By Stuart Grudgings
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Rio de Janeiro's hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics is an unprecedented chance to promote Brand Brazil and ensure a legacy of economic and social benefits, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Friday.
Despite budget overruns by recent Olympic host cities and criticism of the huge cost of major sporting events, Blair said hosting such massive events was still worth it for the cascade of social and economic benefits they can bring.
"It's a tremendous opportunity which is why people compete so fiercely to host the World Cup and the Olympics Games," Blair, who played a leading role in the successful London 2012 Olympic campaign, told the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Rio de Janeiro.
"You can use the Olympics as an economic platform to attract in a whole lot of different business and investment that surprisingly can go way beyond the sporting events."
Rio, which will host World Cup games in 2014 as well as the Olympics two years later, is planning a major infrastructure overhaul, including new bus expressways that should have a lasting impact on transport in the beachside city.
Brazil needs to think beyond infrastructure and focus on using the global sports events to build its international brand, as Barcelona did so successfully in the 1992 Olympics, participants in a panel discussion with Blair said.
Just as the Beijing Olympics in 2008 symbolized China's arrival as a global power, the Rio Olympics -- the first in South America -- should raise global awareness of Brazil's rise to a new level.
"As opposed to China, which was already seen as such an economic power which had a lot of risk, I actually think the risk for Brazil is much lower."
Blair acknowledged that Olympic cities had a mixed record. For every Barcelona and Beijing, there is a Montreal or Athens that were seen as failing to secure long-term benefits.
For Rio, much of the media focus is likely to fall on the stark poverty that exists side by side with wealth, most visibly in the slums, or favelas, throughout the city.
"We look at the sports events as a catalyst," said Renato Augusto Villela, finance secretary for Rio de Janeiro state, who said the Olympic transport projects would have a lasting impact on reducing inequality in the city.
"Why do favelas exist? Because of lack of transportation people have to live in a place that's affordable so they tend to go to the slopes of hills close to the center of the city.