Rio, the right choice

Olympic Games: In the 120th year of the movement, the Games will finally land in South America
Last Updated 03 October 2009, 15:26 IST

In recent years, the International Olympic Committee has expressed the need to represent all its constituencies, to move its quadrennial festivals around the world.

The IOC has put its money where its press releases have been. On Friday it voted to put the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, thereby putting the Olympics in South America for the first time in what will be the 120th year of the modern Olympic movement.
In the cosmic scheme of things, it was the absolute right thing to do, even though three other great world cities made compelling bids -- Chicago, eliminated first, Tokyo eliminated second, and Madrid. Any of them would have been terrific, but Rio made the most sense in the spirit of the games, often expressed, not always observed by the Eurocentric burghers who dominate the IOC.

Geopolitical bloc voting could have produced the spread that saw Chicago with the low total of 18 votes after the first round, according to Harvey Schiller, a former executive director of the US Olympic Committee, who was an observer in Copenhagen. Now the president of the International Baseball Federation, Schiller said Chicago suffered because of recent gaffes by the USOC, but he also said the desire to spread the games around was a factor.

Next year's World Cup, the biggest sports tournament in the world, will be held in South Africa because of the inclusive policy of the world soccer body, FIFA. In 2014 the World Cup will be held in Brazil. Welcome to the world.

With the push of an electronic button in Copenhagen, nearly 100 IOC members supported the expression by Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, that it was the right time to correct the imbalance among world sporting hosts. Last week in New York, da Silva made the case that Brazil's growing economy, fueled by oil and aircraft factories, had made it more than the nation of the samba and the beaches and the emotional soul of soccer.

"I honestly believe it is Brazil's time," da Silva said Friday, and a few hours later, it was.
Brazil's leaders have tried to combat the image of the gangs in the hillside favelas, or slums, with da Silva noting that Brazil, at least, is not the target of world terrorism. In the fierce competition for this world showcase, just about anything is fair game.

The biggest loss on Friday was suffered by Chicago, which had put up an impressive plan for a compact area close to Lake Michigan and its familiar skyline and its handsome downtown.

The Chicago City Council even voted, by 49-0, early in September, to create an insurance plan that would guarantee any losses from the 2016 games. Losses can happen, as shown by the large deficits for previous hosts like Montreal, Sydney and Athens. In recent polls, Chicagoans seemed virtually divided, with many residents concerned that the games could take away resources from schools and hospitals and the transportation system. The Olympics are hardly the economic boon its boosters like to claim.

When Chicago was eliminated in the first round, thousands of residents let out a mass sigh and shuffled back to work, just as happened in Paris in 2005 when that city lost to London.

Britain's prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, had flown all the way to Singapore to bring home the 2012 bacon. In 2007, the then-president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, made the run to Guatemala City to bring home the 2014 blinis for the Sochi region.

This time, President Barack Obama felt impelled to make a flying visit to Copenhagen, joining his wife, Michelle, as well as Oprah Winfrey. It is a sign of the times that the president's willingness to stick up for a great American city was depicted as sordid local politics by radio and television yappers.

The president talked about Chicago and himself as examples of American diversity, he chatted up IOC members, and maybe he never changed a single mind because of factors having nothing to do with him.  Some members of the IOC are still smarting over the scandal at the turn of the century when officials in Salt Lake City were discovered buying off IOC members. Some members still miss the shopping trips for their wives and jobs for their sons, and have not forgotten the anger of Sen. John McCain at a Senate hearing in April 1999 and of representatives at a congressional hearing in December 1999.

Those long memories did not help New York's clumsy candidacy for the 2012 games, and may have hurt the vastly superior plan by Chicago this time around. The USOC, which has become as remote as North Korea, may have doomed Chicago's bid by trying to create an Olympic television network.

The three defeated cities will go on.

Chicago still has its symphony orchestra and the Art Institute and the Bears.
Tokyo had a competent green plan for 2016, but it may have suffered for having already hosted the games. It continues to be a fascinating city, with the Tsukiji fish market, plus the city, lit up at night like a pinball machine.

Madrid had a compact and thoughtful plan but probably was hurt by Barcelona's having hosted the games in 1992. It still has Goya in the Prado and Real Madrid in the Bernabeu stadium.

Rio may have given the impression that it needed the games more than the other three cities. It can surely match its competitors for image -- "city of love and mysteries," in the Antonio Carlos Jobim song, "Song of the Jet," which will make anybody an instant Brazilian. The IOC, in its burgeoning inclusiveness, is doing the same.
Parabens ao Brasil. Congratulations to Brazil.

Facts about Rio

*The city got its name from Portuguese explorer Gaspar Lemos, who believed its bay was the mouth of a river when he arrived in January 1502. He therefore called the region Rio de Janeiro (River of January).

*Rio was the seat of the Portuguese empire for 13 years from 1808, cementing its place as Brazil's capital and center of culture after the Portuguese royal family relocated there to take refuge from Napoleon's European invasions. It remained Brazil's capital city until 1960, when the federal government shifted to Brasilia.

*As well as its famous beaches, which stretch for about 30 miles, Rio boasts the world's largest urban forest. The Tijuca forest covers some 7,900 acres.

*Rio's first slum, or favela, was created in 1897 when soldiers returned from battle in the northeast and camped on a hill to protest the government's failure to provide them with housing. Today, there are about 1,000 favelas in the city, home to about a fifth of Rio's 6 million people.

* Rio's annual Carnival attracts more than half a million visitors a year in a generally peaceful but debaucherous celebration that revolves around samba music. Samba originated with slaves brought to Brazil from Africa and exploded in the 1920s with the formation of Rio's samba schools.

Rio’s challenges


Despite the considerable sports infrastructure built for the 2007 Pan-American Games, Rio will have to build from scratch nearly half the stadium capacity it needs and carry out renovations to provide another 24 percent of the minimum required seating. This will require building a wide array of facilities such as an arena for diving and water polo. The Maracana soccer stadium is expected to be up to par by 2016 because it will be upgraded for the 2014 soccer World Cup to be held in Brazil.


Beating traffic will be a top priority for Rio because the city has a limited metro system that does not link the city center and most of its hotels to the outskirts of Barra da Tijuca, where the venues are concentrated.

The city will spend $5 billion on rapid-transit bus lines to cut through traffic between Barra and the beachside neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema. Organisers say athletes should get to events within 25 minutes, though fans may sit through up to an hour of traffic.

The city failed to honor ambitious transportation promises made in the run-up to the Pan-American Games, including metro extensions and a system of ferries along Rio's coastline. And even the new bus system will not link the international airport to the venue circuit.

Renowned for its natural wonders including beaches and the Sugar Loaf mountain, Rio is also notorious for violent crime in its shantytowns, or "favelas," driven largely by warring drug gangs.

While most of the events are far from Rio's slums, some venues are in areas considered to be high risk. The Maracana soccer stadium, for example, is close to the Manguiera favela where gang confrontations and shootouts are not uncommon.

The organisers note that despite these concerns, there were no serious security problems during previous events such as the Pan-American Games and the 1992 Earth Summit.


Rio's abundant lakes and vast coastline make it ideal for water sports, but heavy investments are needed to clean up years of pollution.


Rio needs to build several complexes including the Olympic Village that will provide some 25,000 of the 48,000 hotel rooms needed for the Games.

Even with these facilities, the city still plans to provide a considerable amount of the total accommodation through cruise ships docked in rundown port areas of Rio.
A proposal to spend $210 million to revitalise the port area is stalled.

(Published 03 October 2009, 15:24 IST)

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