The winners of the 2016 Olympics will again be the politically-connected elite, while the disenfranchised will never even get out of the starting blocks.
Every four years the world pauses and focuses its collective attention upon the feats of athletic prowess that are the Olympic Games. The century-old revival of the ancient Greek festival devoted to athletic excellence and fair competition is a laudable tradition, and having the honor of hosting the Games, especially to a developing country, is certainly significant.
At least it is in theory.
The stark reality is turning out to be substantially different however, at least as far as the Rio Olympics are concerned. The shiny veneer of good intentions applied to the Games hides beneath it the festering cancers of political corruption, economic injustice, and human rights abuses—all engineered under the eye of the International Olympic Committee.
Late last year, when the stench of political corruption became unbearable, Brazil’s legislature began the process of impeaching second-term president Dilma Rousseff on charges of misusing funds to mask the size of the country’s debt. She’s also rumored to have taken dirty campaign money from Petrobras, her former employer, in the largest bribery and kickback scandal in Brazil’s history. Her supporters point out that Rousseff has thus far avoided being personally implicated in the scandal, which is known by locals as Operation Car Wash. However, her biggest critics and the vast majority of those legislators who voted to impeach her have been. So has her chief of staff Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, the former Brazilian president, considered by many to be hip deep in the Operation Car Wash scandal. His appointment led to protests and counter-protests in March.
Rousseff’s successor is scarcely more popular than she is. Vice President (and now interim president) Michel Temer is under a legal cloud of his own, and his right-hand in congress, in addition to be caught up in the Petrobras scandal, has also faced accusations of attempted murder. However, that may not be the worst of his sins. The entirety of his 23-member cabinet consists of white males, leaving over half the country’s population unrepresented at the executive branch table.
The Olympics have provided an extremely useful tool for cleaning out those unsightly poor people as well. The wealthy don’t typically take a head count of the poor and destitute that they displace, but estimates range between 10,000 and 22,000 per year for the past three-plus years, totaling 22,000 families, or over 77,000 individuals. The Brazilian government asserts that these movements of people are done in order to protect them from flooding and landslides. However, not everyone received that memo—major investor in the Olympics and significant landowner in western Rio Carlos Carvalho laid it out as plain as anyone when he said that his goal was to evict poor communities in order to carve out an enclave for the “noble” elite.
Developers that are building upon the newly-cleared land have, almost predictably, won the opportunity to build upon stolen land thanks to political corruption. Major Brazilian construction firms Odebrecht and Andrade Gutierrez are also caught up in Operation Car Wash, and are being investigated by prosecutors for their alleged involvement in same (except for Marcelo Odebrecht—he’s beginning a lengthy prison sentence for his involvement in Car Wash).
No serious commentator claims that the Olympics bring corruption to a region that didn’t already have it, and nobody credible claims that the Games take the corruption with them as they leave. However, there’s little doubt that the exertions of the corrupt rival those of any Olympic sprinter when the Games are awarded to their city. One need only look at the records set two years ago in Sochi, which ended up being the most expensive Olympic Games ever conducted, and more expensive than all previous Olympic Winter Games combined. It’s difficult to uncover corruption in Russia, but assumptions can reasonably be made about an event where $30 billion ended up “missing.”
Much like FIFA before it, the IOC bears its fair share of the blame. The supreme body for global sports should have never considered bestowing the burden of hosting the Olympics to a country with rampant poverty levels, gross inequality between social strata and chronic underinvestment in schools and hospitals. The billions allocated to the Games and the World Cup of 2010 have gone to waste—just look at the $550 million stadium-turned-parking lot in Brasilia. Looking forward, it seems the IOC has learned some lessons—the 2020 Olympics will be held in Tokyo, a city with the necessary infrastructure, knowhow and financial largesse to organize a sports event on this scale without diverting money from public services. As the host of the 1964 Games, Japan is considered among the most successful Games ever. With an undisputable record of safety and efficiency, the Tokyo Games will most likely boost Japan’s economy—and not sink it as it has happened before with countries that weren’t prepared for the event. However, France has opened an investigation alleging that improper payments were made to help secure the Tokyo bid. Since Paris is also bidding for the 2024 Games, some have cried foul and called into question the Machiavellian motives behind the French investigation
Though there will be medals awarded in every contested event in Rio, it’s a near certainty that once the athletes go home, the winners of the 2016 Games will once again be the politically-connected elite. As usual, the impoverished and the politically weak will never even get out of the starting blocks.