Having already failed, the Rio Olympics may now succeed

Paulo Sotero – The Financial Times, 07/25/2016

Desfile olímpico de alunos da rede municipal do Rio

A um ano dos Jogos Rio 2016, alunos e professores da rede municipal, participam de desfile olímpico no Parque Madureira, na zona norte da cidade (Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil)

Judging by media reports and official statements, this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro were a flop well before the August 5 opening ceremony. But if history is any guide, the games stand a reasonable chance of being seeing as satisfactory by the time the estimated 10,000 participating athletes return home. Whether it’s the Olympics in Athens, Beijing, London and Sochi or the soccer World Cup in South Africa and Brazil, a disaster-to-success reversal has been the standard narrative of all recent major global sporting events.

The Rio Olympics, the first to take place in South America, may yet turn out to be a special case. With the threat of a terrorist attack seen as a real possibility after the July 21 arrests of 10 Brazilians identified by local authorities as sympathisers of the so-called Islamic State, the only catastrophes that can be discarded are hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis, which are rare on the Atlantic coast of South America.

Most forms of man-made disaster, including pollution, pestilence, engineering failure, crime, massive corruption, recession and political meltdown have hit Rio and Brazil as city and country raced against the clock to make final preparation for the games. Ample and mostly fair coverage of bad news by the local press was, as expected, amplified by the international media.

The foul state of the waters in parts of Guanabara Bay and Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, where some of the nautical events are scheduled to take place, and the Zika virus epidemic, have led doctors from around the world to call for a suspension of the games. A few renowned Olympians said they would stay away. In June, Rio’s acting governor declared a state of “public calamity” in order to free $800m in federal funds urgently needed to complete public works connecting Olympic venues, finish construction of housing for athletes and pay late salaries to public servants, including policemen. To dramatise the situation, some police officers staged a demonstration at Rio’s international airport welcoming visitors to “hell”.

Although violence in general and violence against women have trended down in recent years, the group rape of a young woman and the invasion of a public hospital by a narco gang to free a traffic boss have kept crime in the headlines. In mid-June, Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, said in an interview with CNN that Rio’s police, controlled by the state government and not by him, were doing a “terrible” job. A few days later he said, quite accurately, that “the Rio Olympics are a missed opportunity” for Brazil to showcase itself on the global stage as a rising power.

That is what former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had in mind when he travelled to London in 2009 to lobby the International Olympic Committee to award this year’s games to Brazil. Today Lula is a diminished if not disgraced politician. He faces two federal criminal investigations and is manoeuvring to stay out of jail. In mid July, the former president was indicted by the attorney general for attempting to obstruct a federal investigation on a massive corruption scandal involving state oil giant Petrobras, which is headquartered in Rio. Exposed in 2014, the Petrobras case has added fuel to a governance crisis that has crippled Brazil’s public finances, compromised investors and public confidence in the economy and thrown the country into its worst recession in a century. Seen as the economic disaster’s architect, Lula’s successor and protégée, Dilma Rousseff, was suspended in April by the House of Representatives and will likely be removed from office at the conclusion of her impeachment trial in the Senate in the weeks following the Olympics closing ceremony.

The scandal led to the arrests of more than a hundred businesses executives, senior bureaucrats and shady political operatives. A slew of former and current elected officials are under investigation or have been indicted, among them a former speaker of the House of Representatives, the current president of the Senate, two dozen members of Congress and ministers appointed by both Rousseff and her former ally and vice-president, Michel Temer, who took office as acting president in May pending the resolution of the impeachment process.

Against this depressing backdrop, Brazilians are not exactly looking forward to hosting the world’s greatest sporting festival. Support for the games has dropped from 92 per cent in 2009 to less than half of that today. Among cariocas, as the 6.5m inhabitants of Rio are known, barely 40 per cent say they are interested in the games. Tens of thousands of Brazilians from other parts of the country who had planned to attend have opted out because of the economic crisis, which has left more than 11m people jobless. Likewise, the number of foreign visitors will probably be much lower than the half a million that were once expected in Rio during the Olympics.

Ironically, such abysmally low expectations may help create a positive perception once the games get under way. With a security apparatus of 85,000 in place, Rio will probably be one of the safest places on the planet in August – in the absence of a terrorist attack. The myriad problems facing Brazilians will not prevent them from welcoming visitors and making sure they enjoy the music, the dance, the beaches and the nightlife Rio offers in abundance. With the first signs of investors’ confidence on the horizon and economists predicting a return to economic growth in 2017, a disaster-free Olympics could even help the country restore some of its lost self-esteem and project virtues the Brazilian people and some of their institutions have displayed in the face of unprecedented crisis and chaos.

Such efforts could start with the show that will precede the opening ceremony and the parade of athletes marching behind their countries’ flags before the lighting of the Olympic torch. Stealing a page from the London Olympics, which opened with a memorable display on the UK’s challenges and achievements, producers could add a scene featuring cars of the Federal Police and actors representing federal law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges to symbolise the country’s ongoing offensive against systemic corruption and the impunity of criminals in high places, which is supported by nine out of ten Brazilians. The scene would certainly be well received.

So should peaceful rallies that both sympathisers and critics of Rousseff say they will organise to amplify their views before international audiences watching the Olympics. Compared with the scenes of hatred and violence from around the world seen daily on television, the civil manner in which Brazilians have been demonstrating their frustrations and dealing with their differences has been quite refreshing. It should be celebrated along with the Olympians who will gather in Rio to, once again, show humanity’s better face.

Paulo Sotero is director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars in Washington, DC.

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