• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
The London Olympics come to an end today with a big Brazilian performance during the closing ceremony to mark the next games in Brazil. With the conclusion of the London games, the reports on Rio's preparedness for 2016 are bubbling up yet again. But it wasn't exactly smooth sailing in the UK. London's experience provides some insight ahead of the games in Rio.
- Traffic was a problem, despite an extensive subway system. The city set up "Olympic lanes" for athletes, which caused confusion and traffic during the beginning of the games. And despite the special lanes, traffic caused delays for athletes arriving at several events.
- Ticket sales were considerably lower than expected, leading the government to call in the military to fill empty seats. In addition, corporate sponsors, athletes' families, and other ticketholders with reserved seats failed to use them. Another issue was the fact that 50,000 tickets were held by foreign agencies trying to sell last-minute tickets at inflated prices. The huge swathes of empty seats caused an uproar in the UK.
- London's local businesses actually suffered during the Olympics, leading economist Nouriel Roubini to dub the games "an economic failure." After warnings for Londoners and tourists without Olympics tickets to avoid public transportation during the games, parts of the city normally swarmed with tourists were practically empty. The city's taxi drivers association estimated a 20-40 percent reduction in passengers, and the British Museum said visitor flows had fallen around 25-30 percent. Retail stores and restaurants also reported considerably fewer customers.
- The immediate economic benefits of the games are still unclear. Prime Minister David Cameron said the games could bring in revenues of $20 billion over the next four years. But the costs of holding the Olympics overran the initial budget, and are now estimated at between $16 and $20 billion.
In spite of these experiences, Rio officials assured the international media that steps are being taken to avoid similar problems. Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said infrastructure projects would increase the city's public transport capacity from 18 percent of the population to 60 percent. He also said the city didn't intend to waste money on stadiums that would only be used for the Olympics, like China's now infrequently-used bird nest stadium.
Leonardo Gryner, director general of Rio 2016, said empty seats wouldn't be a problem, and that the city would use a text message alert system to announce last-minute available seats. He assured that unlike London, Rio wouldn't be empty during the games. Questioned about security, he went as far to say that Rio is one of the safest parts of Brazil. He also said all construction would be ready in time. But if London came under scrutiny for the Olympics, one can only imagine what South America's first Olympics host can expect.
Because of the upcoming World Cup and Olympics, Brazilian authorities are under much more pressure to make improvements to Rio, particularly in security and infrastructure. Such investments have potential to bring the city important long-term benefits. But with one of the worst public health systems of all of Brazil's state capitals, one of the cities with the largest number of dengue cases in the country, the state with the second-highest incidence of tuberculosis in Brazil, and the third-worst performing high school system of the country's state capitals, investments in health and education are critical. What matters for Rio, after all, is far beyond a two-week stretch of sporting events.