A Tarnished Legacy: Looking back on the effects of the 2016 Rio Olympics

“I don’t think Brazil was ready for such an important event…the government put money into something that is not a priority for us.”

As the world watched fireworks electrify the sky above the city of Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016, tens of thousands of athletes marched into the renowned Maracanã stadium. Carrying containers of soil with seeds from a Brazilian tree, known as the “Seeds of Hope,” they set these containers inside of a tower. The intent? These seeds were to be planted in order to counterbalance the environmental effect of the Games on the city.

They were never planted. Today, they sit on a farm about 100 km away from Rio.

 

Rio
The Olympics Aquatic Centre used in the 2016 Rio Olympics sits largely abandoned and desolate. Photo credit: Reuters.

There’s a common expression utilized by politicians about the largest country in South America: “Brazil is the country of the future.” In 2009, it seemed like the expression might actually come to fruition. Brazil, alongside Russia, India and China, was part of the BRIC nations, a group of countries considered to be growing economically. Lula da Silva, Brazil’s leader at the time, infamously declared he was the happiest president in the world after the country won their bid to host the 2016 Games. Bruno Pereira da Fonseca, a consultant from Rio, said the famous expression contrasts with the reality of everyday life in Brazil.

“I don’t think the Brazilian people actually believe it is the country of the future,” da Fonseca said. “Right now, we don’t have much real hope for things getting any better. As long as we have political corruption, the economy’s not going to get better.”

Sarajevo
The bobsled track used for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo is covered in graffiti. Photo credit: Julian Nitzsche.
Beijing
Many of the venues used in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, such as the Beach Volleyball Stadium, are filled with weeds. Photo credit: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images.

Giovanni SanFilippo works as a video reporter at Jornal Extra, a newspaper based in Rio. He said there had been growing discontent toward the Olympics and the 2014 World Cup prior to the events. 

“People started getting a little bit angry at these events because, in their opinion, Brazil needed some other things,” SanFilippo said. “Of course, they brought some investments but it’s not what we really needed at the time. We lack education. We lack health programs. We lack safety and all of that is linked to social problems.” 

The Maracanã stadium sits abandoned, with seats ripped out of the stadium and worms embedded in the dry, brown field. The Aquatics Center, also abandoned, is falling into dilapidation and is filled with bugs and mud, according to Brazil’s Federal Court of Audit (TCU). 

This is not a phenomenon specific to Rio.

Pyeongchang, a South Korean county specifically renovated for the Winter Olympics in 2018, is filled with vacant hotels and restaurants. In Turin, the host of the 2006 Winter Olympics, parts of the former Olympic Village are occupied by refugees. Refugees also occupy former Olympic sites in the city of Athens, which spent an estimated $11 billion to host the 2004 Summer Games. 

“Of course, they brought some investments but it’s not what we really needed at the time. We lack education. We lack health programs. We lack safety and all of that is linked to social problems.”

The city of Rio de Janeiro spend $12 billion on the Games and an investigation by the TCU found that 10 sports entities, including Brazil’s Olympic Committee, misused public funds. Former Rio governor Sergio Cabral revealed he paid a $2 million bribe to purchase votes in order to ensure that Rio would host the 2016 Games. He was sentenced to nearly 200 years in jail as part of an anti-corruption initiative called “Operation Car Wash.” 

Pyongchang
Today, many restaurants in Pyongchang are desolate, as the South Korean county doesn’t particularly attract a lot of tourists in general. It hosted the Winter Olympics in 2018. Photo credit: Mikensi Romersa/CityLab.

Marcela Anunciação, a former resident of São Paulo, said the country is not addressing core societal problems. 

“I don’t think Brazil was ready for such an important event,” Anunciação said. “We have a lot of political issues right now. The government put money into something that is not a priority for us.”

For Rio de Janeiro and the country as a whole, the negative effects of the Olympic Games will not disappear anytime soon. 

The power bill for the Maracanã Stadium, where the famous Brazilian soccer player Pelé scored his 1,000th goal, has not been paid and the stadium is almost a million dollars in debt. Continued upkeep on the vacant Olympic Park, parts of which were supposed to be converted into four public schools, will be around $14 million annually. 

“…As long as we have political corruption, the economy’s not going to get better.”

The problem is that the city and state of Rio have run out of funds.

“The state of Rio is already broken. The state doesn’t have money to pay public employees like police and professors and this has been happening for a while,” SanFilippo said. “This state is in debt with the federal state. It’s a giant snowball that keeps rolling and it’s only getting worse.”

Athens
Some of the venues built for the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, such as the baseball stadium at the Hellinikon Olympic Complex, now shelter refugees. It cost $11 billion for the Greek capital to host the Games. Photo credit: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP.

In July 2017, Carlos Nuzman, the head of the Rio 2016 Olympic Committee, flew to Switzerland to ask the International Olympic Committee to help pay $40 million of its debt. The IOC refused.

A growing amount of violence has also been plaguing Rio. Earlier this year, the Brazil Forum for Public Security published statistics showing that there are 39 homicides for every 100,000 people. Although some view the lack of funding for Police Pacification Forces as a reason for the surge in violence, the reality is much more complex than that. Both police and security forces during the Rio Olympics committed human rights violations, including murdering eight people in favelas during the Games. 

The “Seeds of Hope” still sit on the farm outside of Rio, three years later. It can perhaps be said that they are a metaphor for the unfulfilled promise that the Olympics would revitalize the city for the better, as they were never even given the chance to bloom. 

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