There’s an old expression in Brazil: “it is for the English to see.” This means the country’s elites will construct, when necessary, a veneer for Global North outsiders. This veneer displays a more attractive version of Brazilian society than what actually exists. Northern tourists and investors have long been happy to enjoy the fantasy on display as long as they could extract their pleasures or profits, and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro could have been another chapter in this long history of facades for foreign consumption.
But with a dramatic set of crises breaking out across the country, the multibillion-dollar Olympic mirage that has been erected “for the English to see” is at risk of complete collapse. As we go to press, the acting governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Francisco Dornelles, has declared “a state of public calamity” over budget shortfalls that could cause a “total collapse in public security, health, education, transport, and environmental management.” Dornelles warned that without immediate aid, the ability simply to execute the Olympics will be in jeopardy. This is not something that can be brushed under the carpet, no matter how embroidered the rug may be with parrots and tropical colors.
It’s easy to rattle off bullet points about the problems besetting Rio: the 77,000 people displaced and counting; the 85,000 members of the security forces patrolling the streets (double the number for the 2012 London Olympics); the estimated $11.9 billion being spent while the Brazilian economy is in a state of violent contraction, which has led to crippling budget cuts in education, health care, and community services. It is also easy to list the political conflicts: There’s the May impeachment—what many are calling a coup—of President Dilma Rousseff of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (her presidency has been suspended while the trial proceeds in the Senate). And there’s the shocking level of graft, with a Congress in which 318 of 594 members are under investigation or facing corruption charges.
And then we have what seems to be the No. 1 global concern, what sportswriter Kostya Kennedy calls “the mosquito in the room”: the Zika virus. Zika infection numbers in the state of Rio are the highest in the country, with infection rates at 157 per 100,000 inhabitants. Couple this with an economic crisis that has seen the state of Rio’s public-health office reduce its budget by 30 percent since the beginning of 2015, and the athletic and tourist communities are in a state of panic. Star athletes like golfers Jason Day and Dustin Johnson and tennis players Milos Raonic and Simona Halep are saying they will not compete in the Olympics because of Zika fears. More than 150 doctors and professors signed a letter saying the games should be postponed or moved out of Rio to prevent the Olympics from transforming Zika into a global pandemic.