This week I travel to Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The purpose is to report on the last round in what has been a harrowing, exhausting decade-long battle between the people of Brazil and the demands of those utterly unaccountable, scandal-plagued sports bodies, FIFA and the IOC. Over that time, I’ve written countless articles and a book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, about how combustible this situation could be: hosting the World Cup and the Olympics, back to back with one city, Rio, as the epicenter for both events. This had never been done in history—let alone in the post-9/11 world—and would be a challenge for any country.
Putting these mega-events in Brazil, for those in the United States just now learning about the country, must seem like madness. The news is filled with stories of disease, filthy water, and possible terror fears aimed at Olympic venues. These breathless missives are also almost invariably framed in how these serious concerns would affect tourists.
It’s worth noting, however that today’s dystopic landscape was yesterday’s triumph. In 2008, Brazil’s ruling elite and many in the country as well, were not apprehensive but eager to host the World Cup and the Olympics. And why not? The economy was climbing, the ruling Workers’ Party told the people that hosting these events would be a method for attacking economic inequality, and the nation broadly was ready to announce to the world that they were players.
This was never about sports. This was about patriotism and power. This was about the ascension of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations on a sea of rising oil prices. This was about believing that a spot on the UN Security Council was within their grasp. And for the construction industry, this was about mega-profits. As Alex Cuadros wrote in The Atlantic, “Contracts for everything from stadium and train-line construction to port renovations have funneled billions of dollars in taxpayer-subsidized revenues to a handful of Brazil’s most powerful, well-connected families and their companies. This disconnect—between populist promise and the uneven benefits that followed—is emblematic of the failed Olympic ambition to remake Rio, and a slew of questionable priorities that have brought Brazil to its knees.”
It is a hell of a journey from that moment when Rio won the Olympics and Lula said:
Today I have felt prouder of being a Brazilian than on any other day. Today is the day that Brazil gained its international citizenship. Today is the day that we have overcome the last vestiges of prejudice against us. I think this is the day to celebrate because Brazil has left behind the level of second-class countries and entered the ranks of first class countries. Today we earned respect. The world has finally recognized that this is Brazil’s time.