When Rio de Janeiro won its Olympic bid back in 2009, Brazil was hailed as a nation on the rise. Now, it is the wrong place at the wrong time to host the 2016 Summer Games.
SAO PAULO — Countries come up with all sorts of justifications for wanting to host the Olympic Games: that it will promote education through sport and the coming together of people; that it will spur environmental, economic and social changes that will modernize the host city and provide a legacy that will benefit its inhabitants and future generations.
But in truth, the only real point of organizing the Olympics is to spend money — and lots of it. It's also true that the Games are a unique, short, expensive, complex event with improbable returns. Which raises the question of why a developing country like Brazil, with its long list of crises and unsolvable problems, suddenly decided to flex its muscles and ask to host one?
Back in 2009, when Rio de Janeiro was chosen to become the first South American city to host the event, Brazil as a whole was hungry for new solutions to longstanding issues. Then President Lula da Silva was a sort of global mascot. After all, the blue collar, nine-fingered leader created jobs and bumped up consumption for tens of millions. The country was surfing the wave of expensive commodities exports, of massive offshore oil fields, and had already secured the selection to host a second World Cup in 2014. The number of Brazilian billionaires on the Forbes 500 list, meanwhile, kept climbing.
The Olympics are always looking for the money, and this nouveau-riche Brazil, eager to show itself off to the world, had cash to spend. It was, in that sense, following in the footsteps of other host nations: Japan (Tokyo 1964), Germany (Munich 1972), South Korea (Seoul 1988), Spain (Barcelona 1992), and China (Beijing 2008). Like Brazil, they idealized events that were supposedly going to transform the host cities and through it the countries as a whole. One after the other, these cities wanted to put themselves on the map. Some have managed to stay on it, other haven't.
For better or worse, Rio de Janeiro has always been on the world map — as the capital of the Brazilian Empire, of the First Republic, home to the Maracaña stadium, of bossa nova, of the Carnival, of jiu-jitsu, of easy sex, swindling and drug trafficking.
The city's bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics was intended to show that the Walt Disney image, as the hometown of Zé Carioca, had been overtaken by reality. It was also to sell the certainty of broad, modern reforms in Brazil as a whole.
What was at the time the world's sixth largest economy was, after all, on the verge of becoming the fifth. Christ the Redeemer, let's not forget, even made it onto the front page of The Economist — taking off like a rocket!
From a ripple to a tsunami
The International Olympic Committee got the message and spurned the "easy" choices amid a difficult economic situation. Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid, cities without infrastructure problems, were suffering from the global crisis of 2008-2009 — the same one that would provoke little more than a "ripple" in Brazil, Lula famously predicted.
[rebelmouse-image 27089370 alt="""" original_size="1024x683" expand=1]
Then President Lula (center) after Rio was selected in 2009. Photo: Agencia Brasil
The pragmatic officials at the International Olympic Committee (ICO), therefore, put their money on what appeared to be the right horse. It was a market necessity for the Olympics to reach South America, its final frontier. And it was the least it could do after its rival, soccer's FIFA, had awarded the 2010 World Cup to the African continent (a continent that doesn't exist yet in the Olympic geography) before returning to Brazil.
In the IOC's recent choice for the 2022 Winter Olympics of Beijing — a city that's not exactly famous for its ski slopes — the real news is less in the victor than in the fact that all the other viable candidates dropped their bid before the vote was even held. One after the other, Oslo, Munich and Stockholm bowed to public pressure at home. It seems the Olympics have lost their charm and glamor in the eyes of the developed world, which no longer sees the point of splashing out for such prohibitively expensive amusement.
In 2009, when it won the race for next year's Summer Games, Rio, the sexy and spectacular Brazilian showcase, was the right city at the right time. Six years later, it's very much the wrong city at the wrong time.
Rio's problems — the water pollution in Guanabara Bay, the rampant urban violence — aren't new. But they were never as obvious as they are now. A year from now, when the Games are over and done with, Rio's Olympic legacy will simply be the fact that the event even managed to take place.