For the past two weeks, Rio de Janeiro and the world have been captivated by the Summer Olympics. Spectators across the globe have watched as their fellow countrymen compete at the highest level of athleticism. But outside the Olympic village, many Brazilian citizens simmered with frustration. Amid fears of the Zika virus, complaints about accommodations, accusations of government corruption and misused funds, and the impending impeachment trial of President Dilma Rousseff, the weeks leading up to the Games roused up as much criticism as enthusiasm. To piece out the positive from the negative, we spoke with three members of the Lauder community, whose diverse perspectives provide some clarity.
Mércia Santana Flannery, PhD, directs the Portuguese Language Program at the University of Pennsylvania and has taught several classes at Lauder. Born and raised in Brazil, she travels there frequently to visit family. She also follows Brazilian news closely. According to Dr. Flannery, local Brazilian coverage of the Olympic preparations did not differ all that much from international coverage. Both seemed to focus more on Brazil’s persistent social and political ills: “Because this is such a complicated time in Brazil, politically and economically, the Olympics were completely overshadowed.”
Once the Games begin, though, Dr. Flannery says, that all changes. In the weeks leading up to the World Cup in 2014, international and local media alike had been lamenting the lack of enthusiasm for the World Cup among Brazilians. When Dr. Flannery spoke with relatives in Brazil, though, they told her about the flags decorating the neighborhoods, and the anticipation that was already building weeks before the Cup began. And once it did begin, coverage shifted completely, capturing instead the thrill of the international competition. Dr. Flannery says that this year’s Olympics are no different. “A lot has been said about the very negative aspects of these Olympics, but there is the expectation that once the event starts, things will change.”
A Teachable Moment
Dr. Mili Lozada, Director of the Language and Culture Programs at Lauder, confirms Dr. Flannery’s prediction, noting that the negative, politically-focused media coverage has given way to stories of victory and national pride. “Before, though, there was a lot of uncertainty about how the political instability would affect the planning of the Olympic Games.”
In planning the immersion itinerary for students in Lauder’s Latin America Program of Concentration, Dr. Lozada wanted to use this moment as a learning experience. That included arranging a corporate visit with Ernst & Young, the business management consulting firm that coordinated planning and logistics for the Rio Olympics, as well as organizing lectures with local professors for a more academic perspective. Latin America, says Dr. Lozada, has historically been plagued by persistent challenges like those Brazil faces now—widespread poverty, economic inequality, and complex political dynamics central among them. And yet it is a region that has experienced tremendous growth in the past several decades. Seeing the interplay of political, social, and economic conditions in real-world situations like this is at the heart of the Lauder program.
Part of what makes this moment uniquely captivating is that the Rio Games are the first to be held in South America. “In Brazil, they were very aware that they were making history,” Dr. Lozada notes. The visit to Mexico City, another summer immersion site and host to the 1968 Olympics Games, exemplified how the Olympics promoted tourism and associated economic growth. A similar future could be predicted for Rio. “When a country is selected for this, there is a lot of investment in improving local infrastructures, which has the potential to bring some improvements.
Brazilian-born Lauder student John Paz (WG ’18) had the honor of carrying the Olympic torch in the city of Londrina in June. “It was amazing,” he says, “knowing in that moment that you’re the only person in the world that carries the symbol of the Olympics.” John says that symbol needs to be protected.
His Olympic pride does not blind him to the surrounding controversies and complaints, however. “The biggest issue was that the people of Brazil didn’t want this huge investment to go to stadiums and infrastructure. They wanted it to go to health and education.” He says, though, that using the Olympics as an international stage to highlight Brazil’s internal problems is not the way to solve them. In fact, John believes that the negative media hype around the Olympics, as well as the World Cup, only served to scare off potential tourists and investors, tarnishing two historic opportunities for Brazil.
“What I think is helpful and I’m very glad is happening is that for the first time in many years, Brazilians are becoming more political,” John notes with a sense of pride. He hopes that this motivation to work for lasting change will endure even now that the world’s attention has wandered from Rio. “Brazilians are discussing more issues with their political leaders. I think that, yes, we have our issues, but we have to solve them between us. It’s not something that needs international intervention.”