Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan, there they go again. As Brazil readies to host the 2016 Olympic Summer Games one year from now, international observers have begun the countdown clocks and a familiar litany of complaints that are aired out before virtually every major worldwide sporting event.
Venues that will not be ready to host events. Infrastructure that can never be completed on time if at all. Community redevelopment projects that will remain on the drawing board. Security concerns and police over reaction. Cost overruns, debt accumulation, and corruption. Environmental clean-up and pollution control measures that are failing, endangering the health of athletes and spectators alike.
Hosting the Olympic Summer Games is not for the faint-hearted. It is a massive, risky, hugely expensive undertaking with increasingly questioned benefits. For approximately two weeks, cities and the nations they represent draw the eyes of the world, bringing the attention and anticipated revenue they might otherwise not have other opportunities to attract.
In exchange, host nations sign up for heightened global scrutiny on everything from infrastructure to crime to human rights. If they are not careful, costs can spiral out of control potentially causing financial hardship.
When Brazil was awarded the Games in 2009, the nation was an international phenomenon. The economy was hot, growing at Asian rates. Millions of citizens were being moved from poverty into the middle class, and there was a sense broadly that virtually everyone was doing better than in the past. Along with other rapidly developing nations, Brazilian leaders were also finding their voice internationally, both contributing to and demanding more of a share of the global economic and political system. As much of the developed Western world faced deep recession and began to lose political luster, Brazil and like-minded nations seized on the opportunity to raise their own profiles and chart a course independent of traditional relationships. Brazilians saw the opportunity to host the Olympics as a means both to trumpet their arrival on the world stage while also using the Games to leverage the redevelopment of Rio de Janeiro that many had discussed but no one had yet accomplished.
In intervening years, however, the mood has soured considerably. The economy will likely fall into a recession this year that could last into 2016; rating agencies have downgraded Brazil. Politicians including the president are deeply unpopular despite having been re-elected less than one year ago. Unemployment is on the rise, austerity measures are in place, and a massive corruption scandal has yet to unspool fully, already netting political and business leaders with broad implications for Brazil’s economic model.
As a result, Brazilians have become decidedly ambivalent about the Games, wondering in some cases whether the almost $10 billion projected costs would not be better spent elsewhere.
Added to this growing sense of buyers’ remorse, recent news reports have highlighted the appalling environmental condition of Guanabara Bay, a venue for various water events, which will take many years beyond the Olympics to restore. Other reports identify real estate magnates who stand to reap handsome individual benefits from the Games, and infrastructure development favoring wealthier areas.
This contrasts with the impact on Rio’s favela dwellers, some of whom are being displaced, while aggressive policing designed to reduce crime has heightened tensions in some areas. With less than one year to go, much Olympics-related construction still remains to be completed.
These are serious issues, but they are not unsolvable.
Headlines in the run-up to virtually every major international sporting event in the modern era routinely question whether the host will be ready to begin the events as scheduled, predicting catastrophe. With one glaring exception — the 2010 Commonwealth Games hosted by India — nations have generally proven equal to the task. Nothing concentrates the mind like a deadline; progress in the final year is always the most rapid.
And so it will be with Brazil, a nation whose people are used to finding creative ways to prosper, even when confronted with significant obstacles and limited resources. Brazilians even have a word for it, jeitinho, which essentially means, “we’ll find a way to get it done.” It’s an approach that worked for the 2007 Pan Am Games in Rio and the 2014 World Cup soccer championship.
With strong local leadership, a sound financing plan, and the pride that comes from hosting the first-ever Olympics to be held in South America (and only the second ever held in Latin America), Brazilians know that this is a historic opportunity to build the national legacy. Planners are working to ensure that the ultimate storyline is one of warm hospitality, stunning scenery and the pageantry of athletic competition at the highest level.
As messy as the run-up to the Games may prove in the end to be, there is too much at stake to think that the nation that invented the concept of jeitinho won’t just pull it off.
Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society.