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Opinion, by Sam Watt

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – This week the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is in Rio de Janeiro promoting the Olympic legacy. As it stands, this legacy merits re-evaluation, not promotion.

Sam Watt, Rio de Janeiro entrepreneur.
Sam Watt, Rio de Janeiro entrepreneur.

The 2016 Rio Olympics are special for a number of reasons. Not only are they the first Olympic Games ever to grace the shores of South America, but they arrived at these shores by a different route than most. A distinguishing feature of Rio’s 2016 bid was a clear mandate for “social change;” one that “supports and accelerates long-term development strategies.”

Traditionally the IOC has placed emphasis upon environmental as opposed to social sustainability when selecting Olympic bids. Rio is currently in danger of failing to deliver on both accounts.

Certain environmental objectives already appear unattainable; notably the Guanabara Bay Sanitation Program, however the same is not true for other core promises found in the Olympic bid. Major infrastructure projects and tourism benefits notwithstanding, important social mobility projects have fallen to the wayside.

Social programs found in the original bid; principally Morar Carioca (Live Carioca), have the potential to affect social change at a community level. They also represent an opportunity to set an international precedent for mega-events in cities with pronounced social inequality. This would seem a responsibility not to be shirked lightly, and yet the program’s funding has been cut to the point of dysfunction.

Morar Carioca was a much lauded social program pledging the integration of all favelas into the city of Rio de Janeiro by 2020. The program had the potential to affect sustainable and participatory social change. It represented an intelligent departure from the endemic New-Developmentalism of large infrastructure projects with undervalued construction costs and overestimated trickle-down and multiplier effects. Ostensibly the program still exists however a more appropriate moniker now would be negligência Carioca.

Mayor Eduardo Paes originally presented the Morar Carioca program as a key component of both the 2010 Olympic Bid and his 2012 mayoral re-election campaign. He also delivered a TED talk addressing the same social policy investments.

An explanation of why the funding has been cut is not forthcoming however institutions involved cite shifting “political agendas” and note that the order originates from a senior government position. Which tremors caused such a shift of political tectonics? One might speculate that their focal point lies somewhere amongst the US$7.8 billion of private funding that comprises 57 percent of the total Olympic budget.

IOC President Thomas Bach told a large group of students this week that “the human and sporting legacy of the Games is enormous.” Mr Bach should heed Shakespeare’s titular advice about honesty; there is certainly “enormous” potential for a “human” legacy. However the Rio authorities’ investment priorities must undergo a sea change if the huge potential for social mobilization is to be realized.

The title quotation is from the play All’s Well That Ends Well. Members of the IOC Coordination Commission and Executive Board; both meeting this week, should be wary of optimistic aphorisms such as this one. There are priorities to be readdressed before Rio can secure the legacy of which it is capable.

*Sam Watt is an entrepreneur based in Rio de Janeiro where he harbours a keen interest in socio-economic policy, and a boat.

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