Raining On Rio’s Parade

5th Aug 2016 | Posted by Gilberto Scofield Gilberto Scofield's picture

From 2004 to 2008, I lived in Beijing and was able to closely monitor the city’s preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. More than $40 billion were invested in the festivity. Surprisingly, only 20% of that investment was for the forty new stadiums, arenas and facilities directly related to the Games while the bulk of the money went into urban interventions and public transportation updates. These improvements ensured a qualitative leap in the dynamics of the capital: a new airport was built and access roads to the city were expanded; the subway system was duplicated and the light rail completed; smaller avenues were built to improve traffic around the city.

The whole time I lived in Beijing, the infrastructure projects interfered in mine and everyone else’s lives. The traffic jams were monumental, and the sprawling construction sites created an eternal dust, making everything muddy, from cars to buildings to clothes. Despite the inconvenience, a key detail of the project was its end date: by January 2008, all projects were over. There was only landscaping left to complete before the Games began that summer.

This detail made all the difference. Beijing citizens had from January until August to understand the legacy that the Olympic Games had brought to the city. The quality of life was improved: getting around was faster and the city was more beautiful. When the Games began in August, Beijing embraced the event with pride.

Ahead of this year’s Games in Rio de Janeiro, we have a scenario that mixes the county’s political and economic crises, the financial breakdown of the state of Rio and the delay of infrastructure works within the city. With all these factors coming into play, the outlook of the “cariocas” (natives of Rio) – and of Brazilians overall, according to recent survey by Datafolha – is less optimistic than the Beijing citizens in 2008.

This negativity storm flooded the Games with pessimism, an effect that the Olympic communication teams has been trying to turn around, not an easy task in this environment of polarization and constant stress. With the Games beginning today, infrastructure projects were down to the wire, and obstacles for Rio citizens are abundant: getting around the city is a martyrdom and local insecurities have increased. The exasperation of Rio’s citizens seems doomed to linger until the Games begin.

Unlike Beijing in 2008, there was no time for the population to understand the legacy of acting as host city for the Olympics, and no opportunity to enjoy the infrastructure upgrades that typically come hand-in-hand with hosting. Critics of Rio’s lack of preparation tend to combine everything – managerial incompetence, economic and political crisis and the poor quality of public services in general – turning the Olympics into a giant mixed bag of bitterness and disappointments.

When I lived in Beijing – covering the Games for a Brazilian newspaper – I closely followed both the preparation for the Games and the communication efforts of the BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games) and local and foreign media. For this year’s Games in Brazil, I was able to participate in some of the comms meetings for the Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, while also following local media coverage and the efforts of City Hall.

My experiences with both cities has shown me that the differences and challenges of Beijing and Rio in the lead up to the Olympics could not be more different. One obvious difference is that, in the face of China’s totalitarian government and controlled media, the coverage surrounding the Beijing Olympics was only praise. The relocation of families to make room for new buildings – a sight that was not a rarity in the run-up to the Games – could only be read in the foreign press or in the (still) independent South China Morning Post. Due to this strict media control, the life of the BOCOG communication team was pretty quiet and normal.

In Rio, the task of producing a positive image of the Games is a daily challenge. The unrelenting pessimism – apparent since the city’s first real preparations began in 2013 – seems to prevent the locals from experiencing the Olympics as the fantastic party that it is, and prevents the communications team behind the Games from taking advantage of a unique PR opportunity for both the country and the city. As proof of the discontent of Rio’s citizens, many have tried to extinguish the flame of the Olympic torch on its way to Rio, even going so far as to organize groups on Facebook.

At the start of Rio’s preparation, the communications team was in good spirits: work was still being done, but there was a sense that all would be delivered on schedule. But with delays and problems becoming more concrete, the press reports on them daily, magnifying issues – like work delays – that were prevalent in other host cities as well. Problems at the Olympic Village were also found in Beijing…and in London…and in Athens (where delays were the rule!)

Although communications teams are going in the right direction with their messages – including strong emotional appeal and stressing the legacy of being a host city and the “party atmosphere” most Brazilians emulate – these campaigns are useless without greater visibility. The government also needs to be more honest and transparent when reporting what projects have been completed, what projects are on-going and how these projects are financed. Overall, they need to increase transparency around their actions.

Brazilians – especially the citizens of Rio – have every hope that this great global celebration will be a success. We are friendly and hospitable people, and the city will be better in many ways after the Games. The Olympics are a brief moment of happiness in time where hatred and terror seem to have taken over. The people who want to get swept up in the celebratory nature of the Games aren’t naïve – they’re hopeful! Tonight’s Opening Ceremonies will be a day of celebration – let the Games begin!

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