On October 2, 2009, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the steelworker-turned-president of a booming Brazil, broke into tears when Rio de Janeiro was named to host the 2016 Olympics. Today, with Brazil immersed in twin political and economic crises, few seem to be thinking about the opening ceremony in Maracana Stadium in 134 days.
Current President Dilma Rousseff is fighting for her political life amid a deep recession, impeachment proceedings, mass protests and a corruption scandal in which the once high-flying Lula, her predecessor and mentor, faces charges.
The plot of the country’s political thriller is moving so fast the Brazilian media have barely had time to cover preparations for South America’s first Olympics, beyond an outbreak of the Zika virus, blamed for causing brain damage in unborn babies. It is hard to even predict who will be president of Brazil when the Olympic flame is lit in the legendary Maracana on August 5.
The Games will be held, but after so much instability they aren’t making news, and the commercial consequences of that are very serious,” said Katia Rubio, a professor in the physical education department at the University of Sao Paulo.
“It’s bad for the strategy of companies that invested in the Olympic project. No one wants to move ahead on Olympics-related issues right now. Considering how serious the crisis is, the Games seem like kiddie stuff,” she told AFP.
Sponsors are still traumatized by the unrest that rocked Brazil in 2013, during the Confederations Cup, the World Cup warm-up tournament.
Then, a million people flooded the streets demanding better schools, hospitals and public transportation, and criticizing the billions of dollars spent on the tournaments.
Now mass protests have erupted again, with a different cause: forcing Rousseff from office.Her supporters have answered with counter-protests condemning a “coup.”
Last week, Nike cancelled the unveiling of its new uniform for Brazil’s national football team, a day after angry demos erupted against Rousseff’s controversial move to name Lula her chief of staff, which would have given him ministerial immunity.
“It’s unclear what will happen if this political uncertainty continues until the Games, and whether it could turn into protests against the event,” said Marcelo Laguna, Olympics correspondent for sports daily Lance.
The International Olympic Committee said Monday it is “monitoring the political developments currently affecting the country,” but that it is confident Brazil will put on an “excellent” Olympics.
The Rio organizing committee has stressed that it is working with “100-percent private” funds. “Even if the current political situation in Brazil is getting a lot of attention, the organizing committee continues to work every day on the preparations,” said a spokesman.
But the timing is less than ideal.
Predicting the congressional calendar is an inexact science, but if events unfold as Rousseff’s opponents plan, the president may be facing an impeachment trial in the Senate on May 3, the day the Olympic torch arrives in the capital Brasilia.
Adding to the confusion, it is unclear who the sport minister currently is. The incumbent, George Hilton, had to quit his party when it ditched the ruling coalition last week. But his move to join a smaller party allied with Rousseff may not save his job. Presidential chief of staff Jaques Wagner said Wednesday that it would be “opportune” to give the job to someone else. A cabinet source told AFP it was “very likely” Hilton would be forced out.
Then there’s the scandal itself. What once seemed a far-away corruption investigation centered on state oil company Petrobras is creeping closer to the Games. Prosecutors said this week they have evidence that construction giant Odebrecht, one of the companies at the heart of the scandal, paid bribes for two projects directly linked to the Olympics, the upgrades of the Rio subway and port. The company has now promised to cooperate with investigators, potentially lifting the lid on a far-reaching graft network.
It is all very far removed from a triumphant Lula’s speech in Copenhagen on the day Rio beat Tokyo, Madrid and even US President Barack Obama’s hometown Chicago for the coveted hosting rights. “Brazil is living an excellent moment. We have worked hard in recent decades. We have an organized and powerful economy,” he said, in those heady days of an emerging markets boom that has now gone bust.
“Rio is ready. Those who have given us this opportunity will not regret it.”
The verdict on that will come on August 21, when the Olympic flame is extinguished.