Rio 2016 and the (Broken) Promises of the Olympic Games

Onlookers watch the Rio Games’ opening ceremony from the city’s favelas.

By Simon Darnell and Rob Millington

 The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro were to catalyse and signify Brazil’s final transition into a modern, developed nation. Yet, many were skeptical of the city and country’s ability to host the event successfully, citing levels of pollution, crime, and a lack of infrastructure. Could hosting in a city like Rio simply exacerbate such issues?


By all accounts, Rio de Janeiro’s successful bid for the 2016 Olympic Games was remarkable. For the first time since 1968, the IOC awarded the Games to a city in a “developing” nation within the global South, and for the first time ever bestowed the Olympics upon a city in South America. Many within Brazil saw this successful bid as affirmation of the country’s newfound standing within the international community, and a catalyst for its final push towards becoming a modern, developed nation. Then President Lula da Silva made clear the significance of the Olympics in this regard, declaring that the Games marked “Brazil’s chance to present itself to the world, [by leaving behind] its status as a second class nation.”1 Lula’s claims drew on the popular logic of Olympic hosting, namely that holding a sports mega-event provides an opportunity for a host city and country to unlock significant capital towards the reconfiguration of cityscapes, particularly the construction of facilities, transportation, and commercial and tourist areas, as well as an opportunity to broadcast an image of a modern, advanced state to the rest of the world.2 Notably, Lula also claimed that the event would provide “an opportunity to improve the living conditions of the people of a country,”3 a particularly significant statement given Rio and Brazil’s legacy of poverty and inequality, as well as the rather dubious track record of the Olympic Games when it comes to leaving a positive, sustained social legacy.

Nonetheless, the promises attached to Rio 2016 were not out of the ordinary. Such potential benefits of hosting an Olympic Games – as well as other sport mega-events like the FIFA World Cup – have become increasingly attractive for emerging nations like Brazil that seek to project an image of “development” to an international audience and to reap the benefits of increased tourism, foreign investment, and international prestige. Thus, the awarding of the 2016 Games to Rio continued the trend of sport mega-events being taken up by non-traditional powers as part of their development strategies, with the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India, the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil all serving as prior examples.

However, while the development potential of Rio 2016 was promoted from the outset, it was quickly accompanied by doubts and fears surrounding the city’s ability to stage such an event successfully, with many citing crime rates, pollution levels, and the lack of infrastructure as barriers to hosting the Games. During the event, such concerns intensified. Coverage of Rio 2016 was replete with tales of incomplete competition venues and accommodations, polluted water for aquatic sports, poor event management, crime, and general civil unrest throughout the city. Such reports fed the notion that the Brazilian Organizing Committee was not prepared to host the event, or worse, that a “developing,” global South nation is unable to host an event of the magnitude of the Olympic Games.

Potential benefits of hosting an Olympic Games have become increasingly attractive for emerging nations like Brazil that seek to project an image of “development” to an international audience and to reap the benefits of increased tourism, foreign investment, and international prestige.

At the same time, such concerns about the practicality of staging the Olympic fortnight in a city like Rio are only the tip of the iceberg. A plethora of critical scholars and social activists cited concerns about the efficacy of hosting the Olympics in Rio during the entire 7-year run-up to the event. In particular, they argued that while the benefits of hosting sports mega-events are attractive to emerging, semi-peripheral or non-traditional states, the stakes are higher for such polities, with fewer resources available and slimmer margins for error as compared to traditional host cities.4 From this perspective, a city like Rio was always in a precarious position as host; when unforeseen problems emerged or costs overran (as they inevitably have done in the recent history of the Games), the “winners curse” meant that resources simply had to be found. In turn, the opportunity costs are higher – in Rio and Brazil where poverty and inequality is multi-generational, and basic public services lacking amidst a crippling recession, the fact that so much money was spent on a sports event is increasingly difficult to justify.


These examples might suggest particular struggles or challenges for Rio and Brazil in its attempt to host a successful Olympics. From our perspective, however, such issues are illustrative of the broader politics of hosting sports mega-events. Again, scholars and activists have long argued that hosting events like the Olympics and World Cup does little to overcome social inequality and economic stratification and indeed largely exacerbates such problems through displacement and gentrification. In turn, the intense commercialisation of such events often results in public money being funnelled to private interests and hands. Thus, despite being promoted as a boon to social and economic development (in global North and global South nations alike), the fanfare surrounding sports mega-events tends to obfuscate the neoliberal tendencies underpinning them, forces that result in the private accumulation of wealth, the displacement of marginalised populations, and the privatisation of land and resources to the detriment of the natural environment.

This has been particularly acute in Brazil, where the size and cost of Rio 2016 has intensified social and economic inequalities, and raised questions about matters of human rights and social justice. Jules Boykoff has argued that the Olympic Games often take place in a “state of exception” whereby normal policy priorities are compromised and individual rights sometimes suspended in the name of hosting a world class sport event.5 This is perhaps best illustrated in Brazil by the repossession of land from informal housing communities known as favelas through “Police Pacification Units” (UPP), whereby police/military units enter such spaces, remove prominent drug traffickers, and occupy the area. While the state has argued that the UPPs are of benefit to local communities, local activists have shown that these evictions are often conducted at random, through the use of violence, and with the intent of consolidating land and wealth under the pretence of health and safety. Tellingly, such activities have been criticised by both the United Nations Human Rights Council and Amnesty International.6

Rio has seen regular street protests against this appropriation of land and displacement of local populations, as well as the lack of investment in impoverished areas, not to mention health care, education, and transportation. Indeed, most of the public funding for the Games has come from Rio’s city government, which in June declared a state of financial emergency requiring the release of federal emergency funds. As a result, Rio state employees and pensioners are owed wages, with many hospitals and police stations adversely affected.7 The point here is not that the political contestability of hosting the Olympics is unique to Rio and Brazil; rather, given its precarious position, the stakes of Olympic hosting are higher for Rio, and the negative effects and opportunity costs of hosting have proved more difficult to overcome or ignore compared to other Olympic cities.

The scale of the Olympics is now such that hosting seems increasingly unsustainable, socially, economically, and environmentally; the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, for instance, reportedly cost close to $51 billion (US) .

All of this raises the question of whether the residents of Rio, and the population of Brazil more broadly, will see any benefits from the event. It is perhaps the case that the attention paid to the city and country during the Games will lead to subsequent benefits in tourism, investment and trade. There is also the possibility – often used to justify Olympic spending – that the demonstration of Olympic sport will inspire a new generation of Olympic athletes and a more active population, leading in turn to a healthier, happier and more prosperous nation. However, given that the global media coverage of Rio’s hosting of the Games has been mixed at best, the resulting image of Rio and Brazil may turn out to be less than positive. In turn, given Brazil’s structural inequality, any investment in tourism and trade that may occur as a result of Rio 2016 is not guaranteed to find its way to those who need it most. As for the sporting benefits, investment in elite athletes does not necessarily mean that there are more opportunities or even incentives for average citizens to participate in sport. Indeed, in the aftermath of the pacification and displacement of Rio’s most marginalised citizens, it seems unlikely that they would be motivated to take up sport in the spirit of Olympic legacy.

So what might an alternative and more equitable approach to hosting the Olympic Games look like? The scale of the Olympics is now such that hosting seems increasingly unsustainable, socially, economically, and environmentally; the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, for instance, reportedly cost close to $51 billion (US).8 The lack of bid cities for the 2022 Winter Olympics (eventually awarded to Beijing) perhaps signals a sea change, as does current IOC President Thomas Bach’s Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms. Still, no matter where future Games are held, there is currently little reason to believe that they will benefit all or even most residents of host cities, particularly if held in emerging countries. From our perspective, what is required at the very least is a re-configuration of the stakeholder groups involved in any Olympic bid and hosting processes so that priorities of social development are more firmly prioritised. More broadly, the tribulations of Rio 2016 demonstrate the need for an ongoing discussion about how to secure rights and justice for local populations, and particularly marginalised groups, who often live in the shadow of the Olympic spectacle.

In sum, while the Olympic Games are largely produced and consumed outside of discussions of politics and economics in an effort to respect the achievement of the athletes, Rio 2016 reminds us that hosting the Olympics is inherently political. The banishment of Apartheid South Africa at the 1964 Games, the student and civil rights protests at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, and the boycott of the 1980 Games in the Soviet Union are all examples of the Games’ political dimensions, as are more recent protests surrounding environmental damages and economic costs at Vancouver 2010 and London 2012, and human rights abuses at Beijing 2008 and Sochi 2014. For us, now is the time for a more sustained discussion of, or even resistance to, the divisive and detrimental politics and policies that often underpin Olympic hosting.


Featured image courtesy of: Getty Images 


About the Author

heptinstall-img_1428Simon C. Darnell is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the relationship between sport and international development and peace building efforts, the development implications of sports mega-events, and the place of social activism in the culture of sport.

millington-headshotRob Millington is a SSHRC Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on how international organizations like the United Nations and International Olympic Committee implement sport-for-development in policy and practice, in both historical and contemporary contexts.



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2. Cornelissen, S. (2010). The Geopolitics of global aspiration: Sport mega-events and emerging powers. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 27(16-18), 3008–3025; see also Gaffney, C. (2010). Mega-events and socio-spatial dynamics in Rio de Janeiro 1919-2016. Journal of Latin American Geography, 9(1), 7–29.
3. O’Conner, A. (2009).
4. Black, D. (2008). Dreaming big: The pursuit of ‘second order’ games as a strategic response to globalization. Sport in Society, 11(4), 467-480.
5. Boykoff, J. (2013). Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games. Abingdon: Routledge.
6. Millington, R. & Darnell, S.C. (2014). Constructing and contesting the Olympics online: The internet, Rio 2016 and the politics of Brazilian development. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 49(2), 190-210.
7. BBC News (2016, June 17). Rio state declares ‘public calamity’ over finances. Retrieved from
8. The Associated Press (2015, February 5). Sochi Olympics leaving costly legacy 1 year alter. Retrieved from


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.