Were the Rio Olympics worth it for Brazil?

Daniel Charlton, Sports Editor

On the evening of August 20, the Brazil men’s soccer team sealed an Olympic Gold Medal, sending the Brazilian people into the streets in celebration. Only one day later, the Rio 2016 Closing Ceremonies came to a close, spelling a final send-off for a record-breaking Olympic Games. Michael Phelps, winner of 23 golds and 28 total medals, became the most decorated Olympian of all time. Fellow American swimmer Katie Ledecky burst onto the scene by winning four gold medals and one silver—all before the 19-year-old had even left for her first day of college.

Brazil was the first South American nation to host the Olympics. Despite the landmark occasion, these games were mired in controversy created by a wide array of recent political and economic problems in Brazil.

The central question of Rio 2016—if the Olympics were worth it for Brazil—is not one that only arose after the conclusion of the games. Speculation and doubt surrounded Brazil’s ability to host a successful Olympics ever since the nation’s bid was accepted back in 2009. At the time of this bid, Brazil’s economy was booming. Now just seven years later, it is mired in the largest recession in the last 80 years with increased levels of unemployment and debt. 

The current cost estimate of the Rio Olympics is at $12 billion, yet many experts predict that it will eventually rise to $20 billion. At the same time, Brazil has made significant cuts to its education and health budgets, while the national deficit has only ballooned in the years since 2009. This has raised the question of whether sporting events should be prioritized over basic human necessities such as education, health and clean water access. Many have wondered how many children will be unable to attend fully funded schools and how many people will die due to inadequate health care funding as a result of these games.

The Rio Olympics, however, can also be observed from a different lens—one that stresses the importance of hope. This Olympics has been a moment of pride for the Brazilian people and the sporting events have offered a release from the stress of day to day life. There may be no better example of this than the gold medal soccer match that sent the country into joy and helped the Brazilian soccer team to regain its swagger. Even more importantly, these Olympic games told the world that South America, and particularly Brazil, is a powerful global force and can serve as a source of inspiration for other continents that have yet to host an Olympics.

Despite these arguments, the Rio Olympics were a spectacle for only the rich to enjoy. The average ticket price for most popular events hovered around $280, and therefore only Brazil’s economic elite could afford to truly experience the games in person. Roughly 23 percent of Rio de Janeiro’s population live in poor slums known as favelas and the $280 ticket price tag for popular events was more than Brazil’s monthly minimum wage. In contrast, NBC paid $1.23 billion to the International Olympic Committee for the rights to televise the Rio games; however this money did not benefit Brazil’s poor in any way.

The Rio 2016 Olympics can still be viewed as a relative success. There was an overall lack of violence, no Zika virus or bacterial outbreak and water safety concerns remained at a minimum. The Olympics is an opportunity for the world to set aside its differences for two weeks and come together for its love of sport. And that is exactly what happened when Usain Bolt, once again, proved that he is the fastest man the world has ever seen.

Fans witnessed greatness in the pool, on the track, in the gym and on the beach, and over 100 Olympic and world records were broken. Most importantly, Brazil was able to show that hosting the Olympics is not only reserved for Asia and the West, and this has paved the way for Africa to host in the future. After establishing itself as South America’s regional leader and putting on a sporting spectacle that the world can admire, Brazil now has a responsibility to take care of its citizens and become a champion for human rights.