The Rio 2016 Olympics and Paralympic Games: A lasting legacy?

19 July 2016

Cities and countries compete to host mega events such as the Olympics, World Cup or Expo with the aspiration to develop a legacy. When Rio de Janeiro won the right to organize the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in October 2009, the prospects and aspirations were very different from today.

With less than a month to go before the Olympic torch is lit at the Maracanã stadium, the event is facing substantial challenges which are further pronounced through negative media coverage. Despite all the concerns, there’s still hope for the city to capitalize on the event and create a sustainable legacy.

However, this will require collaboration, participation and persistence from all stakeholders to drive both the “hard” and “soft” components of the legacy. Securing the legacy of the Rio Olympics is going to be about people and attitudes, not only about completing the facilities and infrastructure. It will require more systemic action during and after the event and continued collaboration between all stakeholders.

Once upon a time, the sky was the limit

I vividly remember the joyous scene at the Copacabana beach when Rio de Janeiro was announced as the host of the 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympics games on 2 October 2009. Brazil was a confident nation. Bolstered by global demand and high prices for commodities, Brazil was a rising star among the BRICS and had quickly shaken off the effects of the global financial crisis.

All tiers of government at the national, state and city levels were aligned behind Rio’s bid and plans for the event. The city and the state developed ambitious legacy plans for an integrated mobility network: metro line expansions, Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail (VLT) as well as urban regeneration and security enhancing projects (Porto Maravilha and Pacification Units in the Favelas).The potential economic impact of hosting the World Cup in 2014, followed by the Olympics in 2016 was estimated by PwC and Rio Negocios in 2011 to be up to 53 Billion Reals and 89,000 jobs (35,000 permanent and 54,000 temporary) primarily from infrastructure and tourism.

Rio 1

Tomorrow’s Museum (Porto Maravila)

But, the situation has changed

Fast forward almost six years later and the picture is very different. The conditions for realizing the forecasted economic impact and the legacy are not yet in place. Brazil is struggling economically and politically.

The expected government deficit in 2016 is a record 170.5 Billion Reals as compared to a surplus of 93.5 Billion Reals in 2011. The Rio de Janeiro State has declared a ‘financial calamity’ to qualify for urgent financial support from the central government. And corruption allegations are plaguing many of the national engineering firms which were entrusted to developed most of the infrastructure projects envisioned in the legacy plans for city. Additionally, the so familiar concerns about security and new health concerns in relation to the breakout of the Zika virus have created a “perfect storm.” So is the event doomed to fail to deliver on its promise and its legacy? Not necessarily.

So, what is being done and what can be done to salvage the legacy?

Yes, some of the venues are still under construction, the metro line expansion is incomplete and the excitement that typically precedes such an event can’t be felt around the city.

Rio 2

Beach Volley Venue (Copacabana)

Against the odds, when I visited the city less than one month before the Games, I perceived some signs of hope for securing a legacy. Brazilians, especially the Cariocas, are very resilient, innovative and have a knack for improvisation. While improvisation can work as a tactic sometimes, it cannot be used as a strategy. My thoughts on a ten point plan how to deliver the Rio 2016 legacy are:

  1. Embrace the event and mobilize the city’s population behind it, focusing on communication and media messaging in Brazil and internationally.
  2. Develop the tourism sector by taking a comprehensive approach for improving the full ecosystem. The airports in Rio are better today than they were before, but other parts of the tourism value chain will require improvement through collaboration with the private sector and capacity development for all the tourism workers that have contact with a tourist.
  3. Use the event to restore confidence. Brazil and Rio de Janeiro need a “feel good moment”: Rio 2016 can be this moment, if the country and the city were to rally behind the event.
  4. Showcase the best that Brazil and Rio have to offer, the people’s attitude and generosity. While the World Cup in 2014 was not the best organized tournament, the stadiums were full regardless of who was playing. Having full venues with truly sport loving fans will go a long way in making the event a success and creating an unmatchable atmosphere.
  5. Maintain the security levels after the event. When the city hosts an important event (e.g. Rio+20, World Cup, Olympics), the national army is called in to enhance the security levels. This is a temporary solution that does not provide the city’s citizens and visitors with the sustainable levels of security post the event. The good work that started by the State of Rio de Janeiro to pacify the high risk zones of the city has to be restored and the security funding and accountability measures have to be back in place as a top priority.
  6. Complete the integration of the mobility projects. The city’s metro expansions can’t stall after the games are over. The enhanced public transportation system for Rio de Janeiro is a cornerstone of the event’s legacy and should proceed.
  7. Adopt a balanced perspective for the urban regeneration projects. The Porto Maravilha project is still in its infancy. Positive and negative lessons learned on how to balance combining immediate needs with the long term vision in land use, incentives and private sector participation from similar developments such as Canary Wharf, La Defense and Porto Madeiro.
  8. Enhance and widen the base for sports participation. Cariocas and Brazilians in general are physically active and love the outdoors by nature, but Rio’s legacy can be about encouraging the young to take their sports participation to the next levels as they watch the World’s best athletes compete in sports not so familiar for Brazilians.
  9. Be transparent about the risks and show how they are being dealt with: Resist the tendency to brush away risks, rather than work on prevention and mitigation. It will be more reassuring if risks are acknowledged and mitigation plans are communicated.
  10. Remember they are called the Olympic and Paralympic games. Enhancing the social awareness and infrastructure for the handicapped was one of Sochi’s 2014 most important legacy elements, together with volunteerism. The same can apply to Rio to enhance accessibility not only at the sports venues, but throughout the city.

Only time will tell if the Rio 2016 Olympics and Paralympics will deliver, at least partially, on the promise to be a catalyst for sustainable development. This can help the city and the country emerge from its toughest moment. Stay tuned for an update and impressions after the event.

Hazem Galal  | Cities & Local Government Sector Global Leader
Profile | Email |  +971 50 3878518



Great post regarding the Olympic Games. I really enjoy the whole Olympic every time they happen and this time, Rio Olympics will be fund and I will not be missing out on Rio Olympics for sure.

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