Athletes from over 200 countries are gathering in Rio de Janeiro to compete in the Summer Olympic Games. With the opening ceremony days away, a number of complications have painted a gloomy picture of post-Olympics Brazil. It is imperative that nations use the Rio Olympics as an opportunity to gain a fuller understanding of the situation in Brazil, and use that to inform future policy decisions. Doing so can set in place a road to recovery for the country in face of serious economic and health issues, and a pending impeachment trial.
Upon arrival, athletes were greeted by an unfinished and uninhabitable Olympic City that suffers problems with gas, electricity and plumbing. As a result, delegations from multiple countries, including Australia, Argentina, Sweden and Britain, have been forced to find alternative living arrangements. Other countries, such as the U.S., Italy, and the Netherlands, have independently hired electricians and plumbers to fix their housing.
In the months leading up the Games, worries were centered on the prevalent Zika virus, prompting a number of athletes’ decisions to not participate in the 2016 Olympics. While there have been fewer cases of Zika, and Rio de Janeiro’s Health Secretary claimed that the risk of infection has been overcome, a new health concern has taken the spotlight: contaminated water. Researchers have found a variety of pathogens in the waters of Rio, “from rotaviruses that can cause diarrhea and vomiting to drug-resistant ‘superbacteria’ that can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems.” Lack of sanitation threatens locals, athletes, and spectators, which in turn facilitates the spread of disease across borders and overseas.
In addition to a suffering infrastructure, Rio is subject to and at risk of violence and terror threats. Although not new to the Olympics, experts have questioned Brazil’s preparedness. Richard Ford, former FBI anti-terror expert, expressed concern that authorities weren’t taking the threats seriously enough, despite the country’s efforts to reinforce its security for the games. While terror attacks have been rare in previous Olympics, existing security issues in Brazil – porous borders, drug cartels, etc. – facilitate the access to weapons and explosives in the area. The country is no stranger to hosting large events and welcoming millions of foreign visitors, but it prides itself in having little history of terrorism.
The mission of the International Olympic Committee is to, “contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination or any kind, in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” However, the many setbacks Brazil faces have the potential to jeopardize the mission, leaving the host country worse off than before.
Although Rio 2016 has brought a greater level of scrutiny to the issues in Brazil and, to an extent, Latin America, the international community has taken little action to rectify the situation. Effective public diplomacy requires action, rather than simply glossing over issues. The few actions delegations have taken, such as hiring their own workers to fix their housing, have solely focused on their own needs and interests.
During the Olympics, athletes, as well as visitors, should take the time to share an in-depth understanding of the situation in Rio with their home communities, encouraging and pressuring their governments to engage with Brazil to address the economic and health issues it faces. Leaders visiting Rio should take the opportunity to meet with Brazil’s government, and other nations, to discuss collaborative plans to combat Zika virus, water pollution, and terrorism. It is important that both participants and spectators realize that these issues will remain even after the Olympics end. Walking away with more medals does not make a country immune to the consequences of having these issues remaining unresolved.
In light of all the setbacks, prominent leaders of the International Olympic Committee have said that they will avoid hosting future Olympics in cities that exhibit signs of instability. While looking ahead is important, it is just as vital that leaders do not turn their back on Brazil after the games, especially in such crucial times. U.S. engagement during the games can lead to stronger and more effective communication between the U.S. and Latin America post-Olympics. This will facilitate a collaborative effort to improve conditions in Brazil and the rest of Latin America. U.S. public diplomacy in Rio de Janeiro during and after the Olympics will provide the U.S. with the opportunity to be more involved with Latin America as it undergoes significant political changes.
Image courtesy of AK Rockefeller / flckr.