The 2016 Olympics begin on August 6th in Rio de Janeiro. Yet in recent weeks claims that they should be scuttled abound. Allegations that Rio isn’t ready to host the world’s premier athletic event continue. Rio’s image is tarnished by a polluted Guanabara Bay where marine events will take place; by the mosquito born Zica virus which has frightened athletes and international spectators from going to the world’s most beautiful city, and violence due to endemic poverty.

In recent months, political stability has teetered in Brazil as second term President Dilma Rousseff was removed from office and awaits impeachment proceedings conveniently timed for the Olympics. For those who remember events leading up the 2014 World Cup hosted by Brazil, there were widespread protests. Not because Brazilians don’t love soccer, which they long ago named“ the beautiful game”.   Instead they were protesting exorbitant spending on stadiums rather than schools, clinics, streets, sanitation and low income housing needed by millions of Brazilians who lack access to these services. This pattern has continued with the 2016 Olympics.

The scenario could hardly be more alarming. How could the country of Carnival, soccer, tropical beaches and dental floss bikinis have become so discredited among its own people?

While the 2016 Olympics—or the 2014 World Cup—can hardly be held responsible for the mega problems facing Brazil today. Nevertheless, they have contributed.

This isn’t the first time that issues like these have emerged. Charges of corruption were levied against the Winter Olympics in Sochi (2014); the Summer Olympics held in Beijing and have been raised again with respect the Tokyo Games in 2020. . We the global spectators, should ask whether or not these events need to be re-imagined and cleaned up.   Re-imagining the Olympics as an opportunity to attenuate poverty in a middle income yet highly unequal country such a Brazil should be as much a priority as promoting global understanding through world class athletics.

How might the events leading up to Rio, 2016, have unfolded differently? First, the criteria for selecting a host nation need to be reviewed. If broad based economic impact were a top priority, the corruption associated with host selection might be diminished. Brazil, in most ways, met such a criterion when the country was awarded the 2016 Games. Important poverty alleviation programs underway since the mid-nineteen nineties combined with a growing economy were chipping away at poverty and growing the country’s middle class. One such program, the Family Scholarship (Bolsa Familia) is estimated to account for between 21 and 16 per cent of the total fall in Brazil since 2001. Overall the poverty gap and the severity of poverty feel by 18 percent and 21 percent respectively.

Another criterion for Olympic hosting might be democratic governance. In 2010 when Brazil was awarded the 2016 Games, the country was well along this path. Having endured a military government from 1964 to 1985, Brazil limped towards democratic government in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected president in 2004, the Brazil’s political system began to stabilize. Cardoso, an eminent sociologist, stressed political compromise, multiparty coalitions and the smooth transition of power from one elected political regime to another.

Just such a transition from eight years of leadership by Cardoso and his party (the Brazilian Social Democratic Party/PSDB) took place in 2003 when Ignacio “Lula” da Silva, labor leader and founding member of the Worker’s Party was elected president in late 2002. Lula, extremely popular and in many ways a classic populist political leader, promoted and expanded social and economic programs, initially piloted by the Cardoso administration. But then his government ran into the muck of corruption.

Corruption is not new to Brazil. In many ways it was endemic during hundred years of Portuguese colonial administration, whereby the Portuguese crown always got its share of any economic activity taking place in their colony by exacting a 20% tax called the “quinto”. People living in the colony clearly resented this taxation and found their individual ways of getting a share before the Crown exacted the tax. This became widely known as the cost of doing business in Brazil.

When it comes to international athletic events bar is very high. The cost of getting the award can be very expensive and involve payouts and kickbacks. Once secured these expenses associated with constructing the facilities required for a premier event like the Olympics or the World Cup add up at meteoric speed. The general consensus that the cost of hosting Olympic Games, summer or winter, averages $50 billion.

Corruption scandals emerged in Brazil during the construction phase preceding the 2014 World Cup when soccer stadiums around the country had to be either built from scratch or extensively remodeled. As the charges of corruption became public, demonstrations spread across the country with slogans like “Schools not Stadiums”.

The perfect storm began to gather in 2013 as the World Cup corruption along with other scandals became widely known. Congressional vote buying by members of the Worker’s Party became flagrant in the increasing fractured political system which had developed since 1995. There are currently twenty eight political parties represented in Brazil’s congress which makes it near impossible to gather even a simple majority to pass legislation. Combined with the slow down of Brazil’s economy beginning in 2012 when Brazil momentarily surpassed Great Britain as the world’s sixth largest economic power the storm bloomed into a hurricane.

The corruption scandals erupting late in the first term and during the beginning of second term, of President Rousseff were devastating.   She had neither Lula’s popular charisma nor Fernando Henrique’s vast public experience to weather these crises. Combined with the economic downturn of the country’s rapidly expanding economy, her mandate to govern floundered precipitously.

Brazil’s electorate, energized by nearly two decades of open political participation has been reacting in the streets for nearly three years. The press has spotlighted the entangled corruption between the country’s economic and political elite. Thus In the glare of international scrutiny of the coming Olympics, in early 2016 things began to fall apart .

Were the Olympics responsible? Definitely not. Did the glare of the Olympic spotlight aggravate and disclose endemic corruption in Brazil. Definitely yes!   Along with the World Cup, the Olympic Games amplified opportunities for corruption possibilities while the press became more vigilant about exposing them to Brazilian citizens and the world.

Rather than contributing to the aspirations of the Brazilian people for greater economic equality and political transparency, the Olympics have exposed rotten beams underpinning Brazil’s emergence as an economic giant. People around the world along with their leaders should be asking themselves where did we go wrong? And, what can we do to bring international events in line with global democratic values?

**************   July 29, 2016


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