The Olympics of our Discontent

Will Rio be able to pull itself together at the last minute, or will the Olympics be a train wreck?

First there was excitement. Then, as the event approached, increasing levels of apprehension. The work wasn’t getting done on time. There was widespread unrest and street protests at the expense of all of it. At the last minute, sheer panic. And yet, when the time came, Brazil muddled through the 2014 World Cup, without major incident (disappointing opening ceremonies, own goals, and 7-1 losses notwithstanding). Likewise, many are hoping that the upcoming Rio Olympics, due to start in just a few days, will turn out in much the same way.

Sadly, the situation in Brazil has deteriorated dramatically since the World Cup. The beginnings of a recession have turned into the greatest economic downturn in 100 years, if not ever. The spontaneous protests that first erupted over the expense of the World Cup turned into the biggest popular demonstrations since the end of the military dictatorship. Brazilians have protested not only the extravagant expenditures for the World Cup and Olympics, but also the greatest corruption scandal in the history of the country (and, possibly, the worst discovered in any democracy ever) over multi-billion dollar graft at state-run oil company Petrobras. The first stirrings of political turmoil have led to the suspension of the president, Dilma Rousseff. Her impeachment trial could wrap up during the Olympic Games, with the potential for additional protests and unrest. All of this, of course, is in addition to the many problems that have plagued the city of Rio de Janeiro for decades. Taking all of these factors into consideration, it becomes much harder to remain optimistic that, despite all the obstacles, the city will manage to pull off a great Olympics.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Rio is in many ways a microcosm of Brazil. It boasts a stunning landscape, beautiful beaches, warm and friendly people, a culture of music and celebration. It is at once historically significant, as the country’s former capital, and, as the base of the country’s oil industry, central to Brazil’s future.

And also, it has an epically corrupt government and business leaders, a brutal and abusive police force, levels of violent crime that rival a war zone, and generalized impunity for all of the above due to a culture that celebrates the lovable trickster over the nerdy honest guy. Systemic structural racism remains a legacy of slavery, causing discrimination and the disproportional incarceration and killing of young black men. Sexism and machismo lead to appalling levels of violence against women. The city has embarrassingly inadequate infrastructure, environmental degradation, vast social and economic inequality, and poor public health and education. All of this strangles development and results in a very poor quality of life for most of the city’s residents, with few opportunities for social mobility.

The result is a chronically underdeveloped and unjust society in a place that has always been bursting with potential, largely due to corruption, neglect and mismanagement. The greatest defining characteristic of Rio, and of Brazil as a whole, then, may well be the tragic real life consequences of incompetence and bad faith on the part of short-sighted and self-interested leaders.

All things considered, it seems hardly an appropriate location for the Olympics. However, the final characteristic that defines both Rio’s and Brazil’s leaders more generally is a stunning lack of self-awareness. This prevented the country’s problems from dampening political ambitions to give Brazil a prominent role on the world stage. The decision to host not only the World Cup but also the Olympics within two years of each other is symptomatic of this.

In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have thought this would be a good idea. Now, during twin political and economic crises, the task of saving the Games falls to the people involved in the event: the employees, volunteers, athletes and spectators. Will they be able to make the best of the situation? Will they pull together at the last minute, to prevent a disaster? In any case, it is clear that for these Olympics, everybody will need to lower their expectations and change their definitions of success.

A Violent City

Much has already been written about the reasons Rio is not an appropriate host city: Of these, perhaps the most important is that the city is dangerous. When even savvy locals are constantly at risk of getting mugged or robbed, it is easy to become terrified by what could happen to a bunch of less informed tourists. This is probably the number one concern that people have about the Rio Olympics: Will travelers be safe or will violence and crime mar the Olympic experience?

It is true that much of the violent crime is concentrated in areas of the city where tourists are unlikely to venture. There are often reports of gunfights in such places, be they between rival drug gangs or between narcos and the police. Still, such incidents do, on rare occasions, spill over into other parts of the city.

Much greater is the threat of petty crime, with incidents of street muggings rising by 43% this year. In Rio, such crimes can quickly turn violent. All too often, pickpockets are replaced by are armed assailants. There are “arrastões,” in which masses of criminals descend on a single location with captive targets, be it a beach, a traffic-jammed street or a restaurant, and steal everyone’s wallets, phones, jewelry, and other valuables in one terrifying wave. Many are worried that the flood of international tourists will prove a tempting target for the city’s thieves.

Indeed, several international athletes and journalists have already been victims of muggings. An entire truck carrying the equipment of German television broadcasters was hijacked.

Rio has responded to these threats by bringing in some 85,000 additional security forces, from police officers to the military. And yet, before the Games have even begun, there have already been problems with these reinforcements. The people on guard at the Olympic media center tried to steal a bunch of laptops. A New Zealand jiu jitsu fighter was kidnapped by people in police uniforms and forced to withdraw money from an ATM at gunpoint. Given these examples, it is not unreasonable to question whether the additional security will be sufficient to keep visitors safe.

In addition to worries about whether guards are acting in good faith, there are also worries about their competence. The security screeners for the Olympic venues were hired alarmingly last-minute, just a few weeks out as opposed to up to a year out in previous games, and generally lack experience and training. Fighter jets conducting a training exercise in preparation for the Games recently collided, crashing into the sea just off the shore of the city.  Neither of these facts is very reassuring. Recent threats of terrorism at the Games have only exacerbated fears.

To make matters worse, the state of Rio is in a fiscal crisis that has resulted in delays in paying police salaries. Police officers have protested at Rio’s airport, greeting arriving passengers with signs in English saying “Welcome to Hell” and “Police and firefighters don’t get paid, anyone who comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.”

Considering all of this, as half a million foreigners descend on the city at once, there is much fear about what could go wrong, and rightfully so. One can’t help but reach the conclusion that the Games should never have been awarded to Rio.

What Legacy?

Even during Brazil's economic boom year, there were no illusions that awarding the Games to Rio meant hosting the event in a third-world city. In fact, that was the whole point: The Olympics were supposed to serve as a catalyst, an excuse to quickly address many of the city's longstanding problems. Touted benefits included cleaning up the city’s waterways as well as expanding public transport and building more housing.

As the games approach, it is clear that in all of these aspects, the Olympics have not even come close to delivering on their promises.

The money spent to clean up the Bay has clearly been a total waste (no pun intended). The city’s waters remain filthy, dealing with the dual problems of industrial pollution from the oil industry and the lack of adequate sanitation infrastructure, which leads to the dumping of at least half the city's sewage, untreated, into the bay. It seems that even in areas where there are sewage treatment plants, public money ends up being used to line administrators’ pockets and sewage is dumped untreated into the sea anyway. This is obviously a long-term challenge for the city’s residents, but also poses health and safety hazards for athletes that have to compete in these waters, whether they get sick from the bacteria, viruses and industrial pollutants present in the water or collide with floating debris.

The public transport lines that were built between the venues will barely be ready in time for the Games and are located in places where they will not end up serving most of the city’s population.

Aside from being expensive, these projects have been characterized by poor quality and shoddy construction. A recently inaugurated tram line broke down a few days after going into operation, a new highway is already riddled with potholes, and a sea-side elevated bike path collapsed when hit by large waves, killing two people. It seems the builders failed to take into account that the path could be occasionally hit by high waves, failing to reinforce it accordingly.

The promised housing has also failed to come to materialize. Although the city razed poor communities and dislocated residents to make space for the works, it largely constructed “luxury” apartments in the Olympic Village, rather than much needed quality affordable housing. These too, have been plagued by delays and issues of shoddy construction. Indeed, many complaints have already been levied by athletes of dangerous and unsanitary conditions in these apartments, including exposed wiring, leaking pipes, and blocked toilets. Now, given their highly publicized issues and the crippling recession, it is unclear whether there will be a market for these so-called luxurious dwellings. Pre-sales have so far been disappointing.

All in all, it seems that the billions of public funds spent on the events have been concentrated in wealthier areas of the city and will have few tangible long-term benefits for the city’s poorer residents. The worst part, and the reason so many have protested the Games, is that this money could have been spent elsewhere. Poor public schools and health facilities have long been a problem in Brazil, and the recession has only exacerbated this due to funding cuts, even while money was still flowing into the Olympic projects. Now, due to national and state-level fiscal crises, Rio’s hospitals are in such dire financial straits that many lack supplies or are shuttered altogether, leaving the few in operation to be overcrowded, with patients residing in hallways and waiting months for treatment. A recent “Rio 2016 Survival Guide” posted by a Brazilian comedian warns visitors, “Do not even think about getting sick in Rio. Please don’t forget this for the love of God!”

Even worse, many of the same companies involved in the Petrobras scandal were engaged in the Olympic construction projects, leading to widespread fears that here, too, large amounts of public funds were diverted to corruption. 

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Rio is not the first Olympics to deal with problems of poor planning and delays, nor is it the first held in a developing country. Still, never before have so many negative factors converged in one place. There is good reason to be nervous. 

It is also true that most travelers who take some reasonable precautions end up having a great time in Rio, and this will probably be the case for most Olympic spectators.

There will surely be more hiccups, facilities problems and general disorganization, but hopefully these will turn out to be minor stresses in the grand scheme of the Olympic experience.

The best outcome is one in which Rio puts together a respectable showing, and that the little problems along the way are overshadowed by the triumphs of the athletes. But the most important thing is that the IOC learns from the Rio experience. The way in which Olympics host cities are chosen must change so that this mess doesn't happen again somewhere else.