Can Rio Survive the Olympics?

Only if it treats the Games like a marathon—and not a 100-yard-dash.

A rower training in Rio de Janeiro's Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon

Credit: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

The opening ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics get underway tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro. As everyone knows, spirited competition will unfold over the next two weeks; Friday’s festivities, by contrast, are all about the nations of the world coming together and acknowledging what unites us.

As it happens, the world appears to be mostly united in believing that Rio was a horrible choice to host the Games.

And why is that? Well, maybe it’s the raw sewage—or dead bodies—in Guanabara Bay, where the sailing and windsurfing events will be taking place. Or perhaps it’s the antibiotic-resistant superbugs in the waters off Copacabana Beach, where swimmers and triathletes will be squaring off, as well as in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where the canoeing and rowing events will be held. Predictions of massive gridlock on city streets and fears that a sudden influx of 500,000 new riders each day will push public transportation to the breaking point don’t help. Nor do the lingering worries about the Zika virus (Rio de Janeiro’s home state has recorded more than 45,000 cases so far this year), which have led a number of athletes to declare that they’re skipping the Games altogether.

If it seems like I’m piling on, I don’t mean to. Like practically everyone else, I’m sincerely hoping that the Games go off without a hitch. (I’m especially looking forward to watching Simone Biles bring home the gold with my gymnastics-crazed seven-year-old daughter.)

In its partial defense, I’d argue that Rio isn’t uniquely unsuited to host the Olympics. Truth be told, plenty of other major cities aren’t well suited for it, either. In fact, from the environmental and logistical vantage points, hosting the Games is a losing proposition for most cities.

That’s because most cities aren’t willing—or able—to think beyond the 16th day. Typically, the Olympics feature 14 days of competition, bracketed by a ceremonial day at the start and another at the finish. And the difference between a “green Games” and a not-so-green Games has everything to do with how much time, money, and energy the host city is prepared to invest in what happens after the Olympic flame has gone out and everybody has gone home.

The key is in how these cities choose to define the word investment. For the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, “invested” more than $50 billion in bulldozing wetlands, clear-cutting forests, and brutally silencing sustainability advocates to erect a modern-day Potemkin village, giving little or no thought to the long-term environmental effects. (OnEarth previously explored the troubling story of Sochi’s degradation here.)

Ten years earlier, Athens—which really ought to have tried a little harder, given its historic connection to the Olympics—was similarly shortsighted. That city’s $15 billion preparation for the 2004 Summer Games entailed massive building projects that morphed into trash-strewn, graffiti-covered brownfields within four years. Today, as this 2014 photo essay reveals, Athens’s largely abandoned and already decrepit Olympics venues give new meaning to the phrase “Greek ruins.”

But if a host city is willing and able to think beyond the Games’ closing ceremonies, the return on investment can be impressive—and long-lasting. Just look at Beijing. Visiting journalists couldn’t help themselves during the 2008 Summer Olympics there: Almost every news story seemed to feature photos of dystopically hazy skies, implicitly posing the rhetorical question: “Can you believe they would ask athletes to compete while breathing this unhealthy air?”

What didn’t get reported at the time was the fact that the Chinese government had essentially used the Games as a springboard to invest more than $17 billion in a formidable array of green projects and environmental improvements. For all those eerie photographs, the real story of the Beijing Olympics was that they proved to be a highly effective catalyst: As a little-publicized United Nations report concluded one year later, substantial improvements in Beijing’s air quality, vehicle emissions, and transportation infrastructure could be traced directly to the city’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Games.

London, which hosted the last Summer Olympics, in 2012, gave us the model for how a host city should approach its responsibilities, both pre- and post-Games. Integral to its plan was the development of the Legacy List, a nonprofit expressly designed to pick up where the Games left off. The organization focused on investing in arts, housing, and cultural projects on the East London site where the 2012 Olympics took place; it’s just one of the reasons that the London Games are widely considered to have been the greenest of the modern era.

Sadly, it appears that Rio—which has been in triage mode, more or less, ever since getting the green light to host this year’s games—hasn’t been able to think too much about what it will do after the 16th day. As one somber headline puts it, the only Olympics legacy on this city’s horizon may well be “repression and war.” But we can still hope and pray that Rio gets to enjoy this moment in the international spotlight—that things go smoothly, everybody has a good time, and nobody gets hurt.

And once it’s all over and the torch has been extinguished, here’s hoping that Rio takes a moment to catch its breath and take a much-needed social and environmental inventory. Just 14 years after hosting the Summer Olympics, Beijing will roll out the carpet for the 2022 Winter Games, making it the first city ever to host both events. Second chances do occur—and as any athlete will tell you, learning from your mistakes is key to bringing home the gold.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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