Rio and the 2016 Summer Olympics: Reflections on Brazil and the Marvelous City

Today, Brazilians partied on Copacabana beach like it was 2016. The cariocas (natives of Rio de Janeiro) samba-ed on the sand, Brazilians across the nation celebrated deliriously, and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) was overcome with tears at a televised press conference. The International Olympic Committee awarded Rio the Summer Games of 2016, which will be the first time a South American city has hosted the event. It will be a coming-of-age ceremony for Brazil, a budding superpower, much as the 2008 Beijing Games were for China.

Brazil is no longer "the country of the future," as it has been described ad nauseam for decades; it has arrived in the present. It has a diversified economy, one of the top ten in the world, and it has emerged relatively unscathed from the global economic crisis. The land of soccer and samba is an agricultural giant, competing with the U.S. to be the world's bread basket. It is a biofuel dynamo and the world's leading exporter of ethanol; half its cars run on pure alcohol. Already self-sufficient in petroleum, Brazil recently discovered massive off-shore oil reserves. It is also a cultural superpower; its television novelas are popular internationally and its rich variety of music (samba, bossa nova, and other styles) has influenced global popular music for decades.

Unfortunately, Brazil is also one of the world's most corrupt countries, which has slowed its economic growth and hindered a more equitable sharing of its wealth. Brazilians would be far better off, and the country a vastly different place, if they refused to tolerate the rogues' gallery that populates their federal, state, and city governments. The Congress in Brasília is known for a total lack of ethics, lavish benefits for senators and deputies; secret votes; shameless appointing of family members to federal jobs; and, ingenious diversions of money for personal or political ends.

Lula's political allies have been tainted by one corruption scandal after another since he was first elected. Yet, nothing much sticks; charges are dismissed or never followed up; and, no guilty career politician gets more than a slap on the wrist, no matter how extreme the vote buying or money laundering. Lula embraces anyone as long as they serve his political ends. He has supported the senators José Sarney and Renan Calheiros, who have allegedly been embroiled in some of Brazil's worst corruption scandals, and he has even gotten friendly with his former enemy, the notorious senator Fernando Collor de Mello. The latter resigned as president of Brazil in 1992 just before he was to be impeached, accused of influence peddling.

In part because of massive corruption, Brazil is still beset by widespread poverty, oppressive taxes, a gargantuan bureaucracy, poor public education, and a crumbling public health-care system. Graft also plays a role in the country's high crime rates and serious environmental threats (the deforestation of the Amazon and devastation of the Cerrado savanna are two of the biggest). Yet, despite such daunting problems, things are getting better for most, thanks to a stable economy, the taming of inflation, and Lula's welfare program for the poorest families (the bolsa família), which is labeled a progressive social program by his admirers and blatant patronage by his detractors.

Rio's $14.4 billion preparation for the Olympics, with a planned operating budget of $2.82 billion and more than $11.1 billion allocated for urban upgrades (transportation, security, etc.), could bring lasting improvements. Rio is renowned for its festive spirit, beautiful beaches and stunning natural scenery; it is also plagued by street crime, terrible traffic, and a decaying infrastructure. Drug gangs and rogue-cop militias are the de facto local governments of the favelas (poor neighborhoods) where more than 1.2 million cariocas reside (not counting other cities in Greater Rio). The city of Rio has finally begun providing police protection for a select few favelas (such as Dona Marta); perhaps the Olympics will provide the impetus to complete the job.

Pollution is another challenge for cariocas, starting with the fetid waters of Guanabara Bay and Lagoa Rodrigo das Freitas (the lagoon behind Ipanema and Leblon, where rowing competitions will take place), and the often murky waves of Copacabana and Ipanema. The Rio Olympic Committee has promised to clean up water pollution.

As far as breathing goes, the athletes competing in the 2016 Games will not suffer from smog as much as they did in Beijing, but Rio needs to improve its air quality, especially in terms of particulates, the worst form of air pollution. Rio's mayor Eduardo Paes would be smart to begin replacing the thousands of city buses that spew sooty exhaust with clean-fuel vehicles. And participants and spectators will need to reach events on time, which will be a challenge given the city's growing gridlock. Expanding mass transit will help both with transportation and air quality. The existing subway system, which is a good one, needs to be extended, especially to the Barra da Tijuca area (new Metro stops and highways have been promised).

The whole world will be watching Rio de Janeiro during the Games; perhaps Brazil's politicians will stop lining their pockets long enough to give the "Marvelous City" the support it deserves. The 2014 World Cup, to be held in Brazil as a whole, will provide a hint of things to come. Unfortunately, it looks like some pledges made for that event, such as the construction of a high-speed rail line to connect Rio and São Paulo, will not come to fruition.

When Rio hosted the Pan-American Games in 2007, things went smoothly enough. However, the city failed to deliver on promises of infrastructure improvements (including building more highways and cleaning up Guanabara Bay) that it made to secure the Pan-Am competition. The city ran well and crime was radically reduced during the Games; afterwards, the city had a few new athletic facilities and everything else had returned to normal, with little to show for cost overruns that were an estimated six to ten times the original budget of $177 million.

Still, Brazil will be under greater pressure to keep its promises for the 2016 Olympics, and current mayor Paes seems more effective than his predecessor Cesar Maia, who was mostly asleep at the wheel toward the end of his term. Most likely, Rio will get a giant facelift and corruption will bloat the budget; the scale of the graft will determine if Brazil suffers a big net financial loss from the Games, as have many host cities. Despite its social problems, Rio remains one of the most popular cities in the world, with cariocas enjoying a well-deserved reputation for gregariousness and joie de vivre. Brazilians everywhere are proud and overjoyed to have been awarded the 2016 event. Beijing put on a brilliant show, but it was all choreographed, with zero spontaneity and heavy police-state supervision. In Rio, improvisation and interaction will be at the forefront. And nobody parties like the cariocas. The Rio Olympics may well be the most entertaining Games ever, taking place in a city that is the home of Carnaval and is the world capital of celebration.