel twist of fate that the 7 years since the Games were awarded have brought Brazil so low; the events in that time have made Brazilians jaded and much less excited about the Olympics or showing off to gringos.
Politically, the scene is as dire as ever. Brazil’s acting president, Michel Temer, is broadly unpopular; his (very brief) appearance at the opening ceremony was greeted with deafening boos by the smaller crowd gathered to watch in downtown Rio’s Praça Maua, and I kept seeing “FORA TEMER” (Away with Temer) signs around, including at Olympic events. Dilma has denied any wrongdoing in the Petrobras scandal and calls her suspension in May a “coup” since she was technically punished for misreporting budget numbers, a common practice. But Dilma was also broadly unpopular, and got huge protests before her suspension. Brazil is politically very polarized, with little sensible political discussion on the street level and a lot of jaded, cynical youth. There is even mounting nostalgia for the military dictatorship that kept order in Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Although Brazil has been a democracy for a while and I personally doubt a coup is imminent, it seems much less mature than its age would suggest.
The country itself, on the other hand, is great. It has a lot of potential: big, dynamic cities; a cultural affinity with the West; a thriving immigrant population; a record of overcoming daunting problems for developing countries, from agricultural productivity in the dry interior to policing in drug gang-infested favelas. The national attitude seems optimistic overall. Brazilians definitely know how to party, as epitomized by the massive celebrations in Rio during Carnaval (a mini-version of which was thrown in the closing ceremony), but they also know how to get down to work, as the thriving business district of São Paulo shows. Public transit was impressive, from the modern and efficient subways of São Paulo to the comfortable, air-conditioned buses that connect cities. And of course, the scenery is spectacular: the view from Corcovado over Rio is the best in the world, but the green coastline stretching west from Rio and the austere mountains north of it are breathtaking too.
It’s true that Brazil has a lot of problems. The favelas have been a nagging sore spot in its cities for a century, a constant reminder of the country’s inequality and the failures of its government. The crime they breed definitely keep a lot of foreigners away. Corruption is a way of life, decried in Brazilian politicians but resorted to by everyday Brazilians as well. The current depression casts a shadow over everything, and young, educated Brazilians are pondering their chances overseas. There is not much long-term planning or sense of urgency about anything, probably a result of the country’s relative isolation and freedom from problems that weigh upon other countries, like civil war, territorial disputes or crazy neighbors. The saying goes that “Brazil is the country of the future,” because of its enormous potential, global aspirations, and ultramodern designs by the likes of Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Marx… but the saying continues “and always will be,” because people have been saying that Brazil will be a big deal for a long time now.
I’m an optimist about Brazil. Its depression will eventually go and its political crisis will be resolved. Its strengths are enduring and fundamental. Although it has plenty of poverty, it also has a lot of opportunity, and compared to the Third World it has done a better job of providing for its underclass. There’s racism, but centuries of racial intermixing has blurred the boundaries between races much more than in other countries. Its agricultural and industrial sector is internationally competitive and its diplomatic corps is formidable enough to be a force to be reckoned with if Brazil decides it wants to be a serious player in international affairs. The Olympics were a reminder of the country’s energy, creativity, and alegria (sense of joy and exuberance). Traveling to the country, I wished that more foreigners could go and experience it for themselves. Way too many still cling onto the old stereotypes that center around Rio. Who knows about Brazil’s accordion-based folk music, forró, or about São Paulo’s big Japanese community, or about the ornate and frozen-in-time mining cities in the interior?
Brazil may still have a lot of problems, and the Rio Olympics weren’t the best ones ever. But I think the IOC made the right choice in trusting Rio with the Olympics, mainly because it’s about time that the Olympics were held in South America and that another region of the world was “unlocked.” If nothing else, the Olympics focused the attention of the world on Brazil, something which isn’t always easy. Here’s hoping that Brazil and Rio will continue the momentum and finally become the “serious country” it deserves to be.