Will The 2016 Olympics Deliver On The Promise To Leave A Lasting Legacy For Rio?

"Could they have done more? Yes," says one union president. "But what was done will still improve the quality of life of Rio’s population."
Work on the Olympic Athlete Village in Rio de Janeiro is still underway just a few weeks before the games.
Work on the Olympic Athlete Village in Rio de Janeiro is still underway just a few weeks before the games.

The Olympic Games will kick off in Rio de Janeiro this August, and despite major financial and political obstacles, the International Olympic Committee has declared Brazil ready to receive 15,000 athletes and the 500,000 foreign visitors flying in to attend events at the seaside city.

Over the past two years, Brazil’s deepening recession, the political turmoil that resulted in the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, an unfolding corruption scandal and a Zika outbreak have all raised doubts about the country’s ability to host the games, which have already cost Rio billions of dollars, including $11 billion worth of venues and infrastructure.

As Brazil faces its worst recession in decades, Francisco Dornelles, acting governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, declared last month a “state of public calamity in financial administration,” pleading for emergency federal funds. In its Official Gazette, the state said that together with growing payroll costs, Olympics-related expenditures could drive Brazil toward a “total collapse in public security, health, education, transport and environmental management.”

Besides the projected budget deficit, Rio authorities are also grappling with growing public violence. In a meeting last month with Michel Temer, the country’s acting president, Dornelles asked for military support to help secure Rio for the duration of the Olympics. 

With the opening ceremony less than three weeks away, Brazilian officials claim that despite the current calamities, not only will the games be successful, but the promise to contribute a lasting legacy for the city will be upheld.

In 2014, the Rio 2016 Olympics organizing committee highlighted its “commitment to ensure the Games leave a lasting legacy for Rio de Janeiro and Brazilian society as a whole.”

A banner advertising the 2016 Rio Olympics is seen near the Mare slums complex of the Linha Vermelha freeway.
A banner advertising the 2016 Rio Olympics is seen near the Mare slums complex of the Linha Vermelha freeway.

Despite fears that the facilities will not be ready in time, the Ministry of Sport and the Rio de Janeiro City Hall have announced that the venues are 97 percent complete.

However, some of the infrastructure projects are cutting it extremely close. The 10-mile addition to Rio’s subway system, which cost the city $2.77 billion, will not open until Aug. 1, just four days before the games begin.

In addition to delays, the city has faced dire Olympics-related setbacks. Earlier this year, a large stretch of a $12 million seaside bike path ― one of the city’s major renovation projects ― collapsed, killing two people.

Still, some officials are taking pride in the transformations Rio has seen in the lead-up to the games. José Roberto Bernasconi, president of the country’s architecture and engineering union, told HuffPost Brazil that in preparation for the Olympics, the city has had to reorganize itself and review its infrastructure and urban mobility plans.

“Rio went through a transformation after it was decided that it would host the Games,” Bernasconi said. “There was a great change in mobility and urban infrastructure with the recovery of downtown Rio, the demolition of the elevated expressway, and the Museum of Tomorrow. Those are extraordinary, man-made works, combined with the city’s natural beauty. It is a gain.”

The projects completed in preparation for the Olympics will be repurposed after the event, Bernasconi said, to continue to serve the city.

“The Olympic Park, where the athletes will be lodged and compete, will be occupied in the future by the population of Rio, similar to what happened in London,” he said.

London’s athletes village was repurposed as a large-scale residential area after the 2012 Games. Of the 2,818 apartments built, 1,379 served low-income East Londoners. 

Could they have done more? Yes. But what was done will still improve the quality of life of Rio’s population. José Roberto Bernasconi, president of Brazil's architecture and engineering union

Rio’s residents, however, are worried that after the games, developers will build luxury condos that most people would not be able to access or afford. Developers have said they plan to turn the Olympic Village into a private complex after the games, selling some of the 3,600 luxury apartments for up to $700,000. 

While optimistic about the future of the Olympics-related development projects, Bernasconi acknowledges that the legacy could have been stronger.

“I am personally disappointed that they didn’t manage to clean the Guanabara Bay,” Bernasconi said, referring to the body of water that will host a few of the Olympic yachting events. Despite promises made by the organizers, lack of funds has meant that the bay was not successfully cleared of raw sewage and other waste. 

“The achievements in the areas of basic sanitation and security fell short of expectations,” he said. “Could they have done more? Yes. But what was done will still improve the quality of life of Rio’s population.”

Luiz Fernando Janot, a member of the Federal Council of Architecture and Urbanism of the State of Rio de Janeiro, expressed a similar view.

The projects could have been debated more,” he said. “More people could have benefited from the works, but what was done is important.”

Janot also argued that the existing achievements are even more significant in light of the economic crisis Brazil is facing.

“Whether you like it or not, we must recognize that there is an important legacy, which was accomplished in the right moment,” he said. “Today, for instance, with the current economic crisis, we would have never done anything. Most of the structures will be dismantled and adapted to new uses, such as public schools.”

According to the City Hall of Rio, the Olympic Park, considered the heart of the games, will provide facilities for education, social projects and public leisure, among other things.

Janot, however, recognizes that further resources will be needed to achieve this goal. “One wonders if, considering the crisis we are going through now, there will be money to transform the temporary structures,” he said. “That is a critical point.”

A version of this post appeared on HuffPost Brazil. It has been translated into English and edited for a U.S. audience.

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