by Glen Hamilton
In a little less than a week, parts of the media will begin discussing the legacy of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Only briefly, of course. The real treatment won’t begin in earnest until the beginning of 2018, when the Winter Games in South Korea begin to loom in the near future. The Olympics will have a significant effect on the fabric of Rio. Much of the perception of success will be framed for the foreign media by the size of Rio’s Olympic venue boneyard, how “over budget” the Games appear to be, and how Brazil’s political situation plays out to audiences abroad. All of those things are not looking good for Rio right now. I have lived in two cities that hosted the Olympics: Atlanta and Montreal. The effect of an Olympiad on actual residents is more subtle and complicated than most visiting media care to discover.
These games have been dubbed by many as the “Exclusion Games.” And this is not without good reason. The two major transport infrastructure projects include a subway link to the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city and a BRT line that goes through, unfortunately in a literal sense, some of the less glamorous neighborhoods further north. This resulted in the forced relocation of many of the city’s poorest residents. Much of the development around Olympic Park and its historic waterfront has been tailored to benefit a few tycoons at the expense of local people, sometimes quite brazenly. The overtly political approach of the organizers led to a significant backlash and how that plays out in Rio and Brazil as a whole will be the real lasting legacy of these games in Rio. Brazil’s impeachment process will affect how the political dynamic moves forward in Rio. If it is an honest move to reform, the previously marginalized constituencies that have found their voices and an audience in the run-up to the Games will add constructively to Rio de Janeiro’s future outcomes. But if President Rousseff’s removal appears to be a judicial coup, coupled with an attempt to quash the many corruption probes in play at the moment, it will be a huge setback. And in Rio there will be tons of security infrastructure leftover from the Olympics to force the return to the status quo.
It seems likely that the perception of Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic experience will be framed by larger political events, probably things that haven’t even happened yet. In Athens and Montreal, larger events were telescoped to their respective Olympic efforts. In Athens, the high cost and subsequent waste has merged in many people’s minds with the country’s debt crisis that took place six years later. The Games came to symbolize the kind of irresponsible chicanery that got the country in this mess to begin with. Unfortunately, the other apt analogy from Athens 2004 is the enthusiasm of the international community for Greece’s profligacy. (Somehow people don’t like talking about that one.) In Montreal’s case, they also accrued massive debts and architectural white elephants. But rather than triggering a crisis, Montreal is presented as having gone into “decline” and “withdrawn from the World.” While there is some truth in that, one needs to remember that the most important event in Quebec in 1976 wasn’t the Olympics, but the landslide election of Parti Quebecois later that year. So a lot of the changes in Montreal’s place in the world were the price it had to pay to drastically reconfigure its relationship to Canada and put the last nails into a polite caste system.
We don’t know how either the Olympics or the political process will pan out in the end, but I can tell you from my experience with impeachment in America that its backlash has a long tail. From Nixon to Reagan and Clinton to Obama, impeachment is a setback. What ultimately matters is the quality of the recovery.