Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was proud of and pleased with his country (and himself) when he addressed the International Olympic Committee in 2009. “The Olympic Games will be unforgettable,” he said, “because they will be filled with the passion, happiness, and creativity of the Brazilian people.” The Olympics—Lula’s Olympics—offered Brazil a chance to star on the world stage, and to prove it was prepared to play the part.
The year was 2009. At the time, I, like so many other Brazilians, witnessed an important, historic moment for our country: Brazil had won the bid to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games of 2016. After three failed attempts to host the Games (1936, 2004, and 2012), the bid delegation went to Copenhagen resolute to make its case to the International Olympic Committee. One by one, athletes (soccer player Pelé!) and government officials (Rio Governor Sergio Cabral and Mayor Eduardo Paes) assured the committee that Brazil was ready. The delegation’s most important member, however, was Lula, the then-president, who delivered an emotional speech to the committee.
Lula, carrying with him the hopes and dreams of more than 190 million Brazilians, urged the committee to acknowledge that it was our time. For Brazil, and for Latin America as a whole, hosting the games was an unprecedented opportunity. Of all the finalist countries bidding for the games (U.S., Spain, Japan, and Brazil) that year, Brazil was the only one that had never hosted.
Most importantly, however, to host the Olympics would be to change how Brazilians saw themselves, to consolidate achievements and pave the way for many more. “We need your support… Rio is ready, and those who give us that chance will not regret it,” Lula said.
That bid meant so much: Brazilians and the international community alike were very aware that winning the bid for the games was a symbolic stamp of approval on the Lula administration and the confirmation of Brazil’s emergence as a country that should be respected and taken seriously as an important member of the international community.
Brazil was, after all, experiencing incredible growth and progress: 30 million Brazilians had been lifted out of poverty, and 21 million had made it to the middle class. Its economy was amongst the 10 largest in the world. The potential was there. Brazilians saw it and believe in it, and so did the international community. It could have been beautiful, and Lula would have basked in the rays of the beauty.
But now 2016 has arrived, and it’s clear that Brazilians got burnt. We wanted to show greatness; instead, problems with infrastructure have plagued the games since the first brick was laid. And so, 100 million dollars later, athletes are leaving the Olympic village due to broken toilets and exposed wiring.
We wanted to prove our economy was strong enough. We are now facing worst recession in decades and rising inflation, and also the occasional moment of reflection to wonder if the money wouldn’t have been better spent with something else.
We wanted to get over the stereotype that Brazil wasn’t safe for the many tourists who would flock to Rio for the Games. Rio’s security forces are in shambles and its police hasn’t been paid in months, due to a recently declared state of financial disaster that puts the state’s basic infrastructure on the brink of collapse. There’s also Zika, a strange and dangerous disease we have no means to control or cure, and that’s scaring away athletes and tourists.
This was Lula’s pride, and so, too, is it his shame. The people he once governed now feel like they have been lied to and made to believe that their country had finally climbed out of the hole of corruption, economic stagnation, and failed democratic institutions. With Dilma Rousseff’s removal from the presidency, and the looming chaos that will ensue once the Games are over and the impeachment process returns to the spotlight, it is hard for anyone in Brazil to be excited about the Games. The Games right now matter so little. But the loss of what they could have been—that matters a lot.
Come Aug. 5, the world will be watching Brazil. We will put on a smile and do our best to do what Lula promised the IOC we would: to be passionate and creative and, above all, happy, and to welcome the athletes and tourists and give the world the best Games we can possibly put together. But in the back of their minds, while they watch the gymnasts and swimmers, Brazilians will be wondering how they will be paying their bills next month. While they take pictures with the tourists and show them how to samba, my fellow compatriots will be trying to imagine what their country will look like once the festivities are over, and real life sets back in.
Will the Games be a total failure? Probably not. But they have already been an embarrassment, and they will never—they can never—be what we hoped they would be, and what they might have been if our leaders had considered what I and so many millions of Brazilians wished they had remembered: that it takes more than just beautiful beaches to host an event of the magnitude of the Olympic Games, and to prove to the world that we’re ready for all that implies.
And no, the current mess is not solely Lula’s fault. The collapse of Brazilian democracy and economy cannot be pinned on one single individual. Maybe he was naive, and truly believed that Brazil’s dark days were behind us, that everything was fine and that the country was on a sure shot trajectory toward being one of the big players. But I cannot help but wonder if today’s environment would be this chaotic had he not overplayed the little progress and been more cautious about what we could and could not take on.