The headlines in the lead-up to the Rio Olympics could not have been more terrifying. Body Parts Wash Ashore in Sailor’s Bay! Dread Virus Spread by Mosquitos (and Sex) Sure to Afflict Athletes and Spectators! Wolf Packs of Street Criminals Prepare to Swarm Hapless Visitors!
In the end, the biggest crime story at the Olympics was a mugging that never happened. Yes, a diving pool turned green for a few days, and the traffic was pretty impressive for anyone who doesn’t live in, say, Bangkok, but the Rio games surpassed the expectations of both foreign observers and the Brazilians themselves.
To be fair, a lot of the downbeat mood coming into the Olympics reflects the journey Brazil itself has traveled in recent years. When Rio won the games in 2009, the country seemed to be ascendant and few could have anticipated the devastating effects of a global recession, collapse in oil prices and political disarray.
And it’s not as if Brazil begins with a sense of superiority. There’s a phrase people here use “complexo de vira-lata’’ (roughly translated as stray dog complex) which refers to the sense that local products and the country itself is invariably inferior to the more developed world. In polling done before the Games opened, half of Brazilians said they believed the Olympics would end up embarrassing the country.
Some of that downbeat sentiment found its way into the pre-Olympics coverage by the international press. And you could glimpse aspects of it at the competition itself. When the Brazilian women defeated the legendary Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross in beach volleyball, the celebratory music that filled the glittering new stadium at the edge of the ocean included Michael Jackson. It was an incongruous choice for a country that gave the world bossa nova and samba.
For Rio, the Games were more of a lost opportunity than an epic failure. The city draws millions of visitors every year for Carnival and for its incandescent New Year’s celebration. The original argument for holding the games in Rio was that it would help develop sorely needed infrastructure in the city’s less-privileged neighborhoods. But by the time the planning had turned into reality, the arenas wound up in the city’s wealthy western district, which just happened to be a boon to one of the city’s largest developers. The area is lined with closed condominiums, plastic surgery offices, and, in the region that specializes in mass quantities of barbequed meat, an Outback Steakhouse.
“Was this a good investment for the city, the state, and the nation?” asked Juliana Barbassa, author of the definitive book on contemporary Rio, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink. “I continue to argue that from the broadest perspective, the games were a disaster. No, we didn’t have a terrorist attack, and the worst things that people expected to happen didn’t happen. And we had some beautiful moments—certainly Biles, Phelps, and Bolt captured the hearts of Brazilians. But this was absolutely not in the interest of the people of Rio.”
Not even tourists wanted to spend extra time near the Olympic venues, which lacked restaurants (many people came hoping to eat, only to wind up having popcorn and Coke—two of the only items on the sparse concession menus that were always in supply—for dinner) and anything resembling a Brazilian vibe. Instead, they went to clubs in the renovated downtown port district, the epicenter of colonial Rio. “It’s not by chance that the place visitors preferred was there,” said Claudia Antunes, a Rio-born journalist. “Although it has problems of its own, it corresponds more to the spirits of Rio, a city where people like to be together in the street.”
The games offer a suspension of a reality that for the short term is not promising, Antunes said. The state of Rio is bankrupt, and the interim federal government is about to approve an economic package that will result in deep cuts in health and education.
And Rio will have to borrow for its next event, September’s Paralympic Games, and has had to borrow to pay the vast number of police officers who have been pulled from crime-ridden poor neighborhoods in order to provide security in areas where tourists congregated. (Many predict that they will strike after the Games, when funds will invariably dry up.
But, just as Rio demonstrated during the World Cup in 2014, and as it does every year for Carnival and New Year’s, Brazilians showed the world a good time. “Everything went quite smoothly, perhaps more than expected for foreign observers,” Antunes said. “But not for us really.”
Cassio Conceicao, a Brazil-born business executive in the Silicon Valley who was in his native Rio to watch the games with his parents and siblings, said he was gratified by how the games turned out. “At the end of the day, Rio was able to impress and surprise the outside world—the scenery is just breathtaking, the people are relentless partiers, and the organizers proved competent and effective,” Conceicao said. “It was a great show.”
The competitions ended with the best imaginable outcome in this soccer-mad country. Brazil beat its arch-nemesis, Germany, for the gold medal in a shootout. Neymar, the current god of Brazilian soccer, blasted home the winning kick. The crowd at Maracana—and in living rooms and bars across the country—erupted in joy.
The victory will not address the larger problems created by the choices in the Olympic construction. But for at least one night, everyone in Rio was riding an Olympic high.