Rio Olympics organizers can glean lessons from Brazil’s World Cup

Brazil’s bumpy road to organizing the World Cup can guide Olympic organizers in what not to do.

07/19/2014 12:00 PM

07/18/2014 8:26 PM

Brazil has barely said tchau to the World Cup, but it has no time for a breather. In two years, Rio de Janeiro will be throwing out a welcome mat to the world as host of the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Only three countries — the United States, the former West Germany and Mexico — have had such a short turnaround between hosting duties for the two biggest sports events on the planet. In the 1930s, however, both the United States and Germany hosted summer and winter Olympics in the same year.

Despite misgivings about everything from security to transportation to whether stadiums would be finished on time, Brazil managed to pull off a successful FIFA World Cup. That’s a positive omen for the Aug. 5-21, 2016 Olympics and Sept. 7-18 Paralympics.

“Brazil and Brazilians can be proud,’’ Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said of Brazil’s World Cup hosting efforts.

Bach met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia just as the month-long World Cup was coming to a close. He said she assured him that as of last Monday — the day after the World Cup final — hosting the Olympics would be a top priority for the government.

If the World Cup was big for Brazil, the Olympics will be even bigger for Rio de Janeiro. Instead of 64 soccer matches spread over 12 Brazilian cities that were played by 736 athletes, Rio will host 16,000 athletes competing in 65 Olympic and Paralympic championships.

Tourism officials’ initial estimates of international visitors to Rio during the World Cup was 90,000. For the Olympics, 480,000 foreign fans are expected.

With the clock already ticking loudly toward 2016, Brazil needs to heed the lessons of the World Cup in getting ready for the first Olympics to be held in a South American city.

Brazil had hoped that inviting in the world for the two mega-sporting events would burnish its international reputation, draw more tourists, and serve as a catalyst to push through badly needed development projects that had languished for decades.

But coming through with its World Cup preps at the last minute meant Brazil lost some of the luster it had hoped to gain from the soccer extravaganza.

That leads to five lessons Brazil should take away from the World Cup:

Lesson One: Don’t over-promise

Instead of the usual eight or nine World Cup host cities, Brazil chose to have 12 to spread development around the continent-size country.

Beyond building or renovating stadiums in each of those cities, Brazil wanted to use interest in both the World Cup and Olympics to spur investment in roads, airports, ports, urban transit systems, security upgrades and telecom improvements.

But Brazil found that organizing the huge sporting event and finishing stadiums at the same time it was trying to push forward its development agenda was a bigger bite than it could chew.

Even though FIFA didn’t require investments in many of these projects, people interpreted them as part of the cost of hosting the World Cup. When they weren’t finished or had big cost overruns, Brazilians weren’t happy.

“So, we’ve learned from that lesson, from what happened, and for the Olympic Games, we’re separating in our communications these two aspects,’’ said Deputy Sports Minister Luis Fernandes.

Brazil’s development challenges, Fernandes said, won’t be solved by one World Cup or an Olympics but rather are a continuous project for “various generations.”

Lesson Two: Better outreach

One of the big lessons of the World Cup was that the government didn’t effectively communicate to the Brazilian people how hosting the tournament would benefit the country.

The message should have been simple: We’ll get all these development projects done —or at least started — we’ll get more tourists, we’ll play on the world stage, and it will help the overall development of the country.

But as massive protests cropped up over the past year that took aim at everything from money being spent on soccer palaces when Brazil had pressing social problems, transit fare increases and corruption to poor public healthcare and education systems, Brazilian officials found that mega-sporting events weren’t such an easy sell after all.

As the World Cup approached, Fernandes acknowledged as much. “We should have communicated more strongly the benefits that the World Cup brings to the country. I think basically we thought that the benefits were evident,” he said.

Lesson Three: Control narrative

Brazil had a positive story to tell about its economic potential — despite current low growth — its progress as an emerging technological power, its spectacular scenery and tourism delights, its efforts to host a green World Cup and its rich culture.

But much of this positive narrative got lost amid the news of the unfinished stadiums, crime, strikes by police, transit and airport workers in the weeks before the World Cup, and scenes of riot-equipped police battling protesters and trying to control favela neighborhoods.

While these stories are part of the Brazilian reality, the 11th-hour nature of Brazil’s World Cup preparations lent itself to a more negative, chaotic portrayal of the country.

Lesson Four: Remember inclusion

Brazilian officials need to make sure Brazilians, especially Rio residents, feel they’re included and are stakeholders in the Olympic Games.

And that will go beyond talking a good game. More concrete plans to address the problems protesters highlighted are needed, more low-cost tickets should be made available so these aren’t the Games of the Brazilian elite, and efforts to include small businesses in the economic benefits of the Games should be expanded.

The World Cup experience can be used as an opportunity to open a national debate about what the country’s development goals should be going forward.

Lesson Five: Just the essentials

That means finishing the sports venues and Olympic Village by the promised deadlines, completing upgrades to the international airport, finishing the final section of a subway link that will connect Rio’s hotel district to Barra da Tijuca and the Olympic Park — where more than half the events will be contested — and winding up work on promised fast bus lanes.

Because Rio hugs the coast and is cut up by mountains and tunnels, getting around can be difficult and completing the transportation projects is vital.

Rio officials also have set an Olympic deadline for a massive revitalization of the city’s port district but it’s not essential for hosting the Games.

During his recent visit, the IOC’s Bach stopped by the Olympic Village and said he was satisfied with the progress: “It was incredible to see that 40 per cent of the Olympic Village is ready.”

That was a far cry from the pronouncement of another Olympic official. In April, IOC Vice President John Coates called Rio’s preparations for the Olympics “the worst I have experienced.”

He cited lack of progress on the Deodoro complex — equestrian, shooting, whitewater and mountain biking events will be held there — as well as the pollution in Guanabara Bay, where the sailing event is planned.

Brazilian officials have characterized that assessment as unfair.

But since then, construction has started at Deodoro, the tunnel for the subway link has been completed and the first tracks are being laid, and grass is being planted at the new golf course (golf will be contested for the first time since 1904) at Reserva Marapendi in Barra.

Still, Bach said, “There is still no time to lose — not a day.”

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