by Giselle Datz, Associate Professor of Government & International Affairs, Virginia Tech
Paradoxically ritualistic and idiosyncratic, the Rio Olympics were set against a background of perplexing global and local dynamics which converge around the challenge of resilience.
Olympic Games reveal an inherent paradox. They are part of a recurrent and ritualistic tradition, not only in terms of their peace and brotherhood ideals, but also in some of their bureaucratic procedures. Locations are selected in advance through competitive bid processes, mascots designed, competitions are rigidly scheduled and many of the operations before and after the opening ceremony are tightly run by the International Olympics Committee.
However, much in the Games is also markedly contextual to the locations where they take place and the discrete moments in history to which they belong. Every four years, a different city attempts to woo the world with its own grandiose opening and closing shows, where pride and personality are employed to sell a version of the national that aspires to become unforgettable (arguably a high standard set by the tears shed by the first commercially successful Olympic mascot, Russia’s Misha, in 1980).
Beyond their ‘glocal’ dynamics, each Olympic Games nearly always reveal their own version of the predictable messiness that hosting such a large scale event – with all its infrastructure demands – entails. Delays in preparations are legendary. The Rio Games are likely to have won a position on the podium for providing one of the ‘most disorderly preparation[s] yet’ along with Sochi and Athens. In the week preceding the opening of the Games, the international media featured no shortage of reports on how much had gone wrong – from the haphazardly finalised Olympic Village apartments to the unjust evictions of families in areas targeted for new infrastructure projects.
No amount of global glamour could shield the Olympics from the widespread corruption and incompetence that have become sad hallmarks of Brazil’s federal and local governments in the 21st century. In fact, nowhere is this more evident than in the bankrupt state of Rio Janeiro, far beyond the glossy Olympic infrastructure improvements.
Momentary exuberance was well displayed in the magnificent opening ceremony at the legendary Maracanã stadium. As Charles McNulty, put it ‘never has an opening ceremony been so green’. It was a celebration of the country’s rainforests, biodiversity, and a timely cautionary note on global warming. Perhaps most importantly, the opening ceremony also ‘provided an opportunity to reframe a sporting event that was in danger of becoming the embodiment of the world’s brooding mood’.
Indeed, the XXXI Olympiad took place amidst a seemingly surreal historical moment. It was marked by events that have captured most of the media’s attention of late: the Brexit vote, ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks, the confirmation of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate, and widespread repression in Turkey in the aftermath of a(nother) failed coup.
At home too, the Games revealed their share of surreal dynamics, marked by a reversal of fortune of grand proportions.
In 2009, Rio beat Tokyo, Madrid, and Chicago in a ‘bid’ to become the first South American city ever to host the Olympic Games. The victory was reportedly emblematic of ‘Brazil’s remarkable rise (…) from a near basket case to an economic and diplomatic heavyweight’.. It was expected that having weathered the 2008 global financial crisis, the ‘BRIC’ nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China, supposedly the fastest growing economies in the world, would drive global economic recovery.
Fast forward seven years and the contrast is stark. Lula da Silva, the president whose winning bids for hosting both the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics brought renewed attention to Brazil, did not even attend the opening ceremony. Also conspicuously absent was his ally and successor as president, Dilma Rousseff; impeached by Brazil’s lower House, she is now being judged in the Senate. Instead, it was interim president Michel Temer who – whilst being booed by some of the attendees – declared the Games officially open.
While in 2009 Lula’s party, the PT, seemed set to perpetuate its grip on power, as the Rio Games got underway, some of its leaders and three of its former treasurers were jailed as part of the mensalão and ‘car wash’ corruption investigations. Lula is being investigated for ‘influence peddling’ during Dilma’s presidency, trading personal favours from construction companies for contracts with Petrobras (Brazil’s state oil company). This may just be the tip of an iceberg of accusations against Lula (and eventually Rousseff) now coming up as part of jailed construction magnate Marcelo Odebrecht’s plea bargain.
The Brazil of the Rio Olympics is far from the successful BRIC economy, surfing on the wave of record high commodity prices, awash in corrupt deals profoundly rooted in the country’s political establishment. Yet much as the current crisis in Brazil may seem surreal relative to the smokescreen set in 2009, one should appreciate the vast and ongoing anti-corruption efforts that some relentless members of the Judiciary have been championing. Shaking the core of dominant parties, they are setting a wide and welcome precedent for accountability in Brazilian politics.
It is also worth noting that this is a country where the steep currency devaluations of late have finally receded, a new central banker has reinstalled a credible commitment toward inflationary control, and dilapidated Petrobras may finally see the light of sane corporate management.
The Olympic Games too, beyond the surreal quality of their global context, and partly because of it, have already displayed notable initiatives. The world’s refugees were represented by 10 athletes from South Sudan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia. Having overcome unimaginable odds, they, along with many of their fellow athletes from across the globe, inspire hope in human resilience. It is this very ability to bounce back that underpins the kind of ‘Olympic’ effort Brazil must attempt — once again.
Originally published by SPERI Comment.