The stories of inspiring athletic triumphs and heartbreaking defeat have stopped flooding your social network feeds.
The athletes have returned home. A small handful of them will turn their successes into lucrative endorsement deals. The rest will have to decide whether to toil away for four more years at sports that most people care nothing about or to hang it up and try to figure out what comes next.
After so much worry over whether Rio would be ready, the games went off with no dramatic failures on the part of the organizers – just like they did in Athens, the site of the exact same “will they/won’t they be ready” debate a dozen years before. Yes, there were bumps in Rio. The green pool. Concerning pollution levels in open water events. Complaints over the conditions in the athlete’s village. But the games always go on, and once again, in Rio, they did. Captivating the world, just like they do every four years, as we watch humans push the boundaries of what we as a species are physically capable, in sports we only partially acknowledge.
With skeptics watching, Rio delivered. But only days removed from literally passing the torch to Tokyo 2020, Rio 2016 is little more than a memory – for everyone, but the people of Brazil.
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Day 11 of the Rio Olympics 2016
The right to host the Olympic Games is sold to a city – or at least to its citizens – as an honor, a chance for their homeland to serve as the shining backdrop of sports’ greatest moments on the global stage. It is pitched as an economic surge, a tourism boost, an opportunity for urban revitalization and updated infrastructure. And it has to be, because it’s hard to believe that any city in the world would agree to the games if the International Olympic Committee pitched them as what they really are: a publicly subsidized event that comes in billions (with a B) of dollars over budget and that exploit (the vast majority of) participating athletes while providing a financial windfall for the IOC and a microscopic circle of those connected to the organization. In the case of Rio, that circle included a number of the political elites who fervently supported the city’s bid – and who divided millions of the dollars allocated for the event amongst themselves.
For two weeks, the Olympics portray a Disneyland-ified version of the host city. A picture perfect place where everyone is smiling and happy, where the streets are perfectly clean. Whether it was the gleeful volunteers on nearly every corner of the Athens in 2004, politely asking in perfect English if perhaps you needed directions before you even had time to reach for your map. Or the streets of Beijing in 2008, where if you looked behind the strategically placed billboards with brightly colored posters, you found them hiding the eyesores of empty lots or abandoned structures. Just like the “Happiest Place on Earth,” at the end of the day, the immaculately portrayed host city is a nothing more than facade. The reality is no such utopian metropolis exists.
Of course, Rio is far different from London coming out of the 2012 Games. London highlighted the Olympics as an opportunity to provide an economic boost and improve public spaces – and there’s no question parts of the city benefited from the spectacle. Whether 2012 delivered all it was promised, at best, that’s up for debate.
For a Rio – a city already struggling with inequality and violent crime – the negative impact of the Olympics cannot be ignored. Brazil entered the games amidst recession and political turmoil. (Let’s not forget that President Dilma Rousseff is currently suspended for fiscal wrongdoing.) The country’s economy was already in decline before the games, and the multi-billion dollar costs of hosting the event won’t help. Though the Athens Games are not solely responsible for Greece’s economic collapse less than a decade later, the debt incurred to host the Olympics played a role.
For Brazil, which also hosted the World Cup just two years ago, the mounting costs of both events are staggering. The World Cup cost the Brazilian taxpayers over $15 billion. The Olympics reportedly cost Brazil almost another $10 billion. That’s $25 billion – millions upon millions of which was spent on things like velodromes and canoe slalom courses – in a country where more than 20 percent of the population is living below the poverty line, with reports putting the number of those living in extreme poverty as high as 8.5 percent. One only needs to pass through Rio’s favelas to find that figure believable.
And tens of thousands of those impoverished families were displaced from their homes to make way for Olympic venues. Adding insult to injury, it is the nation’s wealthy who will continue to reap the vast majority of the benefits from hosting the games – if there truly are any. Now that the games are gone, the land that once housed those uprooted families is being developed into luxury apartments, affordable only to the rich. This will do nothing to decrease the disparity (nor the tension) between Rio’s haves and have-nots.
Rio ultimately met the demands that had been placed upon it as host on the 2016 Olympics – in the face of many detractors – and there is nothing wrong with that serving as a source of national pride. However, as the focus shifts away from the tremendous accomplishments recorded in the city’s athletic venues, one has to wonder was it worth it?
While the world has moved on from the Olympics in Rio, it will take much longer for Rio to move on from the Olympics.