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For Brazil, Olympic Bid Is About Global Role

September 28th, 2009

Rio2016On shimmering Copacabana beach, where Rio’s body-conscious residents play volleyball and soccer, giant screens are being readied for a live broadcast of the vote that will determine whether this city will make history by becoming the first South American city ever to host the Olympic Games.

On the streets and on the lips of radio and television broadcasters, Brazilians are abuzz with Olympics talk, and there is the distinct sense that this famous party city is ready to explode on Friday with a delirium rivaling its famed New Year’s and Carnaval celebrations if the vote for the 2016 Games goes Rio’s way.

Leaders here say winning the Olympics would be a transformational moment for Brazil, an affirmation of its rising global importance and a shot in the arm to the self-esteem of Cariocas, Rio’s residents, 85 percent of whom supported the Olympic bid in a recent poll by the International Olympic Committee.

“It would be overwhelming for our city, for our citizens and for Brazil as a whole,” said Carlos Osorio, the secretary general of Rio’s Olympic bid committee.

While three other finalists — Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo — have also mounted strong bids, Rio has drawn support outside of Brazil’s borders. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who has been negotiating military deals with Brazil, said he supported Rio’s bid “100 percent.” King Juan Carlos of Spain has said he will throw his support behind Rio if Madrid is eliminated in the first round of voting.

And some International Olympic Committee members have been reported to be enamored of the idea of correcting the Games’ historic neglect of South America.

Brazilians also believe they have an edge in the presidential sweepstakes. While President Obama, a longtime Chicago resident, has supported his city’s bid, he has said he will not attend the vote in Copenhagen, citing the pressing demands of health care reform. His wife, Michelle, a Chicago native, will be there instead.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, on the other hand, has thrown himself behind Rio’s bid and said he would definitely make the trip to Copenhagen.

He has lobbied I.O.C. members wherever he could and called Mr. Osorio and others on Brazil’s bid committee for regular updates.

He attended the opening ceremonies of the Summer Games last year in Beijing and hosted a dinner for Olympic committee members there. He stayed an extra day in London after the Group of 20 meetings in April to tour the Olympic Park being readied for the 2012 Games.

The vote of some 100 committee members could stamp an exclamation point on his legacy as one of Brazil’s most popular presidents this century, and pave the road for his return to power in 2014, political analysts said.

On the other hand, Brazil’s ascent as a world-class sports site is a mixed blessing. Brazil will host the soccer World Cup in 2014 and already has projects under way to renovate its international airports in Rio and São Paulo, and build a high-speed rail system between the two cities in preparation for the event, points that work in Rio’s favor.

But its hosting of the Pan-American Games in 2007 might not. Rio politicians promised a host of urban infrastructure projects for the games, including a new metro line, that were not completed.

Mayor Eduardo Paes, who was Rio’s sports secretary during the Pan-American Games but was not involved in the original bid, acknowledged that officials over-promised. “It is obvious that the proposal contained exaggerations that clearly could not be fulfilled,” he said.

But he said this time Rio would deliver.

Rio is seeking to become the next Barcelona, Spain, a city that used the 1992 Olympic Games to improve its infrastructure and transform itself into a more popular destination for tourism and international events. Officials here say a Rio Olympics could help broaden the Games’ appeal to a wider and more youthful South American audience, while stamping Rio and Brazil with a seal of international approval.

“Rio has a lot to win from the Games,” Mr. Paes said. “And the Olympic movement has a lot to win from Rio as well.”

In the past, the I.O.C. has bestowed its seal of approval on uncharted regions at propitious times in their histories. Tokyo won the 1964 Games as Japan was still emerging from the shadow of the Second World War and the country’s economy was taking off. Seoul’s 1988 Games helped promote “brand Korea,” while Chinese officials originally sought the 2008 Beijing Games to escape their global isolation.

For Brazil, which has bid three times before — Rio twice and Brasília once — Friday’s vote comes after several years of economic growth and the nation’s emergence as the continent’s business and diplomatic leader. The Olympics, Mr. Osorio said, would have “a clear alignment with the country’s long-term strategy of presenting itself in the world.”

For Rio, the Olympics could lift a city that for all its natural beauty and touristic charm has been struggling to redefine itself since it was supplanted by Brasília as the country’s capital in 1960. In recent decades, banks and some of its more talented professionals have been lured to the growing megalopolis of São Paulo. Rio developed a reputation as decadent and crime-ridden.

“Rio is needing to reinforce its self-esteem,” said Ruy Castro, a Brazilian author who wrote a book about Rio. But, he said, recently Rio has been on a roll, noting that the city has been chosen as the location of a Woody Allen movie and that it was named the world’s happiest city by Forbes magazine.

Happiness, in fact, is part of Rio’s pitch.

The city has promised a private beach for the athletes, in front of a nature reserve in Barra da Tijuca that, in true Rio spirit, would be available at all hours. The Olympic Village would feature a Rua Carioca, a typical Rio street with cafes, bars and the swaying sounds of samba and bossa nova.

If the athletes could vote, Mr. Osorio said, “it would be a landslide.”


Mery Galanternick contributed reporting.

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