The Olympics represent the best of humanity – nations coming together to compete in friendly sport. But the Olympics also take a huge toll on the people that have to host it and are left to clean up after it.
Cities want to host the Olympics for the positive publicity and tourism boost. But hosting the Olympics also shines a spotlight on the ugly hidden parts of the country, as we saw in Beijing in 2008 and Sochi in 2014.
Rio was definitely no exception.
The Rio Olympics Already Had Problems Before It Started
Well before the 2016 Olympics in Rio began, all the problems that plagued the country were brought into full light.
The Zika virus started to emerge in Brazil in mid to late 2015 with serious effects for newborns. While the fear of it turning into an epidemic was on the forefront of people’s minds, it also cast a shadow over whether or not the Olympics should be canceled.
Recession started in Brazil also in mid-2015 and continued all the way through 2016 to the Olympics. As GDP and consumer spending went down and unemployment went up, people questioned whether or not Brazil could financially handle the Olympics.
Political scandal had also hit Brazil hard in 2015. With corruption ties between state-run oil firm, Petrobas, and top politicians, along with the President fighting impeachment, the lack of governance ability worsens the economic conditions.
Crime has been a long standing issue in Brazil. Rio is known for its dangerous favelas ruled by drug gangs. With homicides, violent crime and petty theft going up in 2015 and 2016, many fear it will get worse as the recession continues.
Pollution in the bay was a major concern for boat races due to the debris. But it has been a long-term problem for the livelihoods of fishermen due to the raw sewage and garbage dumped there, in addition to the oil spills from Petrobas. It’s ironic that despite the Rio Olympics being themed around environmental sustainability, fisherman and environmental activists are attacked and killed for their stance.
So Brazil’s had a tough year, and all the issues are connected and feed into each other. Yet these problems already existed and were brought to global attention because of the Olympics. The Olympics themselves cause a whole new set of problems.
Most Olympics Leave the Host City & Country Worse Off
Displacing people almost always happens in an Olympics host city. Stadiums, hotels, and housing need to be built, and there needs to be room to build it. People living in poor communities are the ones who suffer, being evicted and having their homes and entire neighborhoods bulldozed to make room for new structures.
Migrant labor is the backbone of constructing the Olympics. A lot of structures need to be built in a very short amount of time and on a very tight budget. So companies will hire migrant workers for very cheap, make them work long hours in horrible conditions, and turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. Deaths of workers continue to be an ongoing pattern in the Olympics, but goes by ignored.
Cost and debt from hosting the Olympics is greater than the benefits. Most host cities end up going far over the projected budget at the cost of taxpayers. The hopes of a boosted economy from tourism very rarely happens, and cities are left paying the debt for decades. In the majority of cases, the Olympics end up hurting economies rather than helping.
After the Olympics, most stadiums are left empty and abandoned, while the people in the city are left to clean up and bear the burden of debt.
For Brazil, These Issues Will Only Be Intensified
When the Olympics are over and everyone leaves, Rio will be left to deal with the toll the Olympics left on its city.
None of its pre-existing problems will be solved. Crime will continue. Zika is still a concern. The recession is still there. The bay will still be polluted. And the politicians are still corrupt.
Only now, those problems will be worse. The massive amounts of money Rio put into the Olympics and the debt it went into will make the recession deeper and longer. The cuts that the government had to make on public services like hospitals and police will cause crime to increase and slow down any progress towards treating Zika. As the city and country get poorer and people get frustrated, corruption and crime will likely increase.
Visitors and athletes go back to their home countries. Viewers go back to watching their regularly programmed shows. Brazilians try to move on from the damage of a mega event they had to prepare for, host, and clean up.
Yet this will continue to happen every 2 years because governments yearn for the prestige and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) doesn’t care about the cost.
The Olympics Have a Responsibility to Be Sustainable for Host Cities
The IOC has a vision statement for encouraging sustainability in host cities, but this rarely plays out in action and is definitely not enough. The Olympics will go on. Cities will continue going into debt. Economies will continue to struggle. And people will continue being displaced, hurt and dying.
And the IOC is accountable for none of it.
I love the Olympics. I think it has the potential to bring out the best in the human spirit, both for athletes and viewers.
But it’s a contradiction. There’s a public light side of the Olympics and a hidden dark side of the Olympics, both operating at the same time.
Can we change it? I think so. I hope so. But it’ll require a lot of public, international pressure on governments, sponsors and broadcast networks, which in turn can pressure the IOC.
It’s happening, but there’s still a long run ahead.