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An Olympics without a smile

By B S Prakash
July 12, 2016 10:30 IST

'As each week brings fresh tales of the woes of Rio on the eve of the Olympics, I wonder whether my friends had a foreboding that the Gods of the Olympics will bring only misfortunes to their country.'
'For, surely, Brazil is now getting ready to host the Games with a joyless spirit, says B S Prakash, formerly India's ambassador to Brazil.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Weeks from now, the Olympics will be on in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

So hope the officials both from the International Olympic Committee and Brazilian officialdom.

So believe the hundreds of competitors who have been preparing to try for the medals for years, some for a lifetime.

So do we all, the potential spectators, the world over.

What about the Cariocas, as the residents of the city of Rio are known -- a term akin to say Mumbaikars?

Are they eager, expectant, exuberant on the eve of the Olympics?

Unlikely.

I was India's ambassador in Brazil for four years, some years ago, and distinctly remember the day when Rio was chosen as the host city for the Olympics.

On October 2, 2009, I was in the city of Sao Paulo, the largest city in Brazil and Rio's competitor in the national psyche. The Indian embassy runs a cultural centre in that city where we were marking Gandhi Jayanti and I was happy to be away from the somewhat dull capital of the country, Brasilia.

The announcement regarding who will host the games in 2016 was being made in Copenhagen. In that race -- and yes, the privilege of hosting the Olympics is indeed akin to a race with all its attendant sweat and tears -- were Chicago, Madrid, Tokyo and Rio.

The other three were formidable contenders to say the least and represented affluence, ready infrastructure, and proven managerial skills.

Brazil, on the other hand, represented adventure, a kind of exotic glamour, and a flamboyant profile as personified by its unconventional then President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

I was at a crowded restaurant for lunch with Brazilian friends as the results came in on the television. Rio had won. The games were to come to South America for the first time.

I was exultant as by then, my second year in Brazil, I had begun to share the pride and joy of Brazilians on their becoming a 'major emerging power', much like my own country, whatever that term meant.

But, wait a minute. I seemed to be among the few in the room who was beaming. There was a silence and even some shaking of heads. 'Were they not happy to be given this honour?' I had to ask.

No one seemed to answer me directly. 'You know, there is the traditional rivalry between our two cities and it is Rio that will get the pride of place, not Sao Paulo,' said one.

Like the wellknown tussle between Delhi and Mumbai, I thought. 'What about the enormous expense?' said another, 'countries go bust meeting the demands of the IOC.'

Looking back today, as each week brings fresh tales of the woes of Rio on the eve of the Olympics, I wonder whether my friends had a foreboding that the Gods of the Olympics will bring only misfortunes to their country.

For, surely, Brazil is now getting ready to host the Games with a joyless spirit. I am still hoping that I will be proved wrong, but it is likely to be an Olympics without a smile.

What has gone wrong? Oh! Everything from the physical to the political, from the psychological to... Where should one begin?

It so happens that Brazil had reached its economic high point around the time it secured the Olympics. In 2010, its charismatic leader Lula finished his presidency after two terms with unprecedented popularity. Brazil was riding high with consistent 6% to 7% growth year after year, with a higher base compared to the Indian economy.

It was rightfully regarded as one of the fast growing 'emerging' economies with plenty of promise. Gradually, but undeniably, its economy began to do badly thereafter, coincidentally (and not because of) on the watch of the next President Dilma Rousseff.

We need not dwell here in detail about the reasons for the decline of the Brazilian economy, but mainly it was due to the global recession, Brazil being a major commodity exporter to China and these exports shrinking, combined with Brazil's inability to undertake reforms.

This process has only accelerated and in the last two years, the economy has actually shrunk by 6% a year, instead of growing.

In short, not the kind of performance that a country wanting to host mega events, first the FIFA World Cup and then the Olympics can stomach.

Next is the political confusion that has engulfed the country with a president who has been impeached and an ineffective transitional government in place, as the nation faces the organisational challenge.

Dilma was never very popular, but even her worst critics do not seriously believe that she was personally corrupt to warrant an ouster. But this has been nearly achieved by her political opponents, demonstrating that in corruption and opportunism, the polity has reached an Olympian high, unfortunately at a critical moment.

Thus when the Games start, Brazil will have a government without either credibility or competence.

These macro factors result in hundreds of not so micro problems. Corruption and inefficiency hampering projects, a feature that is intimately familiar to us in India, have been endemic in Brazil.

The economic downturn and the political uncertainty have accentuated their impact. As a result, for instance, the stadiums are just getting ready, but access to some of them may be problematic. One of the crucial Metro lines is expected to get operational just days before the start of the events.

Guanabara Bay, a picturesque water body for the sailing event, is filthy. Some areas of Rio have been always notoriously unsafe with armed robberies and knifings by urchins as the fear factors. The police had plans to 'pacify' the infamous favelas, the shanty towns on the hills of Rio, but are now in an angry mood reluctant to do their jobs, unless their demands are conceded.

To this long list of man-made insufficiencies and inefficiencies, is added God-made problems. The shattering 1-7 loss to Germany in the World Cup and the subsequent misses of the Brazilian football team are almost an act of vengeful God than a mere non-performance by erstwhile national heroes.

To Rio's horror, the dreadful Zika virus had to spread in this period and is to be feared by residents and visitors alike. Brazil has tried valiantly to battle it, the winter temperatures in Rio around this time of the year should help, but on top of all else, this health hazard that has hit Brazil is akin to a 'curse' afflicting someone already suffering.

The one problem that Brazil has not seen hitherto is terrorism. But the Olympics is a global event and the terrorist threat can come from anywhere. How does the challenge impact?

Brazil did a good job in 2014 at the World Cup and one can only wish them continued luck and success in tackling that scourge.

Staging the Olympics in the 21st century has been an uneven enterprise: Greece managed it in 2004, but was left with a financial mess; Beijing in 2008 set the bar so high with its mega style management that no one will try to emulate that scale; London wisely took a different approach and emphasised people's participation and was rewarded with their own sportsmen doing unusually well.

The problems for the Rio Olympics are many and formidable. Can the city and the country still carry it off with a nonchalance that characterises Brazilians?

Rio is known for its unpredictability, a mix of the beautiful and the cruel, of the erotic and the dangerous, for the super-stylish and the desperately poor. As of today the outlook for these Games is a question mark.

With my empathy for Brazil, I wish them well and wait with some anxiety to see what will unfold.

B S Prakash is a former Ambassador to Brazil and a long standing Rediff.com columnist. His earlier columns can be read here.

B S Prakash
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