The Blog

City of Gold

Brazil's cidade maravilhosa grabs the Olympic rings.

12:00 AM, Oct 9, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Rio de Janeiro

On the first Friday in October you could hear the roar of people cheering in the streets echoing up and down the stairwell of my apartment building. Even here in the more sedate Ipanema section of Rio the explosion of celebration in front of the massive stage that had been set up on the beach carried all the way from several miles away in Copacabana. White posters could be seen everywhere that read "I Knew It!" in the four languages of the final four cities that had bid for the 2016 Olympics--symbolizing the confidence that residents of this Brazilian city had in their being the site selected for the games.

All local pride and determination aside, timing certainly played a key role in the decision. Rio was in the proverbial right place at the right time. Brazil has enjoyed unheard of economic growth over the last few years, the country in general and Rio in particular have suffered less than most other major world cities in the global recession, and several major modernization programs stand to transform Brazil from a regional power into a global powerhouse.

Not the least of these is a major defense build-up. There is an impending order for what will be up to 120 fighter aircraft to be purchased by the Força Aérea Brasileira (Brazilian Air Force or FAB). The Defense Ministry is procuring state-of-the art submarines, license-assembling European-made helicopters in Brazil, and updating the Douglas A-4 attack aircraft to be flown off of the aircraft carrier that was acquired used from France several years ago. The Brazilian Navy (the Marinha do Brasil) plans to develop a nuclear-powered submarine in cooperation with France.

The fighter aircraft order is still up for grabs--and is one of the mostly hotly contested defense export sales of its kind in the world. The package of industrial offsets and technology transfer that is being offered by the competitors will transform the Brazilian economy--and not just the armed forces. It will be the single largest infusion of industrial technology since Volkswagen made history by opening a production line in Brazil in 1959. (The frontrunners are France's Dassault Rafale fighter and the Gripen NG from Saab Aerospace in Sweden, which makes you wonder how the delegates from those countries voted in the IOC balloting.)

But, it was probably more than just a strong case for a country on the move that won over the IOC delegates. Rio had better than 85 per cent support of its public behind their bid for the games, higher than all of the other cities. The Brazilians proved that they really wanted the Olympics more than the other bidders.

Brazilian president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was the closer for the Brazilian bid. International Olympic Committee members later said they were visibly moved by his appeal made before the voting in Copenhagen. Lula wept almost uncontrollably during the post-victory press conference. He told the delegates: "I honestly think it is Brazil's turn. It is South America's bid. This is a continent that has never held the Games. It is time to address this imbalance."

All of the appeals to the delegates sense of fairness aside, there are other compelling reasons that led to Rio's selection. One is that Brazil will host the 2014 World Cup football championships, and a number of the venues to be built or enlarged for this event can be used two years later for the 2016 Games. This was an opportunity to piggyback on (what will be in 2016) existing infrastructure that was hard to pass up.

Another is social improvement. Four years ago I sat in an outdoor café in Copacabana when an American friend who also lives here told me "you have to buy a copy of this week's international edition of Newsweek." That issue featured a young boy from one of the favelas--the crime-ridden, poverty stricken slums that surround Rio--running barefoot and shirtless through the streets of the city carrying a 9mm semi-automatic handgun. The article "Rio Run Amok" was a litany of how the increase in crime, murder, and drug trafficking were ruining this beautiful, tropical city.

At the time none of us could have imagined that we would ever be celebrating Rio's selection for the 2016 Olympics. Public safety, infrastructure, transportation and a host of other problems still need work. Brazil has only recently emerged from what seemed like an endless limbo of being trapped between being a developing and industrialized nation. For years Brazilians have cynically poked fun at this economic and developmental impasse by joking that "Brazil is a country of the future--and always will be."