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Crime pays for Brazil in Olympic Games bid

By Hans Westerbeek - posted Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The insider’s view on how Rio won the 2016 Olympic Games is a fascinating story. Two weeks before the October 2009 Copenhagen announcement of the winning host city, I had dinner with Mike Lee, the strategic communications adviser to the Rio bid. While the rest of the world was putting money on the Obama-backed Chicago bid, Lee was quietly confident that Rio would be a strong contender.

He knew what it took to win as he also successfully helped deliver the London 2012 campaign. He met then Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva the next day in Paris, knowing that he would gladly agree to spend another 2 million Euros during the final two week assault. Lee heard from the horse’s mouth why these Games were so important to the people of Brazil: here was an opportunity to wrest control of the city’s violent ghettoes from the drug lords.

Early in February 2011 I was in Rio, Brasilia and Sao Paulo where I met with the Rio 2016 organisers. Mario Cilenti, in charge of strategic communications during the bid, and now a senior member of the organising committee, made it clear that nothing was left to chance when it came to convincing the voting IOC members to choose Rio de Janeiro. As it goes these days, bidding for the Olympic Games is a sales, marketing and lobbying job of the highest order, a pretty mean, dirty and harsh competition, where a red alert war room-like headquarters is operating at full speed 24/7.


But it is the simple ‘transforming a city and a country’ message that convinced IOC members and today the corporate world, that it would be good to bring the Games and the 2014 World Cup to booming Brazil. Agemar Sanctos, the Director of International Relations of Rio 2016 noted that corporate interest in the Games is so high that the 24 per cent of the operating budget that the Government has guaranteed is on track to be fully financed by the private sector. It is helpful that four of the world’s 20 biggest banks are Brazilian and that none of them required government bailouts during the global financial crisis they kept lending money which ensured Brazil stayed afloat when the rest of the world foundered.

But it would be wrong and naive not to acknowledge that the country has huge social problems. As a matter of fact, the social problems in the drug lord run Brazilian ghettos the favelas were the key focus of World Cup and Olympic bid campaigns. There is no way out of a violent life below the poverty line except for joining the drug bosses death squads or a football club.

The violent clashes between the Brazilian army and the drug lords in one of Rio’s most troubled favelas in November 2010 is part of a government driven pacification program. The authorities have recognised that the ghetto streets had to be wrested from the drug lords’ control and returned to the people and the police. And it’s working. Just a few weeks ago my travelling party was allowed to drive into the favela without police protection, visit one of the sport-for-development organisations and play a game of football on a dirt pitch against the locals. The proud and hospitable locals are genuinely excited about the prospect that their city will host these two sporting events. Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the more cynical observers when it comes to the extent that the Cup and the Games can leave a social legacy for common citizens, but one can feel the tangibly positive vibe when engaging with Rio de Janeiro locals about the upcoming events.

And for once it seems that there will be relatively few white elephant stadium projects. More than half of the Olympic facilities have already been built, courtesy of the 2007 Pan American Games. A minority of 12 World Cup stadiums will be built from scratch, most of them renovation and upgrade projects. According to representatives from Amsterdam Arena Consult, a Dutch stadium consulting and management group, the modernisation of Brazil’s stadiums will also lead to a range of opportunities to better exploit the commercial potential of the stadiums. These include better occupancy and more profitable revenue streams, something that has happened in all strong football economies.

As a sign of foreign business confidence in Brazil’s football stadium future, Arena Consult has just won the rights to manage and operate the new stadium in Salvador for the coming 35 years. Football in 2014 at least is coming home. As Australians, Brits and the Dutch would agree, Qatar was and always will be the wrong choice to host the World Cup as it will never deliver local benefits (nobody really cares about football). But also as a global celebration of football, Qatar simply does not have the context (read: passionate sporting culture) and infrastructure to deliver on the world’s football party expectations.

For the time being however, the IOC seems to have picked a city that will take charge of the Games and make Brazil and Rio the primary beneficiaries. It will be part of the heritage that Lula left to his people. Good on him.

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About the Author

Hans Westerbeek is Professor of Sport Business and Director of the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living (ISEAL) at Victoria University.

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