Why is Everyone so Surprised by the Apparent Lack of an Olympic Legacy in Rio de Janeiro?

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Guest post by Dr. Ian Brittain and Dr. Andrew Jones, Centre for Business in Society

Criticism of the failure of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games to achieve the often unrealistic and unachievable legacy goals now expected following the hosting of an Olympic Games, despite the consistent failure of previous hosts to live up to their own legacy objectives, is currently rife across all media platforms (TV, Radio, Print, Social). Newspapers and websites are filled with headlines such as “So much for the Olympic legacy: Rio venues are left in disrepair just six months after Games” (Bartlett, 2017), “Rio Olympics 2016: Should Brazil have done better with Olympic legacy?” (Davies, 2017) and “Legacy of Rio Olympics So Far Is Series of Unkept Promises” (Kaiser, 2017). At least Farand (2017) hints at a possible reason for this lack of legacy with her headline “Rio 2016 Olympic venues left in disrepair as Brazil struck by its worst recession in modern history”.

When Brazil, and the city of Rio de Janeiro in particular, won the right to host the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games at the 121st International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in Copenhagen, Denmark in February 2009 its economy was booming. Brazil was one of the then four BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations (South Africa was added in 2010), which Jim O’Neil, Chief Economist at Goldman Sachs had predicted would overtake the six largest western economies in terms of economic might by 2041 (later revised to 2032) (Tett 2010). As part of their economic development strategy the Brazilian government chose to use international sporting events of various scales to promote both tourism and economic investment within the country. A sample of events other than the 2016 Games included the 2007 Pan and Parapan American Games, the 2011 Military World Games, the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The Brazilian government attempted to link the often cited development legacies of previous host cities of such events to three key priority areas: urban transformation, social inclusion and as a stimulus for the practice of sports (Rossi, 2013). However, the global economic downturn and in particular massive drops in the price of commodities, combined with political and corruption scandals within the Brazilian government have seen the Brazilian GDP fall by nearly ten percent over the last three years (Allen 2016).


Ververidis Vasilis / Shutterstock

As already alluded to above the economic situation in Brazil throughout the 2000s was particularly strong giving the Brazilian government and the Rio 2016 Organising Committee a great deal of confidence that they could put on a highly successful Games that would bring numerous positive legacies to Rio and the rest of the country. According to Hakim (2016) when President Lula da Silva left office in 2011 ‘Brazil was widely recognised as Latin America’s gold standard for economic development and social progress’. Hakim claims that powerful trends in the global economy greatly aided Brazil’s economic success including a ‘skyrocketing demand for commodities, which Brazil exports in large quantities’ to countries such as China whose economy was also booming and in addition just as world oil prices were peaking Brazil discovered large offshore reserves. All of these factors and others meant that the Brazilian economy boomed attracting billions of dollars in inward investment. However, major collapses in commodity and oil prices throughout 2014 and 2015 hit Brazil’s economy hard (Allen 2016). Claims that new President Dilma Rousseff manipulated the federal budget to disguise a growing deficit using money from state-run banks to plug holes in the budget eventually led to her impeachment and removal as President (Leahy 2016). The situation was also compounded by a massive political corruption scandal based around the state-owned oil company, Petrobras, which embroiled many senior politicians and business leaders in a nationwide scandal. Overall, problems of governance, corruption and political issues, combined with rising debt, created a ‘perfect storm for continued political instability’ that saw Brazil’s economy suffer its worst slump for a quarter of a century in 2015 (Allen 2016). All of these things occurred at a critical point in the preparations for the worlds’ biggest sporting.

Facing an economic crisis driven by corruption allegations, political turmoil, declining commodity prices, and weak overseas demand, forty-nine days before the start of the 2016 Olympic Games, the Governor of Rio de Janeiro declared a state of ‘financial emergency’ calling for federal support in order to avert a ‘total collapse’ in public service provision (Watts, 2016). The scale of the crisis in Rio is illustrated by the state-government devising spending plans which budgeted for an oil price of $100 per barrel, but in reality state-owned oil company Petrobras was receiving around half this amount, causing significant job cuts (Watts & Douglas, 2016). Despite lower tax revenues and growing unemployment, the Rio state’s request for a bailout from the federal government was rejected, with the fear that accepting such a proposal would encourage other states to ask for similar support. The consequences of this position have been cuts in even the most basic of public service provision, including reductions in police and education spending with little or no money to pay teachers or health workers. Rio state was forced to slash budgets across the board, including that of the police. Helicopters were grounded and more than half of the civil police’s fleet of cars were taken off the road in a bid to save on petrol costs. Even officers’ salaries were delayed. (The Guardian, 2016). In addition, Rio state also reported record-breaking crime in 2016 in almost all categories from homicides to robbery (Farand, 2017). Unable to provide even basic services and with crime at record levels is it really so surprising that a positive legacy from Rio 2016 has not emerged?

Part of the problem appears to be that the concept of legacy appears to be based upon the premise that legacy is just a product of good planning and adequate financing, isolated from the wider political economy and context – a kind of ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. However, as Brittain and Beacom (2016) point out, mega-events (in their case the Paralympic Games) do not take place in a vacuum, and as such, the success or otherwise of legacy plans are at the mercy of the local, national and, increasingly, the global political environment/ political economy. Added to this is the fact that most legacy planning for the truly major events such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the FIFA World Cup takes place seven to ten years before the event actually takes place. It is, therefore, almost impossible for planners to know what the situation, in terms of the local or global political economy, might be in the future, which makes guaranteeing any kind of legacy almost impossible. Indeed, is it fair to chastise the city of Rio for failing to live up to their legacy promises when they cannot even afford to fund basic services such as health, education and law enforcement? Some may argue that to a certain extent the situation in Rio de Janeiro was self-inflicted, but at the same time none of the news articles criticising Rio’s failure to deliver on their legacy policies offer any kind of criticism aimed at the decision of the IOC to give the Games to Brazil in the first place, despite obvious similarities with what happened with the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. It appears very few lessons have been learned from the past.


 Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock

The consistent failure of previous hosts of recent Olympic Games raises the question of whether we should even be looking at the concept of legacy? Rather, should event organisers and host cities and governments be far more deliberate and focused on leveraging more specific outcomes? This is particularly relevant given that, as we have highlighted above, legacy does not take place in a vacuum and so much long-term impact is actually largely out of the control of those that either dictate, or try to implement, the legacy agenda of a particular mega-event. The size and scope of some mega events is such that controlling the implementation of every goal, potential impact, or long-term legacy is extremely challenging and perhaps unrealistic. This especially true given the often conflicting interests of the various stakeholders involved in such events and the fact that some legacy plans might actually conflict with other legacy plans e.g. economic plans versus environmental or socio-cultural.

The concept of legacy has been promoted as inspirational, motivational, and mystical in suggesting that mega events are so powerful that the event somehow ‘lives on’ after the event itself ends. Although the evidence appears to suggest that mega events do not create legacy, a greater emphasis on leveraging these events may enable a viable legacy to develop (Brittain et al, In Press).

BBC: Rio Olympics 2016: Should Brazil have done better with Olympic legacy?

Allen, K., (3 Mar 2016), ‘Brazil’s economy slumps to a 25-year low’. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/mar/03/brazil-economy-low-oil-prices-inflation

Bartlett, N., (20 Mar 2017), So much for the Olympic legacy: Rio venues are left in disrepair just six months after Games. Retrieved from http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/much-olympic-legacy-rio-venues-10058127

Brittain, I. & Beacom. A., (2016), Leveraging the London 2012 Paralympic Games: What Legacy for Disabled People? Journal of Sport and Social Issues 40(6): 499–521.

Brittain, I., Bocarro, J. & Byers, T., (In Press), Conclusions. In Brittain, I., Bocarro, J., Byers, T. & Swart, K., Legacies and Mega Events: Fact or Fairy Tales? Routledge; UK.

Davies, W., (20 Mar 2017), Rio Olympics 2016: Should Brazil have done better with Olympic legacy? Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/olympics/39323546

Farand, C., (10 Feb 2017), Rio 2016 Olympic venues left in disrepair as Brazil struck by its worst recession in modern history. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/olympics/rio-olympic-venues-disrepair-2016-brazil-worst-recession-economy-ruin-a7572786.html

Hakim, P., (2 Jun 2016), Here’s what really went wrong with Brazil’s economy. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-latinamerica-brazil-economy-commentar-idUSKCN0YH08D

Kaiser, A.J., (15 Feb 2017), Legacy of Rio Olympics So Far Is Series of Unkept Promises. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/15/sports/olympics/rio-stadiums-summer-games.html?_r=0

Leahy, J., (31 Mar 2016), What is the Petrobras scandal that is engulfing Brazil? Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/6e8b0e28-f728-11e5-803c-d27c7117d132

Rossi, C., (26 Aug 2013), Apoio e resistência popular à realização de megaeventos: algumas lições para o Brasil. (Support and popular resistance to the achievement of mega-events: some lessons for Brazil). Retrieved from http://bibliotecadigital.fgv.br/dspace/handle/10438/11190

Tett G., (15 Jan 2010), The story of the Brics. https://www.ft.com/content/112ca932-00ab-11df-ae8d-00144feabdc0

The Guardian (28 Jun 2016) ‘Welcome to Hell’: Rio police protest financial disaster ahead of Olympics. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/jun/28/rio-olympics-safety-security-budgets-cut

Watts, J. (17 Jun 2016) Rio de Janeiro governor declares state of financial emergency ahead of Olympics. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/17/rio-de-janeiro-financial-emergency-olympic-games-2016

Watts, J. & Douglas, B. (16 Jul 2016) Will the Olympics offer Brazil a way out of crisis or add to its burden? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/16/rio-olympics-crisis-brazil-zika-athletes-woes-uplift



Coventry University

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