The political crisis, the environmental impact and an ailing economy – everything seems to indicate that the 2016 Summer Olympic Games will a little out of the ordinary. And that is precisely what makes them so appealing
© Gonzalo Azumendi/laif

Olympics in a country in motion

  • TEXT ADRIAN GEIGES

The political crisis, the environmental impact and an ailing economy – everything seems to indicate that the 2016 Summer Olympic Games will a little out of the ordinary. And that is precisely what makes them so appealing

“The world has recognized that the time has come for Brazil!” On October 2, 2009, when Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Olympic Games, the then president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was not the only person overwhelmed by emotion and pride. The Summer Olympic Games in Rio, which take place from August 5 – 21, in the middle of the Brazilian winter, are the first ever games in South America. Sure, there were the Games in Mexico City, Central America. But that was a lifetime ago, way back in 1968. Rio, an incredible amalgamation of New York and the Maldives, a place that combines the spirit of one of the world’s iconic cities with that of a holiday paradise, is bringing its very own, distinctive charm to this Olympics.

A lot has happened since the president’s ecstatic proclamation; both he and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, have been embroiled in scandal. However, this in no way lessens their historic achievement of helping 40 million poor Brazilians to escape poverty and rise up into the middle classes. The last major sporting event in Brazil, the World Football Championships two years ago, gave the country a much-needed boost in the form of a grassroots movement for better education and hospitals. The championships were an unprecedented success – with the exception of the host nation’s bitter 7:1 defeat by the later World Champion, Germany, which saw them leave the tournament in the semi-finals. The anticipated chaos failed to materialize. Quite the opposite: many Germans found it easier and less stressful to change flights at a Brazilian airport than back at home. The only small speck of criticism in this morale and image-boosting event was the condemnation of building vastly expensive stadiums in cities like Manaus, in the middle of the rainforest, where football is, at best, a marginal sport.

For the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, sports centers will become schools

Joaquim Carvalho, assistant of the mayor

Those responsible for planning the Olympic Games, which are largely taking place in Rio de Janeiro, have learned from past mistakes. The city’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, promised: “We are not going to build white elephants”. His magic charm is the “public-private partnership”. The Olympic Park is the venue for 16 disciplines, including tennis and watersports. “We are not wasting the taxpayers’ money on buildings here,” proclaimed Joaquim Carvalho, an assistant of the mayor, during a tour of the building site. “Everything is being paid for by private investors who then recoup their costs when the complexes are used.”

So how do ordinary Brazilians benefit? “After the Games this will be turned into a public park that is open to everyone,” explained Carvalho, “and the investors must pledge to hand over some of the buildings to the city so that they can be turned into schools. For the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, sports centers will become schools.” Thanks to the Olympic Games, Rio is experiencing an unprecedented construction boom. In the long run most of what is being built will actually improve the lives of the Cariocas – as the people of Rio call themselves. At long last, the underground network is being extended and 16 kilometers of new lines are being built. “300 000 people will use this new underground line,” said Rio’s deputy transport secretary, Bernardo Carvalho, “and every day there will be 2000 fewer cars on the streets.” At Rio-Galeão international airport (GIG) a new 100 000-square-meter terminal with 26 new aircraft parking positions went up in only 20 months.

But something else is also changing, something far more fundamental. Kenneth Maxwell, an expert on Brazil at the University of Harvard, describes it thus: “Ever since the conquerors landed in Brazil, the state has had only one function: to develop mechanisms allowing those in power to build their personal fortune.” For centuries, Brazil has been shaped by wealth and ignorance on one side, and passivity on the other. Now, Brazilians want to change their country and this has triggered a public and often very voluble debate. Visitors to the Olympics won’t be able to overhear it – and experience it as an aspect of a dynamic country in motion.