Did Brazil benefit from $30 billion mega events?
After 1,192 days, the country’s run of hosting events ended with the Paralympics
It began with football’s Confederations Cup in 2013, extended to the 2014 World Cup, ran through IOC President Thomas Bach’s goodbye speech last month at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and finished with the closing ceremony of the Paralympics before 45,000 spectators at Rio’s Maracana stadium.
Awarded when Brazil was a rising economic power, the sports pageants focused unprecedented attention on the country – much of it unwanted.
As the shows went on, Brazil plunged into a deep recession. A billion-dollar corruption scandal buffeted state-run oil company Petrobras, and President Dilma Rousseff was removed from office in an impeachment trial just days after the Olympics closed.
“This all left a very mixed legacy,” said Mauricio Santoro, an international relations expert at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
“We are going to need some years to evaluate what was the impact, the worth of these events for Brazil.”
By a conservative estimate, Brazil spent close to $30 billion organising the events with a mix of public and private money that included the construction of four football stadiums for the World Cup. All four in cities without major teams.
Rio fared better with the Olympics, getting a metro line extension, bus lines and light-rail.
But much of the investment was aimed at Rio’s upscale suburb of Barra da Tijuca – not at the city’s sprawling favelas, or slums. The Olympic Park and Athletes Village there will be moulded into high-priced commercial and residential properties now that the games are done.
“I think the Olympics and Paralympics were a boost to the self-esteem of Brazil,” added Santoro. “They happened when everything was going so bad in Brazil. The mere fact they happened without serious problems, without an infrastructure disaster, without a terrorist attack, made Brazil feel better about itself.”
Brazil’s reputation away from home is another matter. The state of Rio de Janeiro is broke and defaulting on bond payments. Some schools have suspended classes, and hospitals are understaffed. Only a last-minute bailout of $76.5 million from the federal and local governments saved the Paralympics from a shortfall in the organising committee’s privately funded operating budget.
“There was a feeling that Brazil is such a big mess, said Santoro. “How could you have a good opinion of this country?”
Organisers bragged about legacy, but failed to deliver on a big promise made to secure the bid: the clean-up of Guanabara Bay, an open sewer that receives much of the city’s raw waste.
The Olympics also endured some rough going, plagued by empty seats, organisational glitches and scandals – one involving highranking IOC member Patrick Hickey who was arrested for scalping tickets. Hickey is still in Brazil awaiting trial and denies any wrongdoing.
Against most predictions, the Paralympics were a smoother ride with grassroots support.
Arenas were packed with many tickets selling at just $3 apiece, in contrast to the Olympics, where many tickets were sold as part of high-end hospitality packages and often went unused.
The Paralympics also topped the Olympics in compelling stories, and in some performances.
No story was more moving than that of 37year-old Belgian Marieke Vervoort, who won a silver medal in wheelchair racing. She has a degenerative spine disease and talked of plans to end her life by euthanasia when she can no longer endure the pain.
“I think death is something like they operate on you, you go to sleep and you never wake up,” said Vervoort. “For me, it’s something peaceful.”
The top four finishers in the men’s 1,500m – in the T13 class for visually impaired runners – all had better times than the Olympic champion in Rio, American Matthew Centrowitz.
German amputee longjumper Marcus Rehm, who jumps with a carbon fibre blade and won gold in Rio, also holds the long jump world record of 8.40 metres. This is better than the winning jump in the Rio Olympics at 8.38 metres.
There was tragedy, too, when Iranian Bahman Golbarnezhad, 48, died after crashing in a road-cycling race. But ultimately the Paralympics once again highlighted the ability of the athletes in Rio.
“The Paralympics are a high-performance sporting event between countries,” said IPC spokesman Craig Spence.
“The goal is to win the most gold medals here. That’s what every sport is about. It’s about winning.”
‘We’ll need years to assess the impact of these events on Brazil.’ – MAURICIO SANTORO