Work originally published in Ethos Magazine, a nationally recognized and award-winning student publication at the University of Oregon
From the top of Corcovado hill, Christ the Redeemer towered over Rio de Janeiro as athletes from around the world arrived in Brazil for the event that has been regarded by some as a “renovation of the Brazilian spirit” while by others as an “unnatural catastrophe.”
In August 2016, as the world watched the rainbow-colored opening ceremony of South America’s first Olympic Games, there were songs of celebration and national history. However, there was also a strong feeling of apprehension among cariocas – the Portuguese word for Rio natives.
For some, the Olympics represented a unique chance for socioeconomic and structural renovation in the city in the midst of the impeachment of Brazil’s first woman president Dilma Rousseff. For others, the significance of the event was merely another temporary distraction as entertaining as soccer. After all, common problems such as transportation, education, and access to culture would still remain part of their harsh everyday realities in Brazil’s most well-known city.
Regardless of the impact on the lives of cariocas, the Olympic Games in Rio represented an opportunity to acknowledge Brazil’s cultural legacy in the world, but more importantly in Brazilians themselves. “Our culture is extremely rich and has a transformative power to any Brazilian,” says Marina Aragão, a senior studying economics at San Diego State University. She visited her family in Rio de Janeiro during the Games.
Rio is certainly a city of contrast. The former capital of Brazil has blended architectural styles since the country’s discovery by the Portuguese in the 16th century. In 1908, the Brazilian writer Coelho Neto referred to it as “cidade maravilhosa” (the wonderful city). However, it was not until the mid-1960s that the city became familiar to people outside of Brazil due to the worldwide hit bossa nova song “Garota de Ipanema” (The Girl From Ipanema) by Vinícius de Moraes e Tom Jobim. Along with the Christ the Redeemer, Ipanema Beach is one of Brazil’s must-see places.
Before the Games, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio was probably the most famous image of Brazil around the world. To Aragão and many other cariocas, Christ the Redeemer is a representation of peace. However, Rio de Janeiro’s hallmark also watches over those unable of living the Olympic passion – those who faced humiliating situations caused by issues of housing, urban mobility, job access, and the environment, as reported by the Popular Committee of the World Cup and Olympic Games in Rio. For those who are not from Rio, these issues are rarely understood.
According to the World Bank, between 2003 and 2014, Brazil improved its socioeconomic conditions dramatically which allowed over 29 million people to overcome poverty and therefore reduced inequality. However, since 2015 the country has been facing issues related to a high unemployment rate and an economic recession. Additionally, the political instability that has emerged around the impeachment process made things more complex for Brazilians. Many of the protests that happened across the city of Rio de Janeiro against the Olympic Games demonstrated the challenges of the disadvantaged communities are greater than economic indicators show.
Reni Lira, who owns a construction startup in Rio de Janeiro, was not supportive of the Games at first, but changed her mind afterwards and now hopes that the generation who experienced the event will be able to advance the Olympics’ legacies.
“Maybe we have acquired the self-confidence that we are capable of doing the right thing if we really want,” says Lira. “I don't know whether sports are going to have more representation in the lives of children who experienced the Olympics, but I'm hoping so.”
In fact, Rio de Janeiro’s vision for the Games was developed around the “Live Your Passion” theme, based on celebration and transformation. The vision of “Live Your Passion,” however, is not as accessible as it seems in a country that has been in recent decades among the most unequal countries in the world according to the World Bank’s GINI index, which measures inequality by analyzing income distribution in a country.
For example, a 2015 report from the Institute of Applied Economic Research in Brazil indicates that the richest one percent of the adult population accounts for more than a quarter of all income in the country. The richest five percent hold almost half of the income. The concentration is such that 1 millionth of the people accumulate more income than half of the population together.
Matheus Marlinson, a 21-year-old student originally from the outskirts of the neighboring city of Nova Friburgo, worked as an assistant producer for an international TV channel during the Games covering the social and political impact in Rio.
“For me, the greatest legacy of the Olympics is the development of infrastructure of the city of Rio de Janeiro,” he says. “It is remarkable that the city, in regards to its public transportation system, became more connected, allowing people to get around more easily. The biggest problem is the price of tickets. That is a complete nonsense.” Since April, Rio’s subway system has become the most expensive one in Brazil.
Hailing from the south of Brazil to study medicine at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, João Victor Ravaneda shares the same opinion that the development of infrastructure is already benefiting the lives of many people.
However, Ravaneda is not as positive as Lira when it comes to the legacies brought by the Games. According to him, public works projects, a lot of money, long time to deliver the projects to the city, and an international spectacle are the perfect combination for misappropriation of funds.
“I think the world has learned that Brazil is indeed a competent country, capable of holding a global event,” says Ravaneda. “I even think that this can be a benefit to the Olympic legacy itself, but I also think that this has confirmed that we live based on false impressions of happiness, the sunshine, and carnival; that we are a people who constantly neglect the political problems in exchange for soccer.”
From the captivating beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema to the colorful favelas scattered across the city’s hills, the impacts of the 2016 Olympic Games on cariocas reflect the country’s inequality, aggravated since 2009 when Rio was picked over Chicago, Madrid, and Tokyo to host the Games.
“Brazil, which has never been much internationalized, had an enormous cultural shock while welcoming many languages [and] different ways of thinking and being all at once,” says Marlinson.
In total, Brazil won 19 medals in the Olympics and 72 medals in the Paralympic Games. However, from the comfort of their homes Brazilians realized the worst in Brazilian media on their own TVs: the lack of representation.
“It was absurd the kind of negligence with the Paralympic Games,” says Ravaneda. “There was very little media coverage besides the opening and closing ceremonies.”
The ongoing crisis in Brazil might be blurring the Olympic positive legacy on cariocas and the city of Rio de Janeiro, which may represent an opportunity for change in which youth can actively fuel discussions on topics such as democracy, education, and culture. During the closing ceremony, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said: “History will talk about a Rio de Janeiro before and a much better Rio de Janeiro after the Olympic Games.”
Taking into account the wins and losses that Brazil faced in the Rio Olympic Games, the most important outcome is not measured in gold medals, but rather in a renewed sense of what it is to be Brazilian and a strengthened belief in Brazil’s future.
“I cried during the closing ceremony not because of the end of the Games or because I was about to return to the U.S. that week, but because I was moved…” says Marina. “I was moved for loving my country and for acknowledging the collective struggle in the only place in the world where I feel home: my Rio.”