Brazilians flooded Copacabana Beach on a sunny afternoon seven years ago, on the day the International Olympic Committee announced that Rio de Janeiro would host the 2016 Summer Olympics.
With the eyes of the world on his country ― then one of the world’s fastest-growing economies ― then-president Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, known to Brazilians simply as “Lula,” promised his people that this would be their moment in the spotlight.
“The world,” Silva said, “has recognized that the time has come for Brazil.”
Seven years later, on the eve of Rio’s Olympics, IOC President Thomas Bach said he is “very confident that it will be an excellent Games.”
Yet just two months before they kick off, the 2016 Olympics ― the first to come to South America in the event’s 120-year history ― are shrouded in crisis and doubt. Brazil is facing its greatest recession in 100 years, is embroiled in one of the most formidable political crises since its transition to democracy more than three decades ago, and is navigating a potential global health crisis.
“The party will be great,” a Brazilian economics professor told The Guardian last month, 100 days before the start of the games. “The legacy for the city will be garbage.”
2016 would already be a pivotal year for Brazil, even if the Olympics weren’t coming to Rio. But mix in the world’s biggest sporting spectacle, and there are many questions about whether the Rio Games will actually deliver on their promise, or just exacerbate the country’s many problems.
The Political Crisis
The president's impeachment has plunged Brazil into chaos.
In December, with a corruption scandal threatening to boil over and the economy slumping, members of the political opposition in Brazil’s legislature launched efforts to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, who won re-election for a second term in 2014. Earlier this month, Rousseff's opponents got their wish when a majority of the Senate voted to remove her, suspending her from the presidency and subjecting her to a 180-day impeachment trial.
The main charges against Rousseff are that she misused federal funds to obscure the size of Brazil’s deficit in violation of federal law. She has also faced inquiries about whether she took illegal campaign contributions from Petrobras, the state-owned oil behemoth for which she once served as president of the board of directors.
Rousseff has not been directly implicated in the Petrobras corruption scandal, the focus of a two-year investigation known as "Operation Car Wash." The same is not true of the president's biggest critics, including Eduardo Cunha, the representative who initiated Rousseff's ouster, and 23 members of Brazil's lower house of Congress -- 18 of whom voted to impeach her.
But Rousseff has also drawn public ire for her role in Brazil’s ongoing budget problems and for her controversial March decision to appoint Silva -- who has himself been implicated in Operation Car Wash -- as her chief of staff. The president's critics interpreted the move as an effort to shield her former mentor from prosecution.
"Fora Dilma" (Dilma Out) protesters took to the streets in March after Rousseff appointed Silva, while thousands of counter-protesters demonstrated against an impeachment that many liken to a coup. Rounds of tense protests have gripped Brazil's largest cities, including Rio, as a result.
Rousseff’s popularity has sagged to incredible lows, but Brazilians aren’t exactly thrilled with her successor. Vice President Michel Temer, who is now acting as the country’s interim president, has his own legal troubles. And as the Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo reports, his chosen congressional leader is also a target of the Operation Car Wash probe and has been accused of attempted murder. Even before that news broke, 60 percent of Brazilians wanted Temer to face impeachment proceedings, too.
Temer has also drawn widespread condemnation for naming a 23-member Cabinet composed entirely of white men, sparking fears that diversity efforts expanded under Silva and Rousseff's Workers' Party will be lost. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Wednesday expressed its "deep concern" that the Cabinet choices have left "more than half the population excluded from the highest government offices," and that Temer's decisions will "have a negative impact on the protection and promotion of human rights in the country."
The office of the Brazilian presidency told WorldPost that Temer was focused on reducing the number of government ministries and had already expressed his commitment to appointing women to leadership positions. "The profile of the ministry leaders owes to circumstantial reasons, including the urgent need to reduce the number of ministries and rationalize the public bureaucracy, and doesn't reflect, in any way, any 'position' of the government on the issue," the statement said.
The political turmoil is unlikely to directly affect the operation of the Olympics. But with Rousseff facing a six-month trial and Brazilians already deeply dissatisfied with her replacement, the specter of the political crisis will no doubt hang over the games -- and endure long after they are over.
The Economic Crisis
Brazil faces its worst recession in 100 years.
Brazil’s gross domestic product grew nearly 7 percent in 2010, the year after the IOC handed Rio the Olympics, aided by a commodity boom that seemed poised to turn the South American giant into a world power.
Though the economy continued to expand at more modest rates for the next three years, it hasn’t matched that growth figure since, and in 2014, the bottom fell out.
Over the last two years, Brazil has plunged into its worst economic crisis in more than a century. Unemployment has risen to nearly 11 percent and wages have plummeted.
The Brazil that won the Olympics was a country undertaking a vast expansion of poverty and health programs, making strides in its efforts to address persistently high rates of income inequality.
The Brazil that will host the Olympics, however, is one that has entered an era of austerity that could imperil its ambitious anti-poverty efforts. Just as the IACHR challenged Temer's Cabinet selections, the commission also said it was alarmed by the new government's planned cuts to housing, education and poverty programs.
The Brazilian Ministry of Sport initially estimated the Olympics would bring more than $30 billion in foreign investment and economic impact into the country, but economists have disputed the notion that the games provide major economic benefits to host cities and countries. Ratings agencies that have already downgraded Brazil's bonds to “junk” status are warning the nation and its investors not to expect much of a boost from the Rio Games -- despite Olympics backers' rosy projections.
The games themselves haven't been immune to budget cuts, but as Brazil faces further cuts in the immediate future, it's becoming clear that the money it has spent on the games could have been better utilized.
The Health Crisis
Will the Zika virus imperil the games?
The end of 2015 brought another unforeseen crisis to Brazil: a major epidemic of the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease that has tormented the country and bedeviled Olympic preparations since. The Zika virus has been linked to microcephaly -- a fetal brain defect -- in babies born to mothers who are infected with the disease.
Doctors initially believed the virus would have a minimal impact on the Olympics, which will take place during the Southern Hemisphere winter. The government dispatched military and health professionals to cleanse Rio and its surrounding areas of mosquitoes, and promised that athletes and fans wouldn’t face much risk. But that has changed in the last few weeks, most notably when University of Ottawa public health expert Amir Attaran urged Olympic officials to postpone or relocate the games, lest they risk spreading Zika around the world. Some Olympic athletes have already said they will quarantine themselves at the Olympics; others have considered not going.
A cancellation or postponement isn’t likely, and experts are still split on how big a problem Zika poses for the games. While Attaran's call received international attention, the United Nations and the World Health Organization both said last week that they don't expect Zika to have a major impact on the Rio Games.
The IOC and some national Olympic federations are already making plans to protect athletes and fans, and the WHO is taking strides to “put in place all the measures to reduce mosquito density, to make sure that people are provided with the means to protect themselves from mosquito bites" in Brazil, an official said Tuesday.
But with health experts still trying to formulate a full response and create a vaccine for the disease, Zika will continue to pose a threat to Brazilians, particularly those in poorer areas of the country, where the disease and others like it are hitting Brazil's impoverished communities the hardest.
The Environmental Crisis
Rio's polluted Guanabara Bay is an environmental hazard.
The Olympics naturally come with major environmental questions and problems. But one in Rio has stood out: the city's polluted Guanabara Bay. In order to hold Olympic sailing and swimming events there, Brazilian officials pledged to rid the waterway of at least 80 percent of the raw sewage and trash polluting it.
But last year, The Associated Press analyzed the bay's water and found that it was still disgustingly polluted with “disease-causing viruses directly linked to human sewage at levels up to 1.7 million times what would be considered highly alarming in the U.S. or Europe.” Athletes who have participated in test events there have fallen ill or suffered from MRSA infections afterward. Rio has erected temporary “eco-barriers” in an attempt to hold trash and pollution out of the main parts of the bay, and the IOC has insisted that athletes will be safe, even though it won’t run its own tests on the water.
Yet even as the IOC and Rio organizers try to cast a positive light on the progress that has been made (the sailing and swimming lanes, the IOC says, will be clear), they have already conceded that Guanabara Bay won’t be clean. That will affect Rio's residents and environmental efforts long after the Olympics end -- particularly in a city where, despite improvements, as much as 60 percent of sewage and waste goes untreated.
Whether the pollution poses problems in August or not, the botched cleanup of Guanabara Bay is a stark example of the Olympics’ failure to deliver on the promises Brazilian politicians and Olympic organizers made to bring the games to Rio.
The Police Crisis
Police killings have spiked in the months before the Olympics.
In an effort to assure foreign visitors that the global spectacle will be safe, public officials may have only exacerbated one of Brazil’s biggest problems: its brutal police violence.
Brazilian police rank among the world’s most deadly. They were responsible for 1 in 5 homicides within the city of Rio de Janiero in 2015, according to Amnesty International. Police-related deaths in the Rio state rose to 580 killings in 2014 -- a 40 percent increase from 2013 -- and increased again to 645 killings in 2015, Amnesty says. There were 11 more police-related deaths in the first three weeks of April, and the victims are disproportionately “young black men from favelas and marginalized areas,” the organization says.
In December, the United Nations accused Brazilian police forces of systematically murdering poor black street children in an effort to “clean the streets” for the Olympics. The country plans to deploy some 80,000 police and military officials to secure the games (more than double the number who worked the London Games in 2012), leading to fears that the problem will only worsen as the event nears.
“Over the next 100 days, there is a lot that the authorities and the organizing bodies of Rio 2016 can and must do to ensure that any public security operations will not violate human rights," Atila Roque, the executive director of Amnesty International Brazil, said in an April release. "We expect Rio’s police forces to take a precautionary and consultative approach to public security instead of continuing with their ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ strategy.”
Police brutality and impunity sparked major protests ahead of the 2014 World Cup, especially as law enforcement clashed with drug gangs in Rio’s long-underserved favelas as part of the campaign to "pacify” the city's poorest neighborhoods with military police.
But now it's harder for Brazilian citizens to take to the streets to express their dissent. Last year, Brazil passed an “anti-terrorism” law, pegged to the Olympics, that activists and human rights organizations say criminalizes many forms of peaceful demonstration.
The Housing Crisis
An estimated 77,000 Brazilians have been evicted from their homes.
Already coping with widespread police violence, many of Rio's poorer residents are also being relocated to make way for the World Cup and Olympics.
As many as 22,000 families -- or more than 77,000 people -- were forcibly evicted in Rio between 2009 and 2015, according to a coalition of Rio activists known as the Comité Popular. The group asserts that more than 6,000 families have lost or may lose their homes as a direct result of infrastructure projects related to the two mega-events.
The Brazilian government argues that it has moved families away from flood- and landslide-prone neighborhoods to make them safer, and says that just under 10 percent of the relocations were related to infrastructure projects.
But few dispute the motives behind the destruction of at least one neighborhood. Vila Autódromo, a favela in western Rio, has been almost totally demolished to make way for access roads to the nearby Olympic Park. There are only 20 families left in the neighborhood now -- 90 percent of its residents are gone.
While the government has compensated some of the people who had to leave, activists have slammed Rio officials for relocating them to far-flung neighborhoods on the city’s periphery, far from their prior homes.
Rio was supposed to upgrade the city's favela neighborhoods as part of its Olympic legacy. But many of the plans have been delayed or scrapped altogether, and many favela residents have complained that they haven't received the services they need. In some cases, residents who were supposed to see improved conditions have been relocated instead.
The Legacy Crisis
Will Brazil deliver on its infrastructure promises?
Rio’s Olympic games, like many before them, came not just with the promise of a three-week sporting extravaganza, but also with the hope of transformed city infrastructure.
Officials pledged to pour billions of dollars into new transit, housing and other development programs as a long-term benefit of hosting the World Cup and the Olympics. Many of those projects remained incomplete even after the 2014 soccer spectacle ― and even though the government vowed to finish them before the Olympics, it’s questionable how much progress has been made. Brazil’s failure to complete many of its planned infrastructure projects ahead of the World Cup has led to some pessimistic predictions about how well the Olympic projects will fare.
The most ambitious of those improvements, a new subway line, will open with limited service just four days before the Olympics begin. Other projects are plagued with problems: A portion of a seaside bike path constructed for the games collapsed in April, killing two people and raising concerns about the quality of legacy projects across the city. Eleven workers, meanwhile, have died in Olympic-related construction projects, after eight people died during construction for the 2014 World Cup. There were zero fatal accidents in London four years ago.
Construction delays and hiccups during test events have caused organizers to wonder whether the Olympic venues will even be ready before the games.
But they will be ― because they always are. And seven years after Brazil’s Olympic journey began with such hope, that’s the least important question still in need of an answer.
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