The Rise and Fall of Rio de Janeiro

How the cultural capital of Brazil went from hosting the World Cup final and the Olympic Games to losing its positive reputation in just four years’ time

Photo by Agustín Diaz on Unsplash

Hosting any Olympic Games (either Summer or Winter) is a dream come true for every metropolis in the world. It has been a common desire of several global cities for over a century, since 1896. Being the center of billions of people’s attention for a few weeks while also showcasing your culture, improving urban infrastructures, attracting investments, and boosting the tourism industry is often interpreted as the pinnacle for any aspiring host city. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro not only was the first and only to ever be held in Latin America, but also seemed like a major symbolic achievement for Brazil individually. In previous years, the country had accumulated significant international prominence and political visibility mostly because of its ephemeral economic prosperity (derived from a commodities super cycle), remarkable poverty reduction, notable wealth redistribution and the unique charisma of its former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2010).

Rio got selected in October 2009 over Chicago, Madrid, and Tokyo. Considering that back in 2007 Brazil was already awarded the hosting rights of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, this was the unquestionable materialization of this nation’s relevance to the broader international community and a reward for all its perceived political and economic successes at the time. However, as we know, things did not work out well for the country in the first half of the present decade. As depicted in a couple of issues of The Economist magazine (12th November 2009 and 26th September 2013 editions), by the time Rio’s image was being intensively publicized abroad, the country was already facing a huge economic recession (stronger than the Great Depression of 1929) and an impeachment process against president Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor. It was like throwing two parties by the time one is getting fired and going through a painful divorce.

Source: The Economist

Rio de Janeiro’s makeup began to melt just a few weeks after the Olympic and Paralympic games were over. The city’s credibility and profile began deteriorating as it soon became clear that the Olympic legacy would not be sustained over time. The Olympic spirit was definitively gone. Not only many sporting facilities were left abandoned and poorly maintained shortly thereafter, but also remained unutilized in the months and years that followed the events. The home of samba, bossa nova, capirinha and feijoada had somehow experienced some sort of evil fairy tale and was slowly regaining consciousness of its objective unfavorable reality. A long-lasting artificial buzz gave place to the closed fists of the carioca day to day life. Then, between August 2016 and August 2020, this is what happened to the so-called ‘city of wonders’:

1. Ethical crisis during health crisis — The state-level Secretary of Health of Rio de Janeiro Edmar Santos was dismissed and later prosecuted and imprisoned due to frauds identified in contacts signed for the acquisition of ventilators during the COVID-19 emergency. While overbilling and corruption schemes are not new in the Brazilian political context, doing this when millions are getting infected by the new Coronavirus and thousands are dying every day is simply inhumane. It’s the worst crime any high-level public health official could ever commit given the situation.

2. Everlasting political disaster — As a direct result of that, the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel, is going through an impeachment process. So far, it’s not clear whether he was involved or even knew about these developments. The fact is that, between 1998 and 2018, four out of five predecessors of his (Anthony Garotinho, his wife Rosinha Garotinho, Sérgio Cabral Filho and Luiz Fernando Pezão) all ended up in jail for being convicted in crimes such as electoral corruption, embezzlement, criminal conspiracy, and money laundering. Although this is a governing entity different than Rio’s City Hall (municipal level), which was responsible for dealing with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), this directly affects the city of Rio.

3. Economic downturn — Rio has been severely impacted not only by Brazil’s 2014–2017 economic recession but also by the notable drop in oil prices in the same period. The state has traditionally relied on the revenues generated by the oil & gas industry and thus saw unemployment rates skyrocket. The situation is now of course aggravated by the crisis imposed by the COVID-19 epidemic, which has hit the country very hard since March 2020. Not to mention all the corruption scandals involving Petrobras, Brazil’s government-controlled petroleum corporation and largest company of the nation, which has its headquarters in downtown Rio.

4. Urban violence as usual — It is not a surprise that four of top-12 Brazilian titles in the IMDb database, namely ‘City of God’, ‘Elite Squad I’, ‘Elite Squad II’ and ‘My Name Ain’t Johnny’ have Rio de Janeiro as their setting. As expected, the movies feature favelas (slum areas), drug trafficking, inefficient police, and the dirty ties between official and parallel sources of power. The so-called milícias (not to be confounded with traditional militias, i.e. non-professional fighting organizations) have dominated several territories of the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area and exert authority where the State seems to be completely absent. These are mainly composed by retired policemen, firefighters and military officials who act as local mafias charging community members for housing, security, and basic services (water supply, natural gas, cable TV, etc). In 2018, a federal (military) intervention took place in the state of Rio between February and December because local security forces were deemed uncapable of ensuring citizens’ safety due to lacking resources.

5. Sewage in place of clean water supply — In the first weeks of 2020, many cariocas were complaining about the quality of the water that they were receiving at home. It had taste, smell, and color — everything any good quality water should not have. Some people even reported bacterial infections and diarrhea. Rio de Janeiro’s government-controlled water and sanitation company (CEDAE) became overexposed and had to drastically change the way they were filtering it, using activated carbon. A scientific study released in June 2020 finally indicated that the phenomenon wasn’t caused by any algae. Instead, it was caused by industrial and domestic sewage being directly spilled into the Guandu river. Recent discussions have been indicating that the company might be privatized very soon not only as a solution to this problem, but also to chronic mismanagement and lack of investments in old infrastructures.

6. Olympic scandal — Finally, on top of all this, yet unproven allegations by the former governor Sérgio Cabral Filho (who was convicted to 267 years in prison) were made public in July 2019 that the bidding process for the 2016 Olympic Games was subject to vote-buying. So far, accusations are mainly targeted at Carlos Arthur Nuzman, former president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB), Lamine Diack, former president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), and legendary ex-athletes such as Serguei Bubka, Ukrainian former pole vaulter, and Alexander Popov, Russian swimmer who had won the gold medal four times. Investigations are underway.

We are now in mid-2020 and Rio de Janeiro is certainly not a place to be at if you are a non-resident. The hopelessness is a cross-cutting feeling in every street and corner of this beautiful city. Credibility is below zero. The homeless population has doubled or tripled, socially vulnerable citizens are struggling to have access to their R$600.00 (around US$116.00) monthly emergency allowance due to bureaucratic obstacles while a significant portion of the population is not even wearing a mask (at all or properly). Rio might be at its all-time low spiritually speaking, but there is nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse. Some people say it was a bad deal transferring the capital to Brasilia back in 1960. Other people say it would be a good idea to turn Rio de Janeiro into a federal city or city-state by changing its legal and political status — just like the German examples of Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg. The only certainty is that something must change.

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News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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Gregorio de Matos

Gregorio de Matos

Internationalist and Global Public Health professional holding a Master’s degree in Public Policy. Brazilian / Portuguese.

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