The view of the Olympic Summer Games can often be different from the other side of the world. Leading into the 2016 Games in Rio, coverage focused mostly on things that have or could go wrong. In the city, there have been issues for sure. Athletes initially had complaints about the condition of the Athlete’s Village, where some rooms were not yet complete upon arrival. And while a new subway line opened connecting the Olympic Park with other parts of the city just days before the Games, there have been long lines and some confusion for people finding their way into and out of the park. And yet, the Rio 2016 Local Organizing Committee has maintained that things are going better than has been reported. SportsTravel caught up with Jose Antonio do Nascimento Brito, a member of the Rio 2016 Board of Directors, to get his take on how things have gone so far during the Games.
SportsTravel: The Olympic Summer Games in Rio received considerable negative publicity leading into the event over issue such as venue construction, the Zika virus, pollution in Guanabara Bay, security and others. What was your reaction to the type of coverage the Games received leading in?
Brito: It’s a bit hard for us to understand why all this negative hype happened. I think there’s a combination of factors that were negative. You have the biggest political corruption scandal in history on the record over this state-owned oil company in Brazil. You had Brazil going into an economic crisis, which was a completely unexpected event for us, particularly the extent of the crisis and the mismanagement that was done with the Brazilian economy, particularly since 2012 and 2013. And of course we had this Zika issue, which was something that really impacted the reporting in a highly negative way. I think the combination of these things made people—particularly in the Anglo-American press—go hysterical about Rio, that things would not happen. In my view, a lot of guys who are here covering Rio, Brazil and the Olympics on a day-to-day basis went into a group thinking about the Olympics in Rio. And there was nothing you could do, no explaining, to combat that. They decided it’s not going to work. This Rio bashing really at one point was just terrible for us. But we kept ourselves cool because we knew what we were doing, we were sure things would come out all right and that once the Games started, public opinion would change real quick.
SportsTravel: We’re a few days into the Games. What in your view have been the biggest challenges so far?
Brito: I think we had a little bit of an accident at the Olympic Village, that the village was not ready. That was a good example of the crisis in Brazil because the private group that was building the village, one of them went bankrupt and one was in the doldrums. So at the finishing line they really did not deliver what they were supposed to. We had to step in and really do last-minute things we did not anticipate. But I think the way we reacted and fixed the problem was very efficient and very to the point. And I think the noise was far bigger than the issue deserved. I had been at the village a week before the problem. On my visit I went into four buildings, I must have opened 20 rooms—showers, faucets, everything was perfect—because all of us were concerned about this transition. But somehow we missed the point and we had this combination of factors on the village. But I think the noise was bigger than we deserved.
The second major issue has been transportation, which is part of the main legacy of the city. I think it took us a few days to understand some missing links on the transportation system, particularly the need to provide more information on some things. As the Games began, and we really got the transportation system crowded with people going to the venues, I think people got very confused the first few days, particularly going into the Olympic Park. I think the job that we needed to do—and when I say we it’s not just Organizing Committee, it’s everyone, the mayor’s office and the state—was we were a bit slow in the understanding that something big was happening, the magnitude of it. We needed to work real hard on that. Potentially it’s been overcome.
SportsTravel: Overall, how satisfied are you with how things have gone so far?
Brito: I’m very happy. One of the things we knew would happen was audiences on traditional media would not be as high as they were in London. But the digital experience of the Olympics in Rio, you are seeing it go through the roof. The preliminary reports are mind-boggling and we’re very, very excited about it. I think the venues are cost efficient and yet we delivered state-of-the-art venues for the Games. We’re very proud of that accomplishment. I think the overall experience for the city and the country has been significant because the Olympics is the opposite of the country that has been reported so negatively, particularly over the last two years. Things have been done cost effectively. There has been no finger pointing that bribes have taken place. Everything was very transparent, very inclusive, which was something we had in mind. In that sense we’re very proud of what we accomplished.
SportsTravel: What do you think the ultimate legacy is going to be for the Games in Rio?
Brito: For the city, public transportation more than anything else, not just short term but particularly long term. We’ve been able to put in process something that whoever is in power in the city will have to take care of. And there are some issues that go beyond transportation like the Guanabara Bay waters. I think we did not reach what we set out to do but we put the issue on the table. That’s one good example of why the reporting from Rio was really a bit confusing for us. We’ve never seen in the foreign press a good explanation of the things that have been accomplished. Very few people overseas and even here realize that eight years ago we had 15 percent of the water clean. Now it’s 55 percent. We didn’t get to the 83 percent we wanted but it’s very significant what we’ve accomplished in five years. At the same time, putting the issue on the political agenda has been significant for us as a legacy long term.
And I think for Olympic sports in Brazil it’s been a dream. Brazil has always been a soccer-oriented, soccer-crazed country. And we’ve seen all Olympic sports now move into broadcast TV, traditional media outlets and cable channels. And of course that brings the sponsorship. For sports to develop, they need sponsorship. I’ll give you an example, which is golf. There are about 123 golf courses in Brazil, which compared to the U.S. is nothing. And yet this public golf course we built for the Olympics, other than all the accolades it’s getting, the most important legacy is you’re seeing the beginning of the development of a sport in Brazil that was nothing five years ago. You now have people interested in developing all sorts of things to train people to be caddies, to be professionals. Sports can only develop if we have guides who can teach the sport. Probably the biggest legacy in Brazil—not just for golf but for all Olympic sports—is the energy you’ll have from all people trying to join new sports and develop them.
SportsTravel: You’ve been working on the Games for seven years. What have the last few days been like for you?
Brito: [Laughs.] Crazy, I’ve hardly had time to watch the Olympics. I’ve just been in meetings making sure the Olympics are working.