What’s not a game in Rio Olympics

As host to the 2016 Games, Brazil hopes to both rebrand itself abroad and improve its own society. The Games remain a force for good, and each Olympics leaves its own legacy.

AP Photo
Rowers warm up during practice in Lagoa ahead of the the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Aug. 4.

This month, the eyes of the world will be on Rio de Janeiro for the 17 days of the 2016 Olympics. Like previous hosts of the Games, Brazil hopes to create a good impression and rebrand itself. Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Brazil, the world’s fifth most populous nation, has an opportunity to show it “can be a great country.”

Besides that, however, officials also want Brazilians to be on good behavior – and adopt new and better habits sustainable after the Olympics. The organizing committee for the Games even has a person in charge of “legacy.” She hopes the event will be a model for less corruption and discrimination in Brazil as well as for a new spirit of volunteering.

Hosts of mega-sports events often use the spotlight of international attention to reinvent themselves. Much of the focus is on new stadiums, speedy transport, or other modern infrastructure aimed at transforming a city, or least a portion of it, and preferably with no buildings left as white elephants. But improve civic manners? Be courteous to guests? Litter less? Commit fewer crimes?

These are only a few of the behavior modifications wished upon host populations. In the 1964 Games, Tokyo shooed away its organized crime syndicates (Yakuza). Atlanta tried to reduce homelessness in 1996. Beijing set up no-smoking sections and removed dog meat from restaurants in 2008. For the Games in 2020, Japan is already pushing its people to show more “omotenashi,” or hospitality.

To be sure, the Olympics can be a driver of social change, but not always in ways that leaders expect. The 1988 Olympics in Seoul helped oust a dictator and bring democracy to South Korea. Greece’s overspending on the 2004 Games in Athens contributed to a debt crisis and a new government.

In Brazil’s case, massive spending on both the Olympics (about $14 billion) and the 2014 World Cup stirred popular resentment and led to a string of protests. Coupled with an oil-related scandal, a president has been felled and politics remains in turmoil. One of the Games’ biggest legacies may be a cleaner and more responsive government. At the least, officials in Rio hope the event will lift up the city’s poor by creating work and new transport systems.

The point is that the modern Olympics can be a force for good, much as the ancient Olympics were designed for peace between Greek city-states. The Games are not only for athletes and fans. The locals can benefit, too. Athens now has better public transit. Atlanta’s downtown has been improved. “Each Olympic Games and host city is unique, so naturally each of the legacies will be unique, too,” concludes a study by Rand Corp., a think tank.

The Rio Games can be as character building for Brazilians as it is for the athletes, only with no medals and perhaps a new outlook for a better society.

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