What Brazil must take away from its Olympic Games to make them a success

Arthur Howard Nelson
Pasante de FUNPADEM

It’s been about one week since closing ceremonies marked the completion of the 2016 summer Olympics, a world “mega- event” hosted by Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As music artists, athletes, and those in attendance at Maracana Stadium celebrated what they had considered to be a relatively successful Olympic Games, Brazilian government officials were able to breathe a brief sigh of relief. What seemed impossible less than a month ago due to concern over Zika virus, contaminated water, and unfinished sport complexes came to fruition. Despite criticism from both the international community and domestic population, the 2016 summer Olympics was far from the logistical and practical disaster that some had predicted.

However, the glory of this achievement was not a long lasting sentiment held by the Brazilian government. As soon as this week, the Brazilian senate will vote on whether or not to impeach president Dilma Rousseff who was suspended in May after being publically condemned for her position on the board of directors of Petrobras, Brazil’s state- run oil company, during a scandal involving corruption and money laundering. And so, while the issue of potential impeachment jumps to the center of Brazil’s focus, the Olympic Games has become all but forgotten by the international media and Brazilian officials.

But this would be a damning mistake by Brazil, as there is a single issue central to both this year’s Olympic Games and public dissatisfaction with the government that must be addressed in order for Brazil to fully realize its potential as a rising economic power. This issue, too often neglected by the international media and the Brazilian government before, during and after the games is inequality of wealth distribution.

Although international focus was particularly paid to the presence of the Zika virus and the lack of clean water in Brazil before the Olympics, Brazilians had a complete understanding of the economic calamity contemporarily plaguing their society. While the nominal GDP calculated by the International Monetary Fund indicated that Brazil’s economy was the 9th wealthiest in the world, the poorest 40% of the country possessed a measly 10.3% of the country’s wealth. In contrast, the richest 20% enjoyed over 58%.

Despite the assurance by Brazilian officials that hosting the 2016 Olympics would improve Brazil’s economic situation at both the local and national level, actions taken by the government warned that its priority was not the distribution of wealth to the most suffering segment of its population. As Dom Phillips reports in The Washington Post, the Brazilian government evicted some residents of poorer communities, called favelas, in Rio to make way for Olympic construction projects. Walls were also constructed to keep the favelas from visitors’ views, a both literal and symbolic barrier between the games and the potential for poor communities to access the wealth it would bring.

And, as the Olympic games progressed, it became even clearer that with the contemporary policies of the government, income inequality in Brazil would be worsened by the international event, not mitigated by it. In his piece for the New York Times in which he traveled to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to understand impoverished residents’ perspectives of the Games, Michael Powell found that the general sentiment of the economically unfortunate was that “the rich people play while we die.”

Powell further reports that while the Brazilian government spent an incredible 16.6 billion USD on construction projects related to the Olympics; hospitals, schools, and pension funds had been severely defunded. As he recounted his experience living without a pension check for months and his heartbreak at the fact that education and health in his community has been ravaged by cuts to allocate money for the Olympics, favela resident Geovane Prince could only say “all the corruption, the suffering … too much pain. We are sick of investing in this.”

According to Seven Pillars Institute, the media has consistently quoted a large multiplier effect, claiming that for every 1 USD invested in the Olympic Games, Brazil can expect to pull in 3.26 USD. While SPI states that multipliers like this could be exaggerated by anywhere from 10 to 90 percent, will poor Brazilians see any improvement in their communities’ economic situation assuming the country made at least some profit from this year’s Olympics? An analysis of recent history indicates that no, they will not.

For, as described above, not only has wealth distribution in Brazil been abysmal as the country has grown into a rising economic power, but Brazil hosted a similar event just 2 years ago that can be used to compare the likely outcome of the wealth generated by the 2016 Olympic Games. In its efforts to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Brazil invested about 15 billion USD. This included the improvement of infrastructure, the construction of stadiums, and the employment of security officers for the event.

As with the 2016 Olympic Games, local critics were angered that such lavish spending was taking place in a country where the poor were experiencing immense suffering and economic hardship. But, as with this year’s Olympics, the government countered that hosting the World Cup would bring great economic benefit to the country. However, as Tony Manfred concluded, almost all World Cup venues still hadn’t generated a profit a full year after the Cup’s closing ceremonies. In fact in 2015, while stadiums built were being used as bus parking lots, Brazil declared a “health sector emergency” amid budget cuts to such services.

In Dave Zirin’s Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, the author points to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games as the sources of one of the biggest public outcries for change in recent Brazilian history. As he puts it, these two events reflect the Brazilian government’s prioritization of aggregate economic growth over equity and the well- being of its marginalized populations. Protests met with ignored calls for justice by the Brazilian state have characterized both these two events, as well the contemporary socio political environment in the country.

Now that the Olympic Games have ended and the impeachment hearings for Dilma Rousseff begin, Brazil will soon embark on a slightly altered path toward the future. While this direction may be seen to be an outcome of who will lead Brazil until the next election in 2018, domestic and international actors should not be so quick to forget the lessons learned from the 2016 Olympics.

A nation’s poor and forgotten will not be fooled by the allure of an international event, new sports stadiums, or increases in tourism. They may seem like economic boons to the outside observer, but those who live in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas do not see it in the same light. They actually have to live with hospital closures, school failings, dire poverty, and dangerous living spaces, never knowing if their families’ situations will be improved.

Whether is Dilma Rousseff or Michel Temer leading Brazil into its future, the government needs to change the kind of nation it’s becoming. Officials may see the benefit in taking actions to improve aggregate growth, allowing multinational companies and events such as the Olympics to bolster both the nation’s GDP and the pockets of the elite. But, if such growth continues to be at the expense of Brazil’s poor, the political unrest that has recent plagued the country will never end, nor should it. The exact redistributive and economic policies Brazil should take to include and serve these populations is beyond the scope of this article. However, as I have discussed, the economic policies that brought Brazil the 2016 Olympic Games are certainly a step in the wrong direction for a country that has the potential to provide such progress and wellness to all of its citizens.


Carless, Will. “Brazil could impeach Dilma Rousseff by next week.” PRI (August 12, 2016). http://www.pri.org/stories/2016-08-26/brazil-could-impeach-dilma-rousseff-next-week.

“Financing, Ethics, and the Brazilian Olympics.” Seven Pillars Institute. http://sevenpillarsinstitute.org/case-studies/financing-ethics-and-the-brazilian-olympics.

Keller, Yves. “Inequality and Economic Growth in Brazil.” Thesis: University of Zurich. http://www.econ.uzh.ch/ipcdp/theses/BA_YvesKeller.pdf.

Manfred, Tony. “Brazil’s $3 billion World Cup stadiums are becoming white elephants a year later.” Business Insider (May 13, 2015). http://www.businessinsider.com/brazil-world-cup-stadiums-one-year-later-2015-5.

Phillips, Dom. “Thousands join anti- Olympic protest in Rio before Games begin.” The Washington Post (August 5, 2016). https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/08/05/thousands-join-anti-olympic-protest-in-rio-before-games-begin/.

Powell, Michael. “Officials Spent Big on Olympics, but Rio Natives Are Paying the Price.” The New York Times (August 14, 2016). http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/15/sports/olympics/rio-favelas-brazil-poor-price-too-high.html?_r=0.

Zirin, Dave. Brazil’s Dance with the Devil. N.p.: Haymarket Books, 2014.
















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