Reflections on Rio

I have always loved the Olympics, and this year the events took on additional meaning for me since this is the first time they were hosted in a city that I have a personal connection to.  To be clear, I’m not an expert, I’m not a local, and I’m not Brazilian.  I have visited Rio de Janeiro three times, I have friends who live there, and I have learned indirectly from my husband and his research based in the city.  My experience of Rio has been almost exclusively as a tourist, but it holds a unique importance for me.

In addition to being perhaps the world’s biggest sporting event, the Olympics also serves as a unique opportunity to discuss urban planning and architecture issues.  But something about the coverage of Rio de Janeiro and the Olympics has seemed insufficient.  I never felt like any of the stories I read or heard or saw truly captured the vibrance and complexity of the Rio de Janeiro that I have come to know.

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana Beach

One of my main frustrations with the coverage of Rio de Janeiro leading up to the Olympics was the lack of real knowledge of the place.  South American cities don’t receive nearly the same level of coverage in English-language media as cities in the U.S. or Europe, so it’s really no surprise that I found so many of the stories lacking.  When all you know of Rio is beaches and samba, it’s difficult to have a meaningful conversation about things like how well the public transportation infrastructure will serve the city after the Olympics are over.

Perhaps more troubling, considering the history of colonialism and slavery in Brazil, was the paternalistic or moralistic tone in so much of the coverage.  Whether it was the alarmist stories about Zika risk, or a story about how one of the world’s wealthiest corporations is rehabilitating the favelas by paying residents minimum wage to enhance their online maps product, the message suggests that outsiders know what is best for Rio.  Probably the worst example was Matt Lauer’s tour of the Santa Marta favela for the Today Show, where most residents shielded their faces from the cameras and the heavily armed police that accompanied them.  Even NBC’s closing night coverage noted vaguely that there were issues with “traffic” and “crime” during the Olympics, as if those aren’t issues faced by every major city in the world.

A view toward one of Rio's many favelas

A view toward one of Rio's many favelas

To be fair, Rio de Janeiro certainly has its challenges–as every city does–and there are absolutely problems with how the Olympics were organized and developed.  But were the Rio Olympics any more problematic than the corruption of the $50 billion Sochi Winter Games, or the 2008 Beijing Games that displaced 1.5 million people?  Perhaps the standard narrative of Rio de Janeiro as “risky” and “unready” was just too enticing to resist.  And maybe I’m just mad because it’s a place I know (at least a little bit) and love.

The personal connection here is not irrelevant.  Cities are multi-layered and complex entities, capable of embodying multiple, and often contradictory, versions of their own truth.  And more importantly, every city is someone’s home.  For the millions who live in Rio de Janeiro, their city is not just the temporary backdrop for a global mega-event, it is where live, and work, and play every day.  And as we have learned from Ryan Lochte, we can’t rely on stereotypes and media narratives alone to sell our stories.

Sunset over Rio de Janeiro, viewed from Sugarloaf Mountain

Sunset over Rio de Janeiro, viewed from Sugarloaf Mountain

In the end, Rio’s Olympics were largely successful.  More than any other host city in recent memory, these Olympics represented the aspirations of a quickly changing world.  As the opening and closing ceremonies so uniquely demonstrated, Brazil grapples with a difficult past, while, even in times of hardship, exuberantly celebrating the present.  For better or worse, the world cities of the future are more likely to resemble Rio than London, Sochi, Vancouver, or even Beijing, and we have much to learn from its example.  Rio de Janeiro is so much more than the Olympics, more than Zika, or political crises, or polluted waters.  I only wish the world had been able to see a more complete version of the Marvelous City.

All photos in this post by David Douglass-Jaimes and Guillermo Douglass-Jaimes.

A grafitti version of the Brazilian flag in Rio de Janeiro

A grafitti version of the Brazilian flag in Rio de Janeiro