Rio Olympics 2016 disaster: No order. No progress.
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The 2016 Olympic Games already stand to go down as one of the greatest Olympic calamities in modern history—and the opening ceremonies are still two weeks away. One of the great mysteries of our time is why global cities still vigorously compete to host the Olympic Games despite the cost-overruns, negligible tourism increases, and general disappointment of the local populations in the wake of hosting the Games. 

Surely Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is asking herself this question in the aftermath of her May 2016 impeachment. These proceedings were largely precipitated by popular protests over dissatisfaction with rising bus fares for working-class Brazilians amid billions spent in preparation for the summer Games. While the corruption allegations at the center of her impeachment center around an unrelated financial scandal involving petroleum giant Petrobras, the general dissatisfaction that has accompanied hosting the Olympics likely exacerbated what would have otherwise been chalked-up to “business as usual” in South America’s largest country. The Brazilian experience is perhaps one of the worst examples of the "Olympic Curse" in modern history as the financial, social, political, and security costs continue to mount. 


Just this week Brazilian authorities thwarted a terror plot involving ten Brazilian citizens. The group was reportedly influenced by the Islamic State and the coordination facilitated by the use of social media apps WhatsApp and Telegram. Although downplayed by Brazilian Justice Minister Alexandre de Moraes as "an absolutely amateur cell" and "disorganized," such “homegrown” and "lone wolf" attacks are becoming increasingly common as demonstrated by the recent Brussels, Orlando, Nice, and Munich attacks. Although many details have yet to be released regarding the Rio plot, radical Islamic elements—particularly Lebanese Hezbollah—have been active in the Tri-Border region between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina for decades. These operatives have been able to "hide in plain sight" among a large Lebanese ex-patriot community who began to immigrate to the area from Lebanon in the 1950s in the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War. The Olympic Games provides a high visibility target of opportunity for terrorists—particularly as counter-terrorism efforts are largely under-prioritized in Latin America.

The Olympic Games have been sources of regret for even the most established of cities like Sydney, London, or Athens. Therefore, it is perhaps easy to see why emerging cities like Rio de Janeiro would encounter added challenges in anticipation of the games as pollution, illness, poverty, and crime remain largely unresolved on the eve of the event. Revitalizing Rio's crime-ridden favelas or slums has proven to be a tall order as many areas were unpatrolled for decades and largely left to be governed by local crime lords. The task of eradicating crime has been further complicated by last month's police strike over past-due wages where officers made international headlines while holding signs saying, "Welcome to Hell. Police and firefighters don't get paid; whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.” 

Although the Brazilian security apparatus certainly has its work cut out for it in combatting substantial criminal and terror threats, it also has to contend with a public health crisis regarding the mosquito-borne Zika virus. Combatting Zika will be the largest military operation in the Brazilian history with 220,000 troops and 315,000 other public officials deployed in support of activities aimed at mitigating the spread of the disease. These efforts include distributing mosquito nets and identifying and eliminating mosquito breeding grounds. Fears surrounding Zika have been highlighted by some athletes declining to attend the games due to the threat of infection. Others have expressed publicly their concerns over the highly contaminated coastal waters where Brazil will host a number of aquatic events. Journalists and tourists have echoed these reservations, which does not bode well for the anticipated tourism bump the Games were supposed to bring to the picturesque coastal city. In fact, ticket sales to sporting events have been so sluggish that officials have discussed donating tickets to local secondary schools to ensure empty stadiums are not broadcast to the world.

While empty stadiums during the Games is of concern, Brazil—like other previous Olympic hosts—will also undoubtedly deal with the aftermath of abandoned infrastructure in the wake of the games.  Overspending on facility projects that will surely become "white elephants" has become part of the national dialogue surrounding the all but imminent under-delivery on promises of economic development—as was also the case in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The legacy of the Brazilian World Cup stadium construction projects is one of obsolescence and disappointment as $3.6 billion in stadium renovations have left overbuilt stadiums converted to parking lots, abandoned, or condemned from Brasilia to Manaus to Cuiaba. 

Brazil became an "emerging darling" in the past two decades as part of the rise of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) speculation and a successful Olympic bid initially added to the excitement surrounding an emerging Brazil. That hopeful Brazil seems unrecognizable now amid the instability in the wake of Rousseff's corruption crisis and impeachment, economic recession, fragile security climate, and growing public resentment regarding unfulfilled economic promises associated with hosting the Olympics. The Games have in many ways only served to exacerbate and publicize many of Brazil's domestic issues instead of resolving them. For now, it seems that Austrian-born author Stefan Zweig was right when he famously opined in the 1940s that, "Brazil is the country of the future and always will be."

Lisa McKinnon Munde is a graduate of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis and received a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from Stanford University. She served six years as a Naval Intelligence Officer, primarily in support of elite Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) Teams during global contingency operations.