The international multi-sport event, officially known as Games of the XXXI Olympiad, has historically drawn excited crowds from around the world giddy with eager anticipation, and the upcoming Olympics should have been no different. However, the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on August 5-21 are being hailed in with reserve due to the country’s ongoing political, economic and social crises.
As the countdown to 2016 Rio Olympics continues, news updates from Brazil provide less than ideal publicity for the host nation of Brazil: President Dilma Rousseff, the first female President of the largest Latin American country, has been impeached and suspended for six months, the world’s eighth largest economy is seeing a recession that shows no signs of improving anytime soon, polluted waters at competition venues threaten Olympic participants’ health, and Zika virus is giving global public health officials nightmares.
For months President Dilma Rousseff has been fighting allegations against her, insisting she, “may have committed errors”, but she is no criminal. Mr. Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, has supported her point of view: that her actions “are not crimes, but they are related to poor administration.” Rousseff has also challenged the impeachment proceedings against her as “fraudulent” and a “true blow to democracy”. To her credit, she is not facing allegations of stealing public money for personal use but of violating fiscal laws to cover her government’s budget shortfalls before her 2014 re-election. The fact that Brazil is experiencing its worst recession in a quarter of a century does not help her argument, though she blames the global economic crisis for Brazil’s economic struggles and insists she has always been a fighter and an honest advocate for her people.
With high unemployment in double digits, rate of inflation estimated at a 12-year high, and widespread corruption scandals in her Worker’s Party, the gradual shaping of public opinion against her is not all that surprising: some estimates show that her approval ratings had nose-dived to 10% from almost 80% during the period between March 2013 and March 2016. As if that wasn’t enough, her former allies and opponents have blamed her dictatorial style of governance as one of the reasons for her gradual downfall. The resulting alienation of her longstanding political allies, many insist, has pushed them to the other side to support her impeachment proceedings.
Dilma Rousseff has in turn questioned the credibility of the advocates of her impeachment process who are themselves accused of corruption, including the three men from Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) who were in line of succession: Vice President Michel Temer, Speaker of Lower House Eduardo Cunha, and Senate president Renan Calheiros. Worse still, according to Transparency Brazil almost 60 percent of the 594 members of the Congress face serious charges including fraud, kidnapping, homicide, etc. Now that Vice President Michel Temer has taken over as interim President, however, it is expected that no charges will be brought up against him or his allies.
Besides the political and social turmoil Rio de Janeiro faces, the city is known for its high rate of crime as much as its culture and beauty. During the three weeks of the upcoming Olympics, the security of participants and spectators thronging the venues from around the world would be a huge task. The International Olympic committee (OIC) has expressed its concerns about overcrowding, drug trafficking and other crime in the areas called ‘favelas’ (slums) close to the Olympic events. Brazil’s commitment to the Olympics would require a special focus on this aspect of planning. If handled effectively, it would go also a long way in bringing lasting security to the local population long after the Olympic city is vacated.
Other potentially catastrophic health hazards that could jeopardize the success of Rio Olympics come from water pollution and Zika virus. An October 2015 U.S. Olympic Committee report quoted by ESPN expressed little confidence in the country’s ability to tackle the challenges in time: “we do not expect to anticipate major reductions [italics USOC] in bacterial or viral pathogen levels at the competition venues.” A more recent CNN report also detailed the amount of pollution in waters to be used for Olympic competitions clogged with debris and raw sewage as a major health risk for participants. Rio’s Olympic bid seven years ago had included a clear commitment to tackle the water pollution but the targets appear to be falling short. There have been reports of severe illness affecting athletes training at those venues.
International Health agencies also fear that the spread of mosquito-borne Zika virus linked to severe brain defects in babies will accelerate due to close contact at the Olympics. The CDC has issued extensive warnings to expectant mothers regarding the dangers of exposure to Zika. The virus poses a serious threat because the medical research on its spread and containment is still not sufficient, which makes it harder to control. A few athletes have publicly expressed concern, but it is unlikely anyone will withdraw. According to some reports, athletes feel so invested in the competition that they have likened withdrawing from Olympics to throwing their whole life’s work to waste.
So, Rio 2016 is moving forward as planned. Last October, when John Coates, International Olympic Committee vice president, spoke of Rio’s preparations as “worst ever”, he aroused much concern among the local and international stake holders. However, CNN’s latest reports suggest that despite the political upheaval Brazil is facing, it is on track with 98 percent of the venues ready and within budget. With the recent changeover at the helm due to impeachment of Rousseff, the skepticism about the future of the Rio Olympics had resurfaced but the president of the International Olympics Committee, Thomas Bach, was quick to express his confidence in the new interim government right after Michel Temer took office, and said, “there is strong support for the Olympic games in Brazil and we look forward to working with the new government to deliver successful games in Rio this summer.” Though Dilma Rousseff’s strong support and advocacy were instrumental in securing the Olympics bid for her country, Michel Temer will be gracing the President’s designated seat at the opening ceremony.
The international stake holders remain committed to supporting Brazil through these trying times in any way possible, even with filling the spectator seats. For over 50 percent tickets sold so far, several media reports have detailed a lack of interest from the local spectator due to Brazil’s internal instability – at the same time, however, it is encouraging that these ticket sales have been overwhelmingly international. With several months to go, sales for Brazilians are expected to pick up as well.
Despite everything happening in their country, the Brazilians hope to see a welcome respite in the form of an exciting and colorful Olympics event, as well as lasting benefits post Olympics, including increased tourism and positive effects of investment in stable infrastructure and security etc. For everything to happen, however, political stability is a pre-requisite. At this point, though hopes are pinned on the success of 2016 Olympics, Michel Temer’s policies for economic success and the suspended leader Dilma Rousseff’s future, however, remains uncertain. The next six months will be crucial in determining the success and future – or lack thereof – of both. The world is watching.
SOUTHASIA, JUNE 2016