After being kidnapped by uniformed police in Rio on the eve of the Olympic Games, a young New Zealander proclaimed on Facebook that Brazil “is well and truly f***ed in every sense of the word imaginable.” Many others agreed, from the Australian athletes who arrived in their dorms to find overflowing toilets (and a fire, and then thieves) to Brazilians themselves, 63 percent of whom believe the Games will cause more harm than good to their country. Indeed, if there’s just one thing in this crazy polarized world that Trump-bashers and Hillary-haters, Sunnis and Shiites, and Argentines and Brazilians could seemingly agree on right now, it’s that, man, it sure would be nice to have a do-over on the site of the 2016 Olympics.
Some predict the angst will pass once the events actually begin, although there are reasons to be skeptical of this. Because unfortunately, there’s no way to paper over Rio’s problems, which are also for the most part Brazil’s problems. Visitors will be mugged; athletes may get sick; fans may be stranded because of lousy logistics. But at the risk of being shouted down by an army of freshly pickpocketed, sewage-soaked sailors, I propose that everyone cut Brazil just a tiny bit of slack during these next few weeks. Why? Because its main sin in hosting these Olympics was a sin of ambition – and that is precisely the kind of sin the global community should be most willing to forgive.
To explain, let me briefly take you back to 2009, when Rio won the right to host these games. As everyone knows, Brazil was in the middle of a long economic boom that lifted 40 million people out of poverty, put the country on the cover of The Economist, yada yada yada. Even then, it was clear that hosting an Olympics in a democracy in the developing world – arguably for the first time – would bring unique challenges. There would be no “magic” ability to sweep away protesters, pollution or environmental permits for efficiency’s sake, as Beijing had done at the previous year’s Summer Games.
Nevertheless, in return for hosting not one but two massive global sporting events back-to-back, Brazil committed to solving, or at least meaningfully addressing, problems that had festered for decades. It would clean up 80 percent of the sewage in Rio’s Guanabara Bay. It would “pacify” favelas, not just near Olympic sites but across the city, by bringing a permanent police presence and public services to vast areas for the first time ever. It would atone for its decades-long neglect of infrastructure by building new subway lines, airport terminals and bus corridors. It would, in sum, use the Olympics and World Cup as a golden excuse to solve longstanding problems – and catapult the country closer to its dream of becoming a great power.
Sure, we roll our eyes at much of this now. But here’s the thing – it seemed utterly plausible at the time, to Brazilians and foreigners alike. I know because I was there. I moved to Brazil in 2010, the year the economy peaked and grew a China-like 7.6 percent. I remember standing on Rio’s Copacabana Beach, which just a decade earlier was swarmed by prostitutes and street kids, a place where locals begged you not to take cash or jewelry or anything of value for the love of God! But now, I stood there confidently at dusk with my smartphone taking pictures of construction cranes and smart new sidewalk cafes and professional-looking police zooming by on 4x4s and waves crashing down and I thought: Wow, I guess this is really happening.
It seemed like Brazil had cracked some kind of code. Over a sustained period from the mid-1990s onward, successive governments had made tangible, often dramatic progress on so many of Brazil’s longstanding scourges – hyperinflation, hunger, deforestation of the Amazon, unemployment and others. The murder rate in Rio and São Paulo declined sharply; Brazil was one of the only countries in the world where inequality fell while the economy boomed. This was also an era when the United States and Western Europe were on their backs, and the BRICS seemed like the world’s future. As recently as August 2012, I watched in São Paulo as Bill Clinton told an enthralled group of bankers: “If I were sitting in a room betting on the future of rising countries, I’d bet on Brazil first.”
Clinton was wrong; so were many other smart people. The point is this: The selection of Rio wasn’t a hollow con peddled by the Brazilians, or groundless euphoria on the part of the global community, or a Qatar-like pick whose sole purpose was to make corrupt organizers rich. Rather, it seemed like a genuine feel-good story, an international stamp of validation for a country that was reaching for greatness, and really did seem to have it within its grasp.
So, in that context, what do we make of the fact that greatness slipped away? How are we supposed to feel as Brazil’s multiple problems play out under the harsh media spotlight on one of the world’s biggest stages?
As someone who loves Brazil, and roots for it to succeed, I have been disappointed by so much that has happened over the past two years. It’s clear that the problems plaguing these Olympics – corruption, violence, an infuriating disregard for detail or long-term planning – are the same ones that led to Brazil’s dramatic fall from grace. You can draw a straight line between Brazil’s worst recession on record, the corruption scandal at Petrobras, and the rancid sewage in Rio’s Guanabara Bay or the collapse of a bike path that killed two people in April.
But I think it’s also important to remember these problems are not new – in fact, they’re as old as Brazil itself, with their roots in complex issues like slavery, dramatic population booms and migrations, an overdependence on commodities cycles, and the stranglehold of a tiny, insular elite. During a summer when, a century and a half after the end of slavery in the United States, we’ve seen Americans killing each other in the streets because of the color of their skin, it should be obvious that a country’s deepest problems cannot be solved in just seven years.
It’s clear that Brazil over-promised. As a result, tens of thousands of reporters will descend on Rio in coming weeks and air out the city’s problems for the world to see. But I’d also like to see them ask: Are things moving in the right direction? And here, on many fronts, the answer is “yes,” in ways that are sometimes less than obvious. The reason the corruption at Petrobras was uncovered was because of a brave new generation of prosecutors whose work continues to spread. The president responsible for Brazil’s economic collapse, and the systemic graft that contributed to it, will likely be removed from office, by democratic means, shortly after the Games end. Perhaps most importantly, Brazilians themselves have found their voice since the protest movement of 2013, showing more willingness to break with the status quo and hold their politicians to account.
Ultimately, I believe that Brazil will get back on its feet because of the same traits that led it to host these Olympics in the first place: ambition, and a belief in the future. This optimism is part of the national character, even the national anthem – “A giant by your own nature … your future mirrors that greatness” – and it is, for better and for worse, what sets Brazil apart. Indeed, many other countries in Latin America, or the developing world in general, would never have had the audacity to ask for the Olympics in the first place. Brazil tried – not because of optimism of the blind, hollow variety, but because it had a real, seemingly attainable dream. Even though it fell short, I think it deserves some credit, and a little patience, for having reached for something better. And who knows? In the long run, in this strange, unpredictable and humbling century we live in, Bill Clinton may yet be proven right.
Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly. He was the chief correspondent in Brazil for Reuters from 2010-15, and has written two books about Brazil.
Tags: Brazil, Rio Olympics