You're Complaining About The Olympics Wrong

How to criticize The Games without sounding stupid

Photo: Brian Godfrey/Flickr

We’re right in the middle of the phase that precedes most global sports mega-events: apocalyptic predictions and violent rejection. This usually gives way to a second phase, when the television show actually begins, everything goes mostly fine (fingers crossed here in Rio), and attention shifts to the sports. This first phase occurs in part because mainstream English-language reporters cast their eyes on places like South Africa, Russia, or Brazil, and find them unpleasantly strange and foreign, sometimes even poor. A bunch of journalists get there and find there’s not much else to do but repeatedly ask, “Wow, is this going to be a disaster?” But it also occurs because we know there are some real problems in the ways that these events are put on. Not only are many recent complaints overstated, they’re pointed in the wrong direction. Here’s a helpful guide to help you complain correctly:

First, avoid reproducing the basic, sensational, or anti-Brazil gripes. There are a great number of ways that Rio is a mess right now. But that’s not the same as saying the event itself, mostly vacuum-sealed far away from the city, will be a disaster, or that Rio shouldn’t have been given the thing. The reality may be closer to the opposite. Rio, a city quite capable of putting on big sporting and tourist events (see: the World Cup final in 2014, every Carnaval every year since forever) maybe could have chosen to skip this one.

Brazil can be criticized for broken Olympic promises, and the IOC can be criticized for its mode of operation, but to complain that Rio de Janeiro has problems in general — crime, poverty, disease, some logistical breakdowns — is tantamount to insisting the games should never happen in developing countries. One could make the argument that the Olympics don’t need to move around, or that they should only happen in the world’s best-run, safest countries, but that would go against whatever the official Olympic spirit is supposed to be these days.

Brazil is not a rich country, but it’s not poor either. It’s a very large country, roughly in the middle of world wealth rankings. But Brazil is also going through an unforeseen, once-in-a-generation catastrophic political and economic crisis. How will this affect the tourists!? Who fucking cares, say many Brazilians, very understandably. Brazil is not China or Russia, it is not a sports rival, and it is not a geopolitical enemy, it’s a nice, democratic country down on its luck right now, and journalists or tourists coming from the world’s richest countries are not fighting Latin American corruption by complaining about bad service or their hotels. Some things are just crappy here, that’s because life on Earth is crap in general, ugh, chill.

Here are some more bad complaints to avoid offering at your next dinner party:

“Everyone will get Zika”
Probably not. Zika is a challenge for global health authorities and has been linked to a tragic microcephaly outbreak, mostly far away in Brazil’s Northeastern states, but it’s not really a problem for Winter in Rio. A recent Yale study estimated that out of half a million visitors to the Rio Olympics, only eighty will become infected with Zika.

“Everyone will get sick at the beaches”
The Guanabara Bay, where sailing will be held, is really dirty, yes. But the open ocean water, which hits beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema, is a different entity. The beaches absolutely should be cleaner, but if you read this widely cited New York Times story, you’ll see that the IOC claims Copacabana water meets WHO standards. The waters vary, and local authorities note in bulletins when certain beaches become dirty and unsafe, but I went swimming this morning in Copacabana, like I do almost every morning in Rio. I wouldn’t swim in the Bay, though. Just remember, the Bay is not the ocean.

“Brazil is the worst at…”
Brazil is notthe worst place in the world to be gay.” Not by a long shot. In practice, there are serious problems, but many LGBTQ rights are ensured by the state. There will be a famous trans model marching in the opening ceremony, and the government just opened a “Museum of Sexual Diversity” in front of my house in São Paulo. Let’s keep things in perspective. And despite what your Rio taxi driver tells you — and he will tell try to tell you this — Brazil is not even close to the most corrupt country on Earth (the really corrupt ones don’t have massive investigations that imprison major political and economic figures).

Brazil has free speech, liberal values and big aspirations, so you hear a lot about the problems. Inequality is brutally high, and the country is held back from its enormous potential by a semi-feudal elite, and so the population protests loudly, knowing things really should be much better. This is good. Their complaints don’t mean Brazil is actually bad, globally speaking.

But there are lots of great reasons to complain about the Olympics, and they have little to do with tourists, athletes, the press, or the TV show and its crews. Here are some fantastic complaints you can use to wow your guests or co-workers.

“Brazil is a great country, but it’s really bad luck the Olympics are happening right in the middle of its devastating political and economic crisis.”
This is one is gold, but you might want to read up on the crises in case they press you for details.

“The IOC loves to insist on social and environmental promises during the bid process, but then there’s no mechanism to make sure they’re ever kept. In the final moments, everything gets thrown at sports.”
Critics have rightly pointed to failures to clean up the water and air or fully deliver long-term infrastructure improvements to the population. But much of this is par for the course during modern Olympics. Jules Boykoff, author of the excellent Power Games — a Political History of the Olympics, said in an email:

During the crucial bidding process, environmental and social promises have the side benefit of stoking hope from the local population and inflating public-opinion support for the Games. The problem is that when it comes to crunch time, many of these green promises are cast aside in favor of more immediate needs like simply finishing venue construction and ramping up security for athletes and tourists. And there’s close to zero accountability. The IOC jets off to the next Olympic venue, and the local population is left holding a bucket of husks.

“This is the first time since the fall of its dictatorship that Brazil has a government whose democratic legitimacy can be questioned. It will be interesting to see whether interim President Temer uses the Games to cement his hold on power, or whether some of the large numbers of Brazilians who believe they are suffering a coup or want him out use the spotlight for protest. I hope the media reports the complexity of the issue.”
I hope so too. So far, at least, we’re seeing that this mess is keeping some foreign leaders away.

“The modern Olympics almost always end up costing much more than promised.”
Easy one. For extra points, add: “They could have spent the money on healthcare, education, and infrastructure. That’s what protesters actually asked for in 2013–2014 but now Brazilians are facing austerity. Brazil got enough branding done during the World Cup.”

“Poor communities were displaced to create the Olympic structures, and problems at the Olympic Village were inevitable when they subsequently handed off land and responsibility to private construction companies.”
I know I’ve been whining a lot here, but this video is actually fine.

“They really should have cleaned up Guanabara Bay.”
Yep, this one won’t win you points for originality, but it’s legit. However, it’s not even close to the worst problem Rio faces. It’s a big media problem because it’s an Olympic Problem. No one really seems to really care that there is a war going on again in North Rio, or that there are other diseases worse than Zika. It’s been dirty for decades, and the government has been promising to clean it for decades. In 2009, when Rio won the Olympiad, Brazil was booming and hubristically thought doing two giant mega sports events in two years would be a good idea. Now Rio is so broke the state governor declared a state of emergency. If I were in charge I might half-ass my Olympic commitments too.

So let the Games begin! It could really be fine. One final sobering thought, however, is that if someone wanted to use the Olympic spotlight to spread terror, there wouldn’t be much to stop them. A group of ten people recently arrested around the country under suspicion of forming a terror cell put it this way, according to the Minister of Justice:

“In their communications they always said that Brazil was not part of the coalition opposing Islamic State so no action could be was justified…But at a certain point they decided that the arrival of foreigners could make Brazil a legitimate target.”

But again, the Olympics would then be a problem for Brazil, not the other way around.

Vincent Bevins lives in Brazil and on Twitter.