By Ronak Pol
The Olympics is the epitome of sport. It is the highlight of many sporting careers, a place where history is made. But it has also been part of a sizable share of controversies. Over the years, host nations have faced political demonstrations (Mexico City 1968), a hostage crisis (Munich 1972), financing issues (Montreal 1976), a bombing (Atlanta 1996), and most recently, pollution problems (Beijing 2008). Therefore, there is no reason why the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro should be any different.
Year after year, we hear of athlete doping scandals and political debates surrounding financing the games. However, athletes still prepare all their lives to obtain a spot on the national team that is sent to the games. Every athlete that competes has their name engraved in sporting history.
It is, however, important to realize that games of this magnitude are all about politics; they are about having an opportunity to change a country.
China used these games to change how the world looked at them – it went from a developing superpower with ambiguity regarding human rights and transparency issues, to a country that was viewed as a modern global giant with enormous infrastructure capabilities and sporting talent.
This article will focus primarily on the Rio Olympic Games, looking at the political tension that is building in the country of Brazil, the current state of infrastructure for the games, and also look at other nations that have hosted these games. If history is any indicator of what the future holds, we can use these as a case study to understand what problems lie ahead for Rio and the Brazilian people.
Just two years ago, Rio was at the centre of global attention because of protests against the Football World Cup. Back then, Brazilians were fighting against the high cost of stadiums, corruption, police brutality, and involuntary eviction of citizens from their homes. Time has passed, but the scenario has not changed much. While the country prepares itself to host the Olympic Games, political turmoil and the infrastructure race still plagues Brazil, which is also dealing with concerns regarding the Zika virus.
The problems in Brazil can be divided into five major concerns:
- Political and economic instability
- Infrastructure problems and security Issues
- Zika concerns
- Water pollution
- Ticket sale and local problems
The possible exclusion of the Russian Olympic team due to drug abuse has been ignored, which will also create its own share of problems and controversies.
Political and Economic Instability
Brazilians find themselves in a dire political and economic state as of now. With impeachment threatening their president and a corruption scandal that has most of their prominent politicians on the stand, the country is facing one of its worst political crises. This is in no way helped by the economic scenario of the country – the country’s GDP fell by over 3.7% in 2015, and the outlook for 2016 is grim. With unemployment levels reaching an all-time high and budget deficit exceeding 10% of GDP, the economic situation is deteriorating rapidly. Declining oil prices have hit the country and Brazil is now undergoing its worst recession since the 1930s.
Infrastructure Problems and Security Issues
Brazil would not be the first nation to host the Olympics and struggle financially. The famous Montreal Olympics, with its leaning tower and retractable roof (which did not work during the opening ceremony), were called ‘The Bankrupt Olympics’. The Olympic debt of the country was $1.48 billion in the year 1976. So financial mismanagement and the Olympics have always gone hand in hand.
Carlos Nuzman, the president of the organising committee in Rio promises to deliver “spectacular games” — which I do not question. The question is, what will be the most memorable thing about this gaming carnival? With an incomplete stadium, collapsing infrastructure, and serious transportation setbacks, we can definitely expect “spectacular games”.
The elevated cycling path which collapsed cost them £8m and the critical metro extension is still incomplete.
For Olympians travelling to Rio, their safety and security is also questioned. With athletes being robbed at gunpoint to orchestrated attacks on hospitals, the city administration is showing incompetence in keeping both its citizens and incoming athletes safe. In a bid to pay for the Olympics, the city has failed to pay its public workers (including the police) who have now organised peaceful demonstrations voicing their problems.
Rising crimes can also be attributed to the deteriorating economic condition of Brazil. Citizens who are now surviving on the bare minimum have either taken to the streets peacefully in the form of demonstrations or have decided to take more drastic measures. In the end, the question that persists is whether the Olympic Games are worth all the money that is being spent on them; money which could be used alternatively to construct sustainable infrastructure for the country and address its debt issues.
The sudden outbreak of the Zika virus has been declared as a global health emergency by the WHO. With nearly 1.5 million people affected, Brazilians have found themselves at the centre of yet another global crisis. To make matters worse, there is no known vaccination available.
This mosquito-borne disease can cause significant brain damage to the development of an unborn child. Newborns who are affected by this disease suffer from what is known as microcephaly, where the child has a smaller head relative to the body. Athletes have been issued guidelines on precautionary measures. Pregnant women are strongly advised against travelling for the games.
The International Olympic Committee and the organisers have maintained a stand that the Olympics will not be affected by Zika, but have asked athletes to take the necessary precautionary measures.
Water bodies where certain events are scheduled to take place have been found to be infected by drug-resistant ‘super bacteria’. This heightens the concerns about sewage infected water bodies being unsafe. This ‘super bacteria’ can cause hard-to-treat urinary, gastrointestinal, pulmonary and bloodstream infections, along with meningitis. Studies have shown that these bacteria contribute to the death of up to half of their infected patients. Studies have found that five of Rio’s showcase beaches are infected by ‘super bacteria’, which is a serious concern even for tourists that plan to visit Brazil.
The organisers have issued a statement assuring that all water bodies will be free of the bacteria before August 5th.
Ticket Sale and Local Problems
All the aforementioned problems are bound to negatively affect ticket sales. Brazilian locals have shown strong opposition towards the games, but the protests are more subdued than those during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Ticket sales for the Paralympics have barely taken off while there are over 2 million unsold Olympic tickets. During the London Olympics, 11 million of 11.3 million tickets were sold.
Companies are now coming up with highly subsidised packages, as hotels do not want their rooms to go empty. This might be bad news for the organisers but is very good news for hopeful Olympic attendees.
What Happens When the Torch Goes out
Countries pay huge bills to host the Olympics, building massive infrastructure that if not maintained well can be the symbol of a nation’s failed economic management. In the past, things have gone both ways for host cities. We have success stories like Barcelona (1992) and London (2012), and unprecedented failures like the 2004 games in Athens. One of the biggest mistakes an Olympic host nation can make is to plan for the games, and not focus on developing a business plan for the future. A substantial amount of revenue can be generated if the legacy of the games is kept alive.
The future for Rio lies in the specifics of both these stories.
Barcelona used the Olympics to revitalise its run-down waterfront industrial properties, building appropriate infrastructure that focused on a more inclusive approach. This has helped to reconnect the city with its beautiful waterfront and now tourists flock to its beaches. They have struck the balance between maintaining the sporting heritage and finding ways to keep their stadiums alive while promoting tourism focused around these massive properties. The London Legacy Development Corporation has said that future of all eight of their stadiums is secure – by using them as concert halls and making them a more inclusive part of the society through cafes and fitness studios. This goes to show how long simple inclusive management can go in making post-game stories a success.
On the other side of the scale is the city of Athens, host of the 2004 games. Soon after the games, the city ran into massive debt and has been struggling financially ever since. These stadiums have become symbols of lack of government foresight and inadequate financial management. Most of them are abandoned sites with graffiti covering the walls.
What lies ahead for Brazil in the current circumstances is evident. But the country has the power to change this if it so wishes.
The Olympics can be the platform that is used to fix Rio’s problems, even though only a tectonic shift in individual moral and serious government effort will make this happen.
If pulled off successfully, Rio has the potential to give us a spectacle for all the right reasons.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published on the author’s blog, EconPolitics.
Ronak Pol is a student of Economics and Finance at University of London International Programmes. He has previously worked as a research intern with EAC and has worked on analysing the trade and investment between India and China. He currently works as an editor with the blog EconPolitics. Ronak describes himself as an Economics enthusiast who wants to learn and grow as the world moves ahead with each passing day.