Don’t Call The Rio Olympics A ‘Success’

Brazil’s Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira celebrates after winning the Men’s 200m T44 final at the 2012 London Paralympics. CREDIT: EMILIO MORENATTI, AP
Brazil’s Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira celebrates after winning the Men’s 200m T44 final at the 2012 London Paralympics. CREDIT: EMILIO MORENATTI, AP

The 16 days of Olympic competition in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil were not the unmitigated disaster so many feared they would be. Scores of athletes didn’t become sick due to the bacteria-infested waters. Stadiums didn’t collapse mid-match. Events weren’t interrupted due to random acts of violence.

In fact, all the events were completed as scheduled, and there were plenty of heroic athletic feats and inspirational stories along the ways. The legacies of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt were cemented; the legends of Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles were born; and athletes of different races and religions, body types and backgrounds burst through preconceived barriers to win medals and change minds.

But, despite all of that, the Rio Olympics were not a “surprising success story.” Rio did not “pull off” something “miraculous.”

The individual athletic successes came at a cost, one that the Paralympic Games will be paying for in two weeks and the citizens of Rio will be paying for much longer.

Even though there is no supporting evidence that the Olympics is a long-term boon for a host city, when Rio bid for the 2016 games, it stated in no uncertain terms that it would improve the lives of everyday citizens if awarded the games. Those improvements were supposed to come in the form of legacy projects, which included cleaning up 80 percent of the sewage in the bay, upgrading urban housing, and improving public transportation systems. Needless to say, none of those things were actually accomplished.

Since Rio’s Olympic bid was approved, Brazil’s economy completely collapsed. During that same time period, corruption ran amok in the Rio organizing committee. This means that most Olympic plans were executed at the last-minute, leaving the legacy projects as an afterthought.

Aaron Gordon detailed for VICE Sports how the Rio Olympics ended up being a chance for the rich to get richer:

Something like $12 billion — roughly $15,000 per Carioca, five times the annual minimum wage salary in Brazil — was spent on the Rio Games. Nearly all of that money went to the already wealthy: developers, landowners, transportation moguls, massive — and allegedly corrupt — construction firms, effectively making the Olympics an enormously successful regressive wealth transfer program, taking money from the poor and middle class via taxes and giving it to the rich.

This is, of course, nothing new. As Huffington Post reporter Travis Waldron notes, the Olympics have always been bad for poor people. From 1988–2008, more than 2 million people were forced out of their homes due to the Summer Olympics. In Rio, upwards of 90,000 citizens — mostly poor people from favelas — were displaced.


“ Displacement of the urban poor is a hallmark of the modern Olympics, a virtual certainty rather than an accidental occurrence,” Waldron says.

Additionally, Rio militarized its police force in order to keep crime in the favelas under control, but only ended up exacerbating the problem. Crime and police brutality stole the headlines ahead of the games, and during the actual games things only got worse. According to Amnesty International, there was an average of one police killing per day in Rio between April and June, and in the 16 days of Olympic competition, at least eight people were killed by cops during “violent police operations” in favelas which violated numerous human rights.

“Brazil has lost the most important medal at play during Rio 2016: the chance to become a champion on human rights,” said Atila Roque, Executive Director at Amnesty International Brazil.

“The Brazilian authorities missed a golden opportunity to follow on their promises to implement public security policies to make Rio a safe city for all. The only way to undo some of many wrongs that took place during the Games is to ensure all killings and other human rights violations by the police are effectively investigated and that those responsible are brought to justice.”

While the president of the IOC has maintained his claims that no public money has been used for the Rio games, that is categorically false. Since all of the local organizing committee’s money for Rio is gone before the Paralympic Games even begin in two weeks, a Rio judge ruled last week that public funds could bail them out.


Even with that ruling, the Paralympic Games are being forced to swiftly reduce costs because the Olympics went so far over budget. Last Friday, the Paralympic organizers were forced to “close a venue and media facilities, cut staff and shrink stadium capacities.” There are approximately 10 countries who will struggle to even get their athletes to Rio because travel grants haven’t been paid on time.

“The Games will happen, but they may not be — I wouldn’t say tip top, but maybe not as relatively luxurious as in the past,” Philip Craven, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, told reporters on Friday.

Of course, even during the Olympics, luxury conditions were limited to the elite. The cleaners at Rio’s athlete’s village were paid just $1.83 an hour. Thirty percent of the volunteers quit because they weren’t fed properly and had to work such extremely long hours. And all of this while International Olympic Committee officials were walking around with $900 per diem, their organization profiting from the most commercially successful games in history.

The IOC wants you to pay attention to the flashy medals and uplifting closing ceremony and ignore the many damaging decisions along the way that left poor Rio citizens displaced, exploited, and footing the Olympic bill for years to come; and elite, physically disabled athletes fighting over leftovers.

Individual athletes had successes in Rio, and there’s nothing wrong with savoring them. But don’t let that distract you from the systemic failures at play in the Olympics as a whole.