In August 2016 Brazil became the first South American nation to host the Olympic Games, while simultaneously facing one of its most chaotic periods in history.
In the seven years since the 2016 Olympics were awarded to Rio de Janeiro, an unprecedented sequence of political, economic, health and social crises have upended Brazil’s confidence in becoming the next global power. On the eve of the Games, the nation faced a crippling economic recession, the Zika virus outbreak, and a sweeping political and corruption scandal. Unable to finance security and other public services, the State of Rio declared a “state of calamity.” Olympic organizers exceeded their original budget by billions and missed key construction deadlines. What’s more, Olympic preparations were linked to the eviction of thousands of families, a rise in police killings, the destruction of natural preserves, and the erasure of historical sites.
Thanks to the MISTI MIT-Brazil Program, I spent this summer in Rio and witnessed as the city prepared to host the Games in the face of such chaos. As a Master of City Planning student, my research at MIT focuses on the challenges and opportunities of organizing modern-day mega events, particularly in emerging markets of the Global South. Needless to say, being in Rio during the Olympics was an infinitely enriching opportunity.
While in Brazil, I was one of five Global Policy Fellows at the Institute for Technology and Society of Rio de Janeiro (ITS-Rio). ITS is a non-profit independent think-tank that promotes emergent technology opportunities in Brazil, and advocates for policies and practices that protect privacy, freedom of expression and access to knowledge. As an ITS Fellow, I was able to link my research on urban mega events with the growing role of technology and innovation in urban development.
Mega events have traditionally been linked with technological innovations. They provide a showcase and opportunity for new advances in telecommunications, security measures, transportation, and data collection and analysis. In Rio for instance, aerostat-mounted wide area motion imagery cameras were used to secure the city against major threats, while athletes used digital bracelets to pay for goods, both for the first time. During an ITS Fellows trip to São Paulo, we visited the Microsoft Technology Center and learned of their partnership with Rio 2016 to host key event services on the cloud for the first time. We also met with AirBnB, which for the first time became the official alternative accommodation services supplier for an Olympic Games. And we discussed the future of the sharing economy in mega events with Uber, which rolled out UberPoolin Rio and offered passengers access to free Wi-Fi hotspots citywide just in time for the Games.
As cities increasingly turn to tech innovations and smart city approaches to facilitate urban management, mega events will continue to appeal to locations seeking a platform on which to justify and carry out their innovations. Tokyo’s presentation at the Closing Ceremony in Rio was a testament to this vision. The city promises nothing short of a technical revolution by the time it hosts the 2020 Games. Their Olympic plan already includes robot porters, wearable translators, and driverless cars.
But while such innovations may help to make the Games more efficient, they can only go so far without fundamental reforms to the existing mega event model. A more significant ambition would be to build upon the unplanned legacy of the Rio Olympics. This summer’s Games helped to highlight that the existing model of staging mega events is fundamentally flawed and must be transformed to better benefit host locations. The event brought global attention to the problems in Rio, enabling Brazilians to organize historic demonstrations against the social and economic costs of the Games, and stimulated international discourse on reforming large sporting events. MIT-Brazil afforded me the remarkable opportunity to be part of this important discussion.
To the surprise of many, Rio pulled off the Olympics without any devastating hiccups, barring some green pools and Lochtegate. In fact, Rio during the Olympics was quite fun. I enjoyed meeting locals and visitors from around the world. I had insightful discussions with other researchers, academics, activists, and Olympic organizers. I attended several forums, both for and against the Games, focused on the long-term legacy of the event. I enjoyed table tennis, platform diving, and rugby matches, witnessed the USA basketball team’s win over Argentina, and enjoyed beach volleyball on Copacabana with fellow MIT-Brazil students.
The greatest challenge for Rio and Brazil, in many ways, lies ahead. The nation must continue to deal with persistent social, political and economic woes. (Days after the Olympics, Brazil’s first female president was impeached and an ultra-conservative alliance regained control of power). In the end, regardless of which legacies of the Olympics are pursued, Rio 2016 made it clear that future mega events must offer fundamental and sustained benefits to the social and economic development needs of the host city and nation.