THE BLOG
09/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rio's Olympic Bid - Taking the Games To New Ground

Driving through Rio de Janeiro's posh Ipanema district, John Wayne is master of all he surveys. He knows the city inside out, having driven a cab here for 30 years. "Rio lost its way," he says. "The Olympics can give us back our soul. The favela kids, the beach party people, all of Rio loves a good show." While this may be true, much of Brazil is tired of Rio getting all the good shows.

In recent years, Rio seemed to have plunged into a gentle torpor, its vigor only livened by Carnaval and Flamengo stuffing Vasco da Gama (rival soccer teams) at the Maracanã. Tourist numbers have remained high, but showcase events in the city such as 2006's Rolling Stones open-air concert with over a million attendees on Copacabana beach have become an increasing rarity. Visiting the offices of RioTur, the city's tourism board, is a drab experience indeed. Tired cardboard posters of Christ Redeemer and the Sugarloaf adorn the walls -- utterly at odds with the exciting vision Rio wants to project and the beauty of the landmarks they portray.

Brasilia's aborted bid for the 2000 Olympic Games, lampooned as among the worst bids in Olympic history, has been ceaselessly mocked by Cariocas (residents of Rio) still rankled over losing their capital status to Brasilia 50 years ago. But not until the joint World Cup and Olympic Games bids would Rio show the rest of the country how it's done. Even as Brazil staked its claim as an economic and cultural leader of South America, Rio -- perhaps Brazil's most iconic city -- had been slipping behind other Brazilian cities. São Paulo dominates business, Brasilia is the diplomatic center and -- gravest insult of all -- the Carnaval in Salvador de Bahia now attracts more people than Rio's. This was underestimating the resolve of a city where cab drivers can proudly wear the name John Wayne. In trying to secure a double World Cup and Olympic combo, the city now benefits from several great advantages. After years of partisan politics, the state and federal governments are allied in rejuvenating Rio, the city's ferociously proud population is thrilled to be hosting the 2014 World Cup and Cariocas want to show the rest of the world what more their city can do.

Early critics who wrote off Rio's Olympic bid as being the weakest against the efforts of Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid were harsh, saying the city's social problems and developing economy could not stand up to scrutiny. President Obama has been pushing hard for Chicago but the city faces security problems of its own. On paper, Madrid has an impressive bid, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) rotation policy makes its job difficult coming on the heels of the London 2012 Olympics. Furthermore, Madrid's bid book reads almost exactly the same as its 2012 bid, and the IOC would have liked to have seen some improvement.

Tokyo appears to be Rio's most serious rival. The two led the IOC's bid rankings in March but disturbing rumors emerged in Beijing that certain of the less politically-correct IOC members did not want the Olympics in another "rice-eating country."

Brazilian President Lula and Governor Sérgio Cabral have already poured $50 million (USD) into their bid: modernizing city infrastructure, renovating the metro, and cleaning up the city to strengthen their goal of making Rio 2016 the first truly green Olympics. However, all is not rosy and some major concerns still need to be answered. The Beijing 2008 Olympics, while visually impressive, were slammed for the omnipresent security presence which prevented the normal level of celebration associated with the event. Certainly, nobody expected the soldiers on parade in Tiananmen Square to give a capoeira demonstration, but the IOC will know what it would gain by giving the Games to a country as vibrant as Brazil.

The Pan-American Games in 2007 were very successful in showcasing Rio's ability to hold an event of this magnitude, and the praise it received from attendees will not have harmed its chances. Nevertheless, Rio's high crime rate and the failure to significantly improve social conditions in the favelas remain serious obstacles. Governor Cabral promised an increase in police forces to ensure security but this remedy is only a stop-gap. For Rio to win the bid, a real commitment to reducing crime by means other than raising the body count must be shown. Rio's savior in this regard may come from its new mayor, Eduardo Paes. Since starting his term, the 38-year-old has shown a true sense of purpose in facing Rio's social issues by investing in education, providing job opportunities and also by showing his city that all can benefit from the Olympic Games.

The 1 million young Olympic volunteers seen in Beijing were an absolute triumph. Apart from their occasionally hesitant grasp of English, they were a more effective calling card for the Games than the Bird's Nest or the pro-Tibetan protests in Paris. They embodied the values of international cooperation, vigor and friendship that the Olympic Games ought to be about. In that regard, Rio was certainly paying attention. Carlos Nuzman, the President of the Rio bid, said in an interview that he considered the force of the young people of Rio and Brazil to be a strength of Rio's Olympic bid. Calling for a grassroots movement of support and encouragement to form, he envisioned the future of Rio's Olympic generation, saying that while "most may not become Olympians, they will however go on to become doctors, sculptors or journalists." Few have expressed such hope for Brazil's future, and if Lula, Cabral, Paes and Nuzman can turn this vision into a reality, the Rio 2016 Olympics may be remembered as their finest hour. If not, they will clap politely from the sides as Chicago or Tokyo cheers.

Despite the differing profiles of Tokyo, Madrid and Chicago, John Wayne says that no other city than Rio could truly show the world what it means to stage the greatest show on earth. Trust him.