Brazil in metamorphosis — this month’s Minnesota International Center’s Great Decisions dialogue — will be on full display a year from now when the Olympic flame is lit at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. But the national transformation probably looks different from the one the International Olympic Committee — or Brazilians — expected when Rio was awarded the games in 2009.
While much in Brazil has changed, challenges persist on income inequality, political scandal, sclerotic economics and other growing pains chronicled in David Samuels’ accompanying commentary. Unresolved, these problems threaten to bring Brazil into crisis instead of metamorphosis.
Rio’s selection came when being a “BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India and China] was seen as a powerhouse, and the [International Olympic Committee, or IOC] wanted to ride the crest of that wave,” said Stefan Szymanski, a University of Michigan political science professor whose scholarship focuses on the Olympics.
The IOC previously built around another BRIC when Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. But like Brazil, China is chipped as well, with a scary equity market meltdown that’s having global impact, an intensifying internal crackdown and an external bellicosity that threatens neighboring Asian nations.
And yet on Friday, Beijing became the first city to be awarded both a Summer and a Winter Olympics when it bested Almaty, Kazakhstan, to host the 2022 games. It will be the third straight Asian games, following the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, as the IOC does its own version of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia.
Unlike last time, Beijing’s selection may be less about it being a BRIC and more about bricks and mortar, since the city will repurpose some 2008 venues, including the iconic Bird’s Nest and Water Cube stadiums. This repurposing comes at a time when Olympic sticker shock has spooked some cities, including Boston, whose 2024 bid was dropped by the U.S. Olympic Committee on Monday after local leaders declined to put Massachusetts taxpayers on the hook for cost overruns.
A similar dynamic emerged when winter sports capitals like Oslo and Stockholm were among four European cities to bow out of the 2022 bidding. That left Beijing and Almaty, which despite being a bona fide winter sports center (its slogan was “Keeping it Real,” a reminder that Beijing’s Alpine events may require artificial snow), lost out to the seemingly safer choice of Beijing.
“There’s a general realization that [Olympiads] divert taxpayer funds without a return,” said Szymanski. “The claim that they become an economic benefit is becoming less and less credible.”
Such a claim seems especially dubious for Western political, cultural and commercial capitals, which may benefit from burnishing their images, but don’t need to establish a reputation as much as emerging nations like Kazakhstan.
Russia, another BRIC nation, tried to re-establish a reputation with Sochi in 2014 — only to squander any good will it engendered by endangering the post-Cold-War order with the Crimean crisis right after extinguishing the Olympic flame.
But, as seen on Friday, image burnishing can backfire elsewhere, too. The world was once again reminded of China’s horrible human rights record, including being the leading jailer of journalists. As for Brazil, the beautiful beaches that will be shown globally next year are bracketed by waters with high levels of human sewage. “Filthy water a threat to Olympians” is hardly the headline Brazil hoped its hosting the 2016 games would generate.
To be sure, Brazil isn’t in an international crisis like Russia created for itself and Europe. And it remains South America’s hegemon — for good and bad, said Alfred Montero, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield and the author of “Brazil: Reversal of Fortune.”
“Brazil’s size and, until recently, its economy were seen as an opportunity and a threat to its neighbors,” Montero said. However, at home, “Brazilians are highly nationalistic and have a long history of seeing their country as tremendously important. They like to say they have a country of continental size, and that’s used to justify having big plans, and that coincides with having a great deal of optimism generally.” And, he added, “probably Brasilia will pull out all the stops to make it so.”
That’s part of the problem, said Szymanski. “From an economist’s perspective, I think these things border on economic insanity. But from just the sheer pleasure that these things create, I think they’re hugely popular, which is one of the reasons the economic insanity goes on.”
So, just like Brazil’s metamorphosis, any Olympic transformation will likely be uneven.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.