Rio 2016: A successful Olympic dream amidst crises

By Maria Paula Carvalho, RFI Brazilian service
Europe   REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes
© REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

The crowd cheered loudly on Copacabana beach when Rio de Janeiro was announced as the host city for the 2016 Olympic Games. For the first time, a city in South America would host the biggest sporting competition on the planet. The "Marvellous City", located between the sea and the forest, had seven years to become an Olympic metropolis.

"[Organizing] an Olympics is like a war operation," Leonardo Espíndola, a Rio de Janeiro prosecutor who, in 2016, was the state's representative on the Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, said

"Holding more than 50 competitions simultaneously in the same city, accommodating, feeding and transporting all these athletes and the population to the Games at the same time, there is no precedent for operations of this complexity. It's a very intense 16 days," he says.

Competing with heavyweights such as Chicago (United States), Madrid (Spain) and Tokyo (Japan), cities that are more developed and ready, Rio de Janeiro was betting on the opportunity for transformation to seduce the IOC and the judges.  

"Compared to cities in developed countries, there's no doubt that Rio de Janeiro had fewer resources and less structure. But for Rio, the Olympic Games would be an opportunity to make a difference. They could serve the city. So that was the strongest argument for bringing them to Rio,"  Espíndola added.

A political, financial and health crisis     

While Rio de Janeiro was preparing to welcome athletes from every continent, Brazil was in political turmoil. A nation in crisis, anti-government demonstrations and the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff characterised the months preceding the Games.

"When Brazil was chosen to organise the Games, we were in a good political situation. When it came time to host them, the country was going through a very confusing and turbulent period," explains sociologist Ronaldo Helal, a professor at the University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ).

Unique in the history of the Olympic Games, Brazil had two heads of state. The incumbent president, Michel Temer, and President Dilma Rousseff, who had been suspended until an impeachment process had concluded.

"Of course, this is unprecedented in the history of the Olympic Games. Brazil, which hosted world sport, had two heads of state. The one who appeared to Brazil and the world was the acting president, Michel Temer, while president Dilma Rousseff was undergoing an impeachment process. "Of course, it had a huge impact on the organisation, on the dialogue between the actors working there. It was very worrying," says Leonardo Espíndola, a prosecutor from Rio de Janeiro. 

According to Mário Andrada, Communications Director for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the government transition following Dilma Rousseff's impeachment was not as complex as one might imagine.

"The new government of President Michel Temer made a smooth transition. What complicated things for the Games and the Organising Committee was the financial issues," he explained, as there was a delay in the transfer of public funds.

"So we were under a lot of pressure for the Paralympic Games. The budget was impacted, but the government reacted immediately with funds from public banks, which allowed us to organise exceptional Paralympic Games."

New budget
With an upwardly revised budget of more than €7.21 billion, in an unstable political and economic context, the financial equation was an immense challenge.

"Was all the promised money sent? No. There was a bit of a shortfall and, in the end, the organisation of the Games created some debts, some of which are still being negotiated today," admits Mário Andrada. 

If things were complicated at national level, the state of Rio de Janeiro was also suffering from serious internal problems.

"Rio de Janeiro was going through a very serious financial crisis. Police and firefighters threatened to go on strike, jeopardising the security of the Olympic Games, which had wide international repercussions," adds Espíndola. 

The Zika virus
In addition to the difficult political and economic context, there was an unprecedented health crisis, notably the Zika virus.

The Zika virus, transmitted by a mosquito, could cause neurological complications, especially for newborn babies. The situation was so worrying that a group of 152 scientific experts sent an open letter to the WHO asking for the Games to be postponed.

This combination of problems had an impact on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as Thierry Terret, a sports historian specialising in the Olympic Games, recalls

."These Games, which are taking place against a backdrop of economic crisis and political instability, also had to contend with a health crisis, since a few months earlier Brazil was hit by a Zika epidemic that affected 1.5 million people in Brazil," notes the historian.

"A crisis that was widely publicised in the media all over the world, creating widespread anguish among potential spectators and athletes, with dozens of them finally giving up on going to Rio for fear of being contaminated and contaminating their families," he points out.

"Zika fever, as we know, is extremely harmful to women who suffer from it, especially when they are pregnant," adds Terret.

He points out that in this context of uncertainty, the innovations presented by the IOC at the time went unnoticed.

“Due to these vast political, economic and health uncertainties, the IOC's geopolitical innovations have gone unnoticed. And that's a shame, because they were very positive.

"I'll mention just one: the Olympic team of refugee athletes present in Rio for the first time in the history of the Games. Made up of a handful of Sudanese, Ethiopians, Syrians and Congolese, it attests to the Olympic authorities' recognition of an extremely special political and humanitarian situation," he concludes.     

A new metro line and the redevelopment of the port area, among other improvements, are also among the main legacies of the Rio-2016 Olympic Games. The event brought important revitalisations to the city that had been postponed for decades. 

"In terms of legacy, we managed to carry out the biggest urban infrastructure project in Latin America [at the time], which was line 4 of the metro. There's no doubt that the line linking the South Zone to the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for the Olympics,"  Espíndola said, 

"At 16 kilometres long, it was the largest metro line and metro expansion that Rio has ever seen. It transports residents of Barra da Tijuca and the Rocinha favela, one of the largest in Latin America," he emphasised. However, other stations planned were never finalised. 

The construction of the Olympic Boulevard, a link between the Port Zone and the city centre, gave new life to an area that had previously been degraded. During Rio 2016, this was a meeting point for fans and tourists.

The area, which had been run-down is now part of the tourist route and has become a leisure area for the population, which in addition to the beautiful view of Guanabara Bay, has museums, event spaces, an aquarium and a Ferris wheel.

Allegations of corruption   
However, the other legacy is the suspicion that there may have been some form of corruption involved.

"From the point of view of the Organising Committee, which is responsible for putting on the Olympic spectacle, overseeing the construction of the facilities and organising the Games, it is more than proven that there was no corruption," said Mario de Andrada.

"The figures, purchases and expenses have been checked and there are no problems," explains the Games' communications director.

However, a judicial investigation is underway in Brazil into possible vote-buying in favour of Rio. "This is the main suspicion and the only investigation into corruption and unethical procedures. The management of the Games was correct and we are calm about that," Andrada insists. 

Hosting the Olympics can boost a city's development, but a bold infrastructure plan like this requires supervision, notes Professor Orlando Santos, from the Institute for Urban and Regional Planning and Research at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

"Corruption is the consequence of exceptional laws legitimised by an exceptional event. The hiring of subcontractors and numerous procedures facilitated acts of corruption. This has been negative for Brazilian public management," he concludes. 

A showcase for city and the country
For a fortnight in Brazil, top athletes represented the best that sport has to offer: excellence, empathy, solidarity and joy. Values symbolised by the Olympic flame, which set the public's heart on fire, just like the "lightning man" Usain Bolt.

The Jamaican athlete went down in sporting history not just as the world record holder in the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay. After winning gold in all three events at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics, Bolt completed the "triple crown" in Rio de Janeiro, becoming the first to win the gold medal in all three events at three Olympic Games. And the fact that he did it in three consecutive Games makes the achievement even more commendable. 

"The Olympic Games touch people, they celebrate unity and solidarity between peoples. This is an intangible heritage that Rio de Janeiro has benefited from," Espíndola said, 

"This Olympic flame, which travelled through various cities in Brazil and around the world, symbolises this Olympic spirit that we must keep alive. Of course there's a huge commercial operation behind the Games, but that feeling, that purity is something that can't be lost," he concludes.  

"It was probably the best 30 days in the history of Rio de Janeiro," says Mário Andrada, Communications Director for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. "Those who were here during the Games won't forget it, and neither will we."