Rio de Janeiro 2016: The Lasting Legacy of the Games

Rio 2016 has provided a roadmap for the future that will be difficult to ignore.

While I am not yet ready to propose Rio de Janeiro as the permanent site for all future Olympic games, I must say after witnessing the first week of Rio2016 that a case could be made. The multiple venues scattered all over this pulsating city are ready and the events are running smoothly (well, aside from a few glitches like green water in the diving pool). Above all else, Rio and Brazil are playing host to the global community of nations celebrating sportsmanship and healthy competition. Rio2016 is a gift from Brazil to the rest of the world, and what is wrong with that?

The main knock, certainly, is that while the world may well be delighted with what it is seeing in Rio, the party has cost the Brazilians dearly occurring as it has in the midst of the worst economic and political downturn in many decades. Surely, in a city of such glaring social, racial, and economic inequalities, a better use could have been made for the (roughly) $9 billion in public funds used to stage the Games. More schools, more hospitals, cleaner water for all and especially for those who suffer most from the lack of basic infrastructure – certainly these must always be the priorities for city officials.

And yet, despite this criticism, I am sure that we must reserve judgment on the real legacy of these Rio Games for the city that is hosting them. Rio, in a sense, needs to change the narrative on how it is seen by the world and, indeed, how it sees itself.   Rio2016 is a chance to do just that.  Rio has been for too many decades a city down on its luck reeling from the abrupt transfer of the federal government to Brasilia and then battered by the departure to São Paulo of so many of the city’s industrial and financial elites and the good jobs their entrepreneurship could created. For a while, in the mid-2000s, new-found oil reserves appeared to come to the rescue for Rio, but the collapse of crude prices and the scandal at the Rio-based national oil company have inflicted enormous financial blows on the city and the surrounding region.

From this perspective of Rio’s history, Rio 2016 and the urban transformations it has brought are a chance to change the competitive landscape for the city following the example of other global cities.  The Olympic model for Rio city officials has always been Barcelona and what the 1992 Games did for that city. The model has decidedly not been the much showier Games held in Beijing and London with which Rio could hardly compete anyway. By all accounts, the Barcelona Games did transform the image of the city from that of an industrial backwater to that of a lively and attractive global city generating to this day better jobs and infrastructure for its citizens. Barcelona has found its place among the most visited and admired cities in the world by exploiting advantages such as its waterfront location, its culture and history, and by making the city more livable. 

Rio is trying to follow the Barcelona playbook in order to leave in place a concrete game plan for a new and more competitive global city in the future.   Much of what has been done is impressive, especially to persons like me living here and experiencing the pleasures and multiple aggravations of the city on an everyday basis.  

In terms of urban transportation, the city has been stitched together as never before with a new subway line uniting for the first time two of its most dynamic regions and many kilometers of so-called bus rapid transit lines constructed. These lines, an alternative to much more expensive subways,  are already increasing the comfort and reducing the commute times for millions of Rio’s citizens, especially the poorest among them who live in areas far removed from their jobs in the city’s wealthier districts. A new airport has expanded Rio’s connections to the rest of the world.  The hotel network in this now more tourist-ready city has virtually doubled during the buildup to Rio2016.

The most important changes in the face of Rio have taken place far in the gritty, long-neglected downtown area of the city, far from the main sporting venues. For example, an ugly expressway was torn down to allow Rio to embrace once again the Bay of Guanabara, conjuring up images of similar transformations in Barcelona and San Francisco. The image of the downtown as a dangerous zone for residents to be shunned in the evenings and on weekends is changing.  New parks and museums have been created in the downtown area and old warehouses are being converted into cultural centers and places of business. Changes in zoning regulations could make the downtown much more attractive to urban dwellers. A new light rail system already makes it possible for citizens to zip all over the renovating downtown. It is proving immensely popular with the Cariocas.

The promising revitalization of Rio’s downtown has generated surprising dividends. Important examples of colonial and pre-modern architecture, witnesses to Rio’s storied history, are visible once again as decades of blight fade away.   The construction of a new museum downtown was meant to celebrate the future , but it also helped to uncover the crumbling remains of an all but forgotten pier through which passed some one million Africans delivered into slavery in Brazil. Brazil’s African roots are receiving attention and were an important part of the impressive Opening Ceremony for Rio 2016. And the symbolism was not lost on anyone in Brazil of Rafaela Silva, an Afro-descendant from one of Rio’s sprawling favelas, winning Brazil’s first gold medal in these Rio Games.

Cities must change with the times in order to generate more and better jobs for their citizens, especially the poorest among them, but they often fail to do so. Political inertia and civic discouragement are powerful forces, difficult to overcome. Sometimes, as in the case of Rio, serendipity gives elected officials the chance to reboot the image of the city, to reimagine its role in the world and to point out new possibilities for economic growth and social change. This for me is the only legacy that will really matter from Rio2016.

Whether we are witnessing the start of a new era for Rio and its citizens, or only a brief flash of hope which ends after the Closing Ceremony concludes, depends on what comes next in Rio. Barcelona succeeded after 1992 because it continued to invest in its future long after the Games had concluded.   Rio must surely do the same even without the welcome surge in investment that Rio2016 provided. Managing to pull off this sort of follow-through in public policy has been a real challenge for Rio and for Brazil in the past, but at the very least Rio 2016 has provided a roadmap for the future that will be difficult to ignore.  It deserves to be followed.