Saturday, October 03, 2009

Some (Lengthy) Thoughts on Brazil Winning the 2016 Olympics

Words don't express how much this means to Brazil. As Erik noted, there's a particular sense of pride about Brazil, and I think it's safe to say that this is based in no small part on the fact that Brazilians feel their country is often overlooked in the name of the "developed" world. In many regards, they're right - people in the U.S. are stunned when I explain to them that Brazil would be larger than the U.S. if the U.S. didn't have Alaska (which is almost three times bigger than Texas, the second largest state). Brazil is also somewhere between the eighth and tenth largest economy in the world (depending on how you measure it), and is projected to be the fifth largest by 2016. And it's pretty depressing the number of times that, when I've explained I'm going to Brazil, I've been met with the responses "How's your Spanish?" or "Oh, where - Buenos Aires?" Brazil's a massive, rapidly developing country that's taking a major place on the national level, and yet its grandness and growing importance is often overlooked. So this really means a lot to Brazilians on multiple levels.

How much? Well, this should give you a sense of the expectation and anticipation that was building yesterday. It is so huge, I have yet to see or hear any of the vaunted O Globo commentators (some of Brazil's most jaded and cynical citizens) say anything bad. As one reader put it, "For the 190 million Brazilians, this is more than a prize." And O Globo has offered nothing but praise for Lula on this, which, to my memory, is an unprecedented event since his election in 2002.

And speaking of Lula.....crazies on the right are already celebrating that the elimination of Chicago was some great loss for Obama. Even if you accept this premise (which I don't - disappointment, perhaps, but not some major repudiation of the Obama administration), it's nothing compared to the loss it would have been to Lula, which would have been more substantial and personal. While Obama recently decided to go to Copenhagen to lobby for his home city, Lula has been involved in Brazil's efforts to get the Olympics for years. He was quickly involved in the process, keeping up to date on the proceedings and meeting with officials, when he was elected, and when Brazil lost the bid to host the 2012 Olympics four years ago, Lula ratcheted up his involvement. Some may have think Obama has a little egg on his face now, but Lula would have been covered with a chicken-farm's worth of yolks had Brazil not won.

But it was about much more than personal pride, to Lula and to Brazilians. A lot of countries are still positivists at their core, thinking that their "nation's" history is a tale of constant progress. However, positivism has been particularly heavy-handed in Brazilian history since the 1800s. French positivism played a major role in the hand-wringing over Brazil's ethnic identities in the late-1800s and early-1900s, as they feared they were "inferior." Indeed, while bringing settlers from Switzerland, Germany, and other parts of Northern Europe had its economic reasons (the gradual decline in slavery leading up to abolition in 1888 meant that a new labor force was needed), Brazilian economic, political, and intellectual elites could have tried to target any group; they targeted Northern Europeans not just because they seemed like good workers, but because their "work ethic" and whiteness could help Brazil "improve itself" via Comtean eugenics. Since Brazil's post-colonial history, the country's politics and nation's identity has always been closely concerned with the notion that Brazil "progress" enough to join the "developed" world, a place many Brazilians have for generations felt Brazil deserved due to its size, beauty, productivity, uniqueness, etc.

This may seem like I'm overstating things on the positivist/"progress" front, but there are historical examples of this from 1821 onwards. Ever see Brazil's flag? Those two words translate as "Order and Progress," and it's been there since the establishment of the Republic in 1889. Up until the 1930s, Brazilian intellectuals, academics, and elites struggled with the fact that they weren't as "white" as other developed nations, so when Gilberto Freyre suggested that the mixture of indigenous, Afro-descendant, and Portuguese actually made Brazil better and stronger by combining the best elements of all three groups (and we are dealing with anthropology and sociology as they functioned in the 1930s, to be fair), Brazil suddenly embraced its ethnic background as a benefit for the first time, as if saying, "finally, we have a way to be proud of ourselves and we've overcome a major racial obstacle to progress!" It may sound silly, and I am simplifying some rather complex processes for the sake of space, but it is one of the main reasons Brazilians today still deny that there is racism in Brazil.

And as for development projects - Brasilia in 1960; Juscelino Kubitschek's pledge to help Brazil develop "50 years in 5" upon his election in 1955; the (failed) Trans-Amazonian highway, the pet project of the Medici administration during Brazil's dictatorship; all of these, and many many more, were projects adopted in no small part to prove Brazil was finally "developed." You see the language everywhere in the documents from their respective times; some of these policies were practical, while others were really adopted just to show the world what Brazil could do (Brasilia and the Transamazonia, especially).

In the last few years, however, all of Brazil's claims to "progress" seem to have been finally coming to more accurately reflect reality, rather than what Brazilian elites (and many Brazilians themselves) wanted to believe. After the economic troubles brought on by neo-liberal policies in the 1990s, Brazil has seen a remarkable level of economic growth that may be unprecedented in its history. Purchasing power is reaching social classes that had previously been shut out. While the American, European, and Asian markets have been struggling for over a year with the financial collapse of 2008, Brazil entered into an official recession this June, and exited it one quarter later. Nor is it restricted to economics; Brazil has become a major player in international politics in a way it never has been before, serving as a leader not only in South America, but joining China and India as one of the major emerging global powers alongside (possibly declining) powers like the U.S. and western Europe. Much of this has been due in no small part to Lula's government, yes, but these processes have been in play for hundreds of years, with accompanying hopes and disappointment regarding the status of Brazil in the world. Yet it finally seems like, more than ever before, Brazil is perched on (if not already entering) a phase as a global power that many elites and non-elites alike have dreamed about for nearly two hundred years.

Are there critics? I imagine so - there's no way 190 million people all feel exactly the same. But the depth this pride reaches is really foreign to jaded Americans who had to deal with Vietnam, Nixon, Bush, etc. As one final example, some of my most politically-cynical Brazilian friends couldn't contain their joy. When I logged on to facebook, one was proudly declaring (in French) that Brazil would be ready to her friends in France, fully proud of her country; another simply wrote, "Who said national pride is a thing of the past?" And these are some of the most jaded, cynical people I know in Brazil.

All of this is a very long way of saying, this means a lot more to Brazilians than it would have meant to those in Chicago, or Tokyo, or even Madrid, and it means a lot more than one can easily say. Between the World Cup and the Olympics, I think it's safe to say Brazilians are finally getting the international stage that they've wanted for generations in order to prove themselves to the world once and for all.

And prove itself, Brazil will. I've already started hearing codgery statements from some Americans that this was the wrong choice. The arguments are as tired as they are uninspired, as uninformed as they are offensive. Brazil is too "Latin," too "corrupt," underprepared, too "dangerous." All of these arguments could be easily brushed aside if people weren't so bigoted. Yes, Brazil struggled with getting the Pan-American games ready on time in 2007 - I was there. They promised things they (or anybody else) never could have achieved (like a third subway line in a few years) just to get the games. The federal government had to step in 4 months before the games and put construction on a 24-7 schedule to be ready. But you know what? The games were ready, and they went off perfectly. And Brazil learned from them. Just this past week I was reading an article (that I now can't find to link to) in a Brazilian journal in which an official admitted Brazil over-pledged itself in the Pan-American Games bid, and this time, instead of making a couple of grand claims, they had focused on making many achievable claims, ones they could fulfill.

How ready will Brazil be? Well, I would argue they're better prepared than any country that's hosted the Olympics in recent history. While many places have had to build new stadiums and facilities out of nothing, Brazil already has more than half of the facilities it needs for the Olympics, thanks to the Pan-American games and the World Cup coming to Brazil in 2014. But it's about more than just facilities. Rio has done an amazing job in expanding its travel options, relying on express bus lines as much as subways, and expanding those lines in the last few years (and again, I was there and saw the dramatic changes). Environmentally, too, it's already much better off than Beijing, and will be in 2016. If nothing else, there won't be that pollution. And you don't think the World Cup will be a good trial run for running things in Brazil? Please. Even if things don't go perfectly in 2014, Brazil's has two full years to focus on improvements. Did Beijing get that same chance? Or Sydney? Or Atlanta? No.

Which of course, leads to "safety." The violence in Brazil is real, but it's also overblown to the level of borderline-racist/classist paranoia. Yes, the favela violence is appalling. But do you think the police are going to be going into the Olympic village with guns blazing? And do tourists get mugged? Sure. Is it because they drew too much attention to themselves and went to places they never should have gone? Absolutely. I have known Brazilian and non-Brazilian mugging victims in Brazil, and in every single case, without exception, they said, "it was my fault - what I did was stupid." Whether it was pulling out a really obviously expensive camera in a poor neighborhood, or walking down the street with lots of cash in their hands, it was dumb, and they knew it. And it's not like Chicago, or Tokyo, or Madrid wouldn't have similar issues. And as one final point, last time I checked, Brazil didn't have any anti-abortion terrorists running around threatening the games. So Americans really don't have a lot of room to complain about "violence" or "danger" to me. As for corruption? Again, it's not like that hasn't happened outside of Latin America.

At the end of the day (and a very long post), I see this as nothing but good for Brazil and for the world. There's the pride issue, certainly. And while I wouldn't overstate the economic boon this will be, it certainly will help. In response to questions about Olympic stadiums, well....Maracana will be the big stadium, and I guarantee it isn't going anywhere after the Olympics. And as for other facilities, like pools, tracks, etc. - they're already there from the Pan-American games. They'll be updated, but they won't be destroyed afterwards. Just as in 2007, once the Olympics end, they will revert to public places where there are programs for children, physically disabled people, and others from all social groups who can swim, play basketball, track, and other events. This will help everyday Brazilians in the long-run, simply because it has already begun to help them in the wake of the 2006 Pan-American games (when not even the World Cup was a guarantee, to say nothing of the Olympics).

As one final addendum, I want to say that I'm actually proud of the IOC. It really is inexcusable that it has taken so long to have an Olympic games in South America; likewise, the fact that it's only been in a Latin American country once (in 1968), and in the southern hemisphere twice (both times in Australia) shows how Eurocentric the system is. While I found it unlikely, the possibility of Madrid following London infuriated me yesterday, especially since, if it were to win, it would have been due in no small part to the appeal of Spaniard and former Olympic chair Juan Antonio Samarach said it should be in Madrid because he is 89 and "I am near the end of my time." At the risk of seeming like a jerk, this infuriated me - "Oh, I'm sorry, you were chair for 21 years, until 2001? And you'd like to see the Olympics in Spain? Oh, where were you in 1992? And you're 89? So, how likely will you be around to 96?" While I don't begrudge Samarach his feelings and pride, Spain has had its chance, and will again.

Right now, it's Brazil's time.