Huffpost Homepage

Rio carrying Olympic hopes of entire continent

Posted: Updated:

RIO DE JANEIRO — South America has never hosted a Summer Olympics. If Rio de Janeiro breaks that streak and gets the 2016 games, the setting could hardly be more spectacular.

Brazilians are promising to transform the region and captivate the world with a well-organized Olympics played out near the city's stunning beaches and famous landmarks.

Rio anxiously awaits the Oct. 2 host-city vote in Copenhagen, especially after gaining front-runner status following a positive evaluation by the International Olympic Committee in its final report on the four finalists for 2016.

Thousands of Cariocas, as Rio citizens are known, are expected to make it to Copacabana beach to watch the IOC announcement, hoping for a big celebration by the Sugar Loaf mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue.

Competing against Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo, the city gained IOC praise for having strong public support, financial guarantees from all levels of government and experience from successfully hosting the Olympic-style Pan American Games in 2007. Brazil also will host the 2014 World Cup.

In addition, Rio is boosted by Brazil's stable economy and the full support of charismatic President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is expected to be in Copenhagen along with soccer great Pele, former FIFA president Joao Havelange, world-record holding swimmer Cesar Cielo and dynamic bid president Carlos Arthur Nuzman.

"Rio is ready and Brazil is ready," Silva said recently. "For Brazil, hosting the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games would be not only an honor, but also a wonderful way to catalyze social transformation in our country and in South America."

Speaking in New York on Tuesday, Silva was even more blunt.

"No other city needs to host an Olympics," he said. "Brazil needs it."

Never has a South American nation hosted the Olympics, and the only time Latin America got it was in 1968 with Mexico City.

"This is one element that might play a role," IOC president Jacques Rogge said. "Is it a big role, is it a lesser role? This is up to each IOC member to decide."

The IOC report complimented Rio for seeing the games as an opportunity to use sport as a "catalyst for social integration" and for embracing the idea that they can transform the region and leave "a lasting and affordable legacy."

Rio also is hoping to gain points with its unrivaled natural beauty and fun-loving people. Officials point to a recent Forbes magazine survey that shows that Rio is the happiest city in the world. The city's Olympic vision is developed around the "Live your passion" theme, based on celebration and transformation.

But even though Rio has a lot in its favor and received the least direct criticism in the IOC's report, there is one major issue that puts the city behind its three competitors – security.

The IOC noted that Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo are "capable of providing the level of security and safety required for the games," but made no such mention about Rio.

The report said violence is a concern and recognized the city faces safety challenges. And even though it said Brazilian officials have been successful reducing crime in Rio recently, violence in the country's second-biggest city continues to make local headlines almost on a daily basis.

Rio officials, however, are quick to point out that violent crime is worst in the slums, where they're trying to get control of the problem.

In addition, bid supporters say the city is used to successfully hosting major events, including international conferences, a New Year's celebration that attracts about 2 million people and its famous Carnival party.

The 2007 Pan Am Games is always mentioned as a success story, when no significant incidents were reported among participants and the 700,000 visitors. And the fact FIFA has chosen Brazil to host the World Cup is seen as a vote of confidence.

"The Pan American Games are a reference for us," said Brazil's sports minister, Orlando Silva. "Rio showed technically that it can host the (Olympic) games. We showed that it is possible."

The World Cup is seen by the IOC as both positive and negative for Rio's bid. It will help Brazil's preparation, but at the same time it will create marketing challenges.

Other concerns surrounding Rio's bid include a shortage of hotel rooms and challenges to guarantee effective transportation to visitors and participants, although officials say all that has to be solved ahead of the World Cup.

In addition, some local critics say funds from Rio's Olympic budget of more than $14 billion – the largest among the four finalists – would be better spent on the city's pressing social, education and security needs.

Yet Brazil might be in best position economically among all four bidders, having been judged by some as the least affected by the global crisis.

Most of the venues are already in place, and the majority of the competitions would take place by some of the city's upscale beaches. The opening and closing ceremonies would be held at Maracana stadium, while the athletics events would be at the Engenhao stadium, which was built for the Pan Am Games and would have its capacity temporarily increased from 45,000 to 60,000.

Rio officials remain extremely confident, saying the positives by far outweigh the negatives. Bid leader Nuzman – who is an IOC member – has been instrumental, and his lively presentations promoting the city have gained popularity among IOC members, which could be decisive.

Put it all together – the natural beauty, the facilities, the personalities, the chance to make history – and it's indisputable that Rio is a top contender, with a better chance of hosting the games than the first three times it tried, in 1936, 2004 and 2012.

"The Olympic Games in Rio is not just another event. It will be 'the event.' It will be a transforming occasion for a city, for a country and to engage a continent," said Carlos Osorio, secretary general for Rio's bid. "There's no doubt about it. The historic decision is Rio and Brazil. The others were historic at their time. Now, we believe it's our time."