Here’s Everything You Need To Know About Rio’s Ongoing Olympics Nightmare

Photo by Mario Tama

Along with the 2014 World Cup, the Rio de Janeiro Olympics were supposed to be the culmination of Brazil’s confident emergence onto the world stage – two glittering, if superficial symbols, neatly packaged for an international audience, of a far deeper process of economic growth and massive societal change that saw millions escape poverty through far-reaching social programs.

“Today, we have achieved international citizenship. We’ve smashed the last prejudice…some people treated our country like it was second class. They said that we have favelas and poor children and that we can’t host the Olympics,” crowed jubilant then-President Lula when Rio was announced as host in 2009.

Instead, the Olympics have become a symbol not of Brazil’s growth and modernization, but of all that has not come to pass in the country. Rather than a glorious celebration of ordem e progresso (the breezy and often optimistic slogan on the Brazilian flag), the best that Olympic organizers can hope for is that the Games pass off smoothly. Brazilians, meanwhile, have far more important things to worry about than who will take gold in the dressage competition.

Such as: the grim farce of the current political scene, which has seen president Dilma Rousseff suspended while the impeachment process against her grinds its way through the Senate, while her stand-in, Michel Temer, sits on approval ratings that barely creep out of single figures.

Meanwhile, the toxic culture of institutionalized corruption unveiled by the Operation Car Wash investigation, which revealed a vast bribery scheme at state-run oil company Petrobras, has implicated dozens of business leaders, politicians and political parties.

Then there is the economy, which has gone from the buoyant growth of the Lula era to spiraling decline, with the current recession forecast to be the worst in the country’s history.

The Olympics have become a symbol of all that has not come to pass in Brazil.

If it’s hard to join the dots between Brazil’s woes as a nation and the Olympics, at the local level the link is much more apparent.

Just two weeks ago, the Rio de Janeiro state government decreed an official “state of calamity” as the region plunges deeper into economic crisis, saying that it feared a “total collapse of public security, health, education, mobility and environmental management.”

As the gleaming Olympic arenas prepare to open their doors to hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors, the state’s financial meltdown is having a devastating effect on all aspects of the lives of ordinary Cariocas.

A number of schools across the region were recently occupied by students protesting cutbacks and shoddy infrastructure, such as leaking roofs or a lack of lighting in school buildings, while hospitals have been forced to close departments and cancel surgeries.

The city morgue, meanwhile, briefly refused to take in new corpses after technicians downed tools, citing insalubrious working conditions after the cleaning and sanitation contractors at the unit were let go. Hundreds of thousands of public workers have been paid late or not at all.

Rio de Janeiro financial secretary Julio Bueno said recently that the state government expected to post a $5.6 billion deficit in 2016.

If it’s hard to join the dots between Brazil’s woes as a nation and the Olympics, at the local level the link is much more apparent.

Though the Olympic budget is divided amongst city and state government coffers, many argue that the burden of hosting the Games has played a part in the economic crisis – at the expense of ordinary people.

“Budgets are ethical documents. When a government decides to slice budgets for healthcare, education, and social services, they are putting forth a certain version of morality. Similarly, when a government ensures that the Olympic budget must be maintained, even if that means deploying state-of-emergency workarounds to circumvent the democratic process, elected officials are sending a clear message about who matters and who doesn’t,” Jules Boykoff, author of a number of books on the Olympics and the effects of hosting mega-events, including Power Games – A Political History of the Olympics, told Remezcla.

And serious concerns – from both an Olympic and an everyday perspective – remain about Rio’s dizzying levels of urban crime, particularly given the announcement in March that $500 million was to be cut from the state’s security budget.

According to the Institute of Public Security, there are 16 murders a day in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and stories of shocking accounts of urban violence are commonplace – including a bourgeoning epidemic of anti-LGBT violence.

Last month one person died and two were injured in a shoot-out in the Souza Aguiar Hospital in the center of the city after a group of 25 men from one of the city’s drug trafficking gangs, armed with machine guns and explosives, invaded the building to rescue a gang leader who was being held by police.

Brazil and Rio have also attracted negative headlines in recent months over the Zika virus outbreak, with a group of 200 academics and experts even calling for the Olympics to be cancelled due to the risk of spreading the disease and causing a worldwide pandemic. A number of leading golfers, including former World No.1 Rory McIlroy, have recently dropped out of the Games, citing fears over the virus.

Mayor Eduardo Paes has used Rio’s problems to argue that his city was the ideal choice to host the Games, saying this week that the process of “elitization” that the Olympic movement had undergone in recent years was being reversed in Rio, because of the problems that the “city and the country are experiencing” and arguing that the Olympics represent a great opportunity to transform Rio.

“We’re asking people not to come expecting Chicago, New York or London. Compare Rio with Rio.”

“We’re asking people not to come expecting Chicago, New York or London. Compare Rio with Rio,” he said.

Yet while significant improvements have been made to the city’s public transport network, including new BRT lines and a metro extension, the news this week that Rio had failed to comply with any of its environmental promises for the Games – including the cleaning up of Guanabara Bay and the Jacarepaguá Lagoon, and tree planting – brought back memories of the broken legacy promises of the 2014 World Cup.

According to the National Association of Urban Transport Companies, only 18% of 125 urban mobility projects promised for that tournament are currently in operation – two years after the final ball was kicked.

Like most mega events, the Olympics themselves will undoubtedly be a sporting success, and the vast majority of tourists visiting Brazil will have a splendid time. Yet as Brazil and Rio suffers through economic and political turmoil, it is hard to escape the view that much of the time, money and effort spent on the Games, like the World Cup before them, could have been better invested elsewhere – particularly given the difficulties currently faced by millions of ordinary Brazilians, Cariocas or otherwise, in their daily lives.

“Spending billions on the Olympics while everyday Cariocas are being asked to suck it up and make do is not merely a matter of bad optics. It’s a brutal sort of selective morality where real people suffer consequences,” said Olympic expert Jules Boykoff.