If you had followed the doomiest-and-gloomiest coverage of the lead-up to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, you wouldn’t be off-mark to assume that the city might not pull it off. It fit into a media trope practically set in stone after early reporting on Sochi's shoddy construction, forced-evictions in Beijing, and security concerns in London.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. The Brazilian band Rouge at the closing ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games last Sunday, ceremonies which, judging from the feeble TV ratings, you likely missed. Though Team USA triumphed in almost every event but the gas station competition, NBC won mostly disapproval for flooding coverage with too many commercials, tape-delaying beloved events like women's gymnastics, injudiciously editing to give airtime to trite features and generally treating the games like reality TV. To hear NBC's Bob Costas tell it though, the true champion was Brazil itself.
BOB COSTAS: An Olympics that faced serious issues came off without serious glitches or security breakdowns. Some of the most remarkable performances in Olympic history took place here, against some of the most beautiful backdrops anywhere in the world.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, yes, none of the stadiums collapsed, no terrorism or civil insurrection, no shootouts during beach volleyball; Michael Phelps didn't get Zika. But were the real Games really a success for Brazil?
Writer Alex Cuadros is author of Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence and Hope in an American Country. Alex, welcome back to the show.
ALEX CUADROS: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: You wrote a piece for New York Magazine in which you describe the lead-up coverage to the Games as hysterical. Hysterical?
ALEX CUADROS: Yeah, it was hysterical. It made Rio sound like a city from a post-apocalyptic movie.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Brazil seems to be in a state of chaos.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Recession, political unrest, high crime, oh my gosh, Zika fears.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A public health disaster.
BOB GARFIELD: Certainly, there were plenty of scary anecdotes to draw from. You mentioned them in your piece, the body parts washing up onto the beach, the shootout in the hospital, the Zika plague.
ALEX CUADROS: Right. It’s not to say that Rio doesn't have problems. It does. Violence is, in fact, endemic. But these issues were treated as though they were going to be an imminent threat to tourists and athletes, as if they would be risking their lives simply by visiting this city, which is a pretty ordinary developing world city, as far as its problems go.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Police in Rio have this alarming greeting for tourists arriving at the airport, a sign that says, quote, “Welcome to Hell.”
ALEX CUADROS: And I think what a lot of this coverage ignored is the fact that many of these problems really affect the poor most of all in the city.
BOB GARFIELD: But I wonder if the pre-Olympics coverage of Brazil wasn't in some ways just a common trope. We certainly saw a lot of coverage in Sochi for the Winter Olympics in Russia, of the shoddy construction and the poor planning.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Take a look at these pictures. Hotels aren’t ready. The ones that are have bathrooms where toilets don't take toilet paper…
BOB GARFIELD: There were allegedly major security issues in advance of the London Games.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Four days of rioting in the UK are now raising security concerns about next year's Olympics.
BOB GARFIELD: In China, there were mass relocations of residents to accommodate new venues.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The Olympic dream is turning into a nightmare for many of the estimated 1.5 million people who are being displaced by Beijing's Olympic construction.
BOB GARFIELD: The press seems to really like the pre-Olympic disruption narrative.
ALEX CUADROS: Right, and it happened before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, too. You know, people were warning of impending riots by black bloc anarchists and, you know, saying the stadiums aren't finished. And none of these fears ended up confirmed. I think that what this does is it creates such low expectations that when they’re finally exceeded, as inevitably they must, the event can be framed as a success, and this keeps us from looking at the deeper criteria of success.
Already in Brazil, columnists and politicians are saying, well, they thought we couldn't do it, and we did it. By the same token, people may come away with too sanguine a picture of the city and the Games and the cost of the Games.
BOB GARFIELD: If you had held sway over all media from all over the world before the Games began, what would the coverage have looked like?
ALEX CUADROS: I would have spent a lot more time looking at how the public money is being spent. Why did the city decide to put most of the Olympic budget in this wealthy suburb, far from where most of the rest of the city lives? Was it worth it to demolish thousands of homes in favelas in order to build these projects?
BOB GARFIELD: So the fact that the Games didn’t end in some sort of eye-opening catastrophe belies the pre-Olympic's narrative of chaos. It also belies the ongoing issues that really do face the society - poor sanitation and police protection and education for millions and millions and millions of residents. If that's what I understand you saying, we as an institution kind of failed on both sides of the equation.
ALEX CUADROS: I think that we did. There was very good reporting done in Rio before and during and after the Games, but the dominant narrative really failed to take proper account of what was really at stake and what are the implications of the Olympic model?
BOB GARFIELD: Now, as a parasitic carpetbagger yourself –
- what’s your takeaway? Do you think, net-net, these games were worth the investment for this country?
ALEX CUADROS: I do not. When you look at the legacy of the Games for Rio, and this is everyone's favorite word for the Olympics, “the legacy” –
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: What do you think the legacy of these Rio Olympics will be?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Particularly for Rio, as they define their legacy going forward from these games…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And, you know, the hope is, with the Olympics, guys, that it leaves a legacy that helps a country like Brazil.
ALEX CUADROS: There were useful things built for the Olympic Games. Express bus lines that cross the city, these will be very useful to the working-class residents of Rio who can spend 2-1/2 hours in traffic each way going to work and back. The renovations of the downtown port area could be seen as useful for revitalizing this part of the city. There’s a light rail train that runs through downtown Rio that seems like it will be a boon to the city. None of these things needed the Olympics in order to be built.
BOB GARFIELD: I spent $12 billion to stage an Olympics and all I got was this lousy bus system.
ALEX CUADROS: [LAUGHS] Right, I think that's about the message.
BOB GARFIELD: Alex, thank you so much.
ALEX CUADROS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Writer Alex Cuadros is author of Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence and Hope in an American Country.