Why the Olympics are Bad for Development

If you’ve so much as glanced at world news headlines lately then you probably know there’s something serious going on in Brazil. Widespread corruption in the current governing coalition, the Worker’s Party (PT), led lawmaker Jovair Arantes to recommend the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff isn’t the only one in trouble, though; if she is suspended or impeached, it’s unclear who will take over in her absence, as Vice-President Michel Temer and the two men next in line to stand in are all facing legal trouble over corruption allegations.

The PT’s rise to power in Brazil has been accompanied by a series of corruption scandals: in 2005, evidence that members of Congress were illegally taking public funds in exchange for votes resulted in the conviction of 25 politicians, bankers, and businessmen seven years later; in 2014, an investigation dubbed Operation Carwash launched into allegations that construction firms overcharged Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, for building contracts and handed kickbacks to executives, politicians, and PT campaigns.

All this chaos and corruption comes at an extremely inconvenient time, as Brazil is up to host the 2016 Summer Olympics in less than four months. There are questions of whether the city’s construction companies, some of which already filed for bankruptcy starting last year, will complete construction of the olympic facilities in time for the beginning of the games . Following the resignation of Brazil’s tourism minister, disintegration of the governing coalition and rising domestic unrest, many are questioning Brazil’s ability to host such a high profile international event and even suggesting the inevitability of a coup.

Brazilians protesting Dilma and the PT http://www.politicoscope.com/2015/08/17/brazil-brazilians-support-president-dilma-rousseff-impeachment/
Brazilians protesting Dilma and the PT


But all these financial and political troubles did not emerge in a vacuum; there is immense pressure on Brazil to develop robustly and quickly for the Olympics, as there was with the World Cup just two years ago, and as there is with any country tasked with hosting these high profile international sporting events. Recent evidence showed that financial misconduct relating to Operation Carwash included possible bribes for multi-billion-dollar projects to support both the Olympics and the World Cup. This is a familiar tale: there were investigations into bribes related to both Qatar and South Africa’s bid processes for the World Cup; there is $30 billion simply “unaccounted for” after Sochi’s Winter Games; a former Beijing official was given a suspended death sentence after news reports indicated he was involved in “bribery and lavish living.”

What could be the root of such ills? Surely leaders have good intentions when bringing these events to their home country. In fact, when former President Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva secured both the Olympics and the World Cup to be hosted in Rio de Janeiro, he said, “Today I have felt prouder of being a Brazilian than on any other day.” Lula and leaders like him champion the idea of bringing their own developing country to the world stage by hosting such a prestigious event successfully, and aside from the prestige, events this big create thousands of jobs and bring billions of dollars and thousands, or possibly millions of visitors. Leaders like Lula who recognize the need to bolster their developing economies through this kind of activity know that the Olympics are great for development.

Are they really, though? The Olympics create a huge demand for infrastructure and a stabilized domestic situation. Stadiums, hotels, and transportation must be built; crime, sickness, and other aesthetic impurities must be quelled. There is a time limit on those needs, too, so politicians and firms have an unavoidable incentive for corrupt business practices. And perhaps most importantly, Olympics development is not sustainable development. Someday, all those visitors and athletes will go home, the construction projects will no longer need workers, and the world’s attention will shift again to the next lucky city. Infrastructure often lies in disrepair– abandoned venues in Athens are a famous and shameful symbol of government waste– and the often-corrupt business and political schemes that made the event possible do not just go away.

Brazilians protesting Dilma and the PT http://www.politicoscope.com/2015/08/17/brazil-brazilians-support-president-dilma-rousseff-impeachment/
Abandoned Olympics facilities in Athens http://www.businessinsider.com/2004-athens-olympics-venues-abandoned-today-photos-2012-8

To be fair, not all Olympics venues end up failures; Barcelona strategically used the 1992 Summer Games to redevelop and revitalize a run-down part of the city and not just, as documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit put it, “have a two-week party.” Those kinds of plans require careful planning, though, and good governance: qualities that Brazil, despite its prominence in the global economy, evidently does not have.

The use of the Olympics as a tool for development is a vestige of neoliberal developmental traditions that push for money and business, not government reform or disruption to the status quo. The fact of the matter is that there is too much money and business at stake in developing for the Olympics, and corrupt governments who see the increased economic activity as development success are prone to bad governance to make that activity flow. Development needs to be holistic to be successful; if we truly care about improving the status of people in developing countries, we can’t be afraid of the repercussions of challenging the status quo to establish fair, inclusive governance rather than allowing profit-hungry leaders to rule with greed. Until the Olympics and other international sporting events learn this lesson, embrace and enforce non corrupt practices, and take into account the distinct needs and plans of host states, they will be counterproductive to development.

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