Rio 2016- Brand Brazil and Soft Power

By Sharlene Gandhi

And so comes and goes another cycle of the Olympic Games, another flurry of temporary national pride, another look at some of the most dedicated people on the planet. For just over two weeks, we laugh, we cry (yes, I cried at the gymnastics), we bite our nails in anticipation and ruin our eyesights a little bit more as we glue ourselves to our devices. Then, when it’s all over, we tell ourselves we can all be Olympic athletes someday, and collectively turn our backs on the Committee until the next round of Games appears on the horizon. This, however, is far from the reality that the host country faces each year, and such was the case for Rio 2016, unsurprisingly. And so we face our favourite post-Olympic question: is hosting the Games really as economically, socially and culturally beneficial as it promises to be?

There are three facets to the equation, the first being media coverage of the event. Interestingly enough, and confirmed by discussions with a few of my friends, the pre-Olympics coverage was so limited that most people didn’t seem to be aware that they were going ahead. There seemed to be a lot of shushing and dubiously avoiding eye-contact and not-really-knowing-what-is-going-on involved whenever Rio 2016 was mentioned. Now you could very easily accuse me and my friends of not looking hard enough at the news: of course the news wouldn’t overlook such a momentous, perhaps even historical, event? In fact, the news can very easily overlook this, by quite simply not granting the subject any airtime. By extension, so can we. The agenda-setting function of mass news outlets is really quite influential without being influential at all. As political scientist Bernard Cohen explained, “The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” We’re all active enough consumers of the news that we can now harbour [un]informed opinions about almost everything (apologies for bringing Brexit to the forefront again but remember how unbearable Facebook was for three days?). However, how can we have an opinion about something that we aren’t even told about in the first place? The Rio Olympics are just one such example – by not even having an official Olympics countdown, either Rio organisers or news outlets themselves can effectively draw the curtains over all of the embarrassing misgivings of the organisation of these games, kind of like hiding a hickey with a turtleneck. The water pollution in Guanabara Bay, the concerns with Zika virus, and the messy impeachment trial of President Dilma Rousseff were all thus expertly avoided by mass media institutions until such a point where they absolutely had to give Rio 2016 some valuable airtime. I was watching the BBC very closely at the time, and up until a week before the opening ceremony, none of the aforementioned had been mentioned. Meanwhile, alternative news media, such as AJ+, were going out of their way to fill this hole. In many ways, the Rio Olympics were somewhat doomed before they’d even started.

But, then they started and Rio 2016 organisers found themselves in a 16-day long hurdles race against themselves. Expectations were high for the opening and closing ceremonies; with the Olympics coming to South America for the first time in history, viewers were expecting an eclectic mix of Latin dancing, colour and sexiness, and instead were greeted with a somewhat sombre, low key affair. It seemed like Brazil was showing that it was much more than just one big carnival-in-a-rainforest, but not living up to people’s expectations may have cost them dearly. Once the competition started, there were rows upon rows of empty seats at various events, prompting people to ask whether or not the tickets had been made accessible, both financially and literally, to those on the lower end of the economic spectrum in Rio de Janeiro and in Brazil as a whole. Athletes were arriving into accommodation with plumbing and electricity problems, diving into algae-infested diving pools and being dropped by paramedics when they were injured mid-game. Whilst all relatively minor concerns, collectively they caused the world to furrow a brow and wince at the relative lack of organisation. Rio was performing on a world scale, and yet tripping over hurdle after hurdle, hoping they’d somehow reach the finish line in one piece. But, just when they thought they’d finished with that race, someone put an extra hurdle in place for the banter: the one labelled ‘funding for Paralympic athletes’. Rio tripped over that one too, by failing to provide the necessary funds for Paralympians from ten countries to attend the Rio Games.

And then there is the third facet: the stuff that had absolutely nothing to do with Rio 2016 or its organisers, but will still have a lasting impact on how people perceive the games in hindsight. Prior to the games, the revelation of a state-sponsored doping programme for Russian athletes led to a few Russian Olympians being banned from the Games, but ALL Russian Paralympians will be banned. Whilst we can all wholeheartedly agree that this is what is best for the democratic spirit of the Games, the Rio Olympics will, from now onwards, be heralded as the Games in which the Russian athletes were ousted. Whether that is good or bad for the Rio name is down to individual opinion.

And finally, we simply cannot talk about the Rio Olympics without bringing up Ryan Lochte and his posse. I need not go into detail about what he did, I hope, but the fact that it was so easy to believe the four of them is worrying in itself. Yes, Rio has a high crime rate, which is probably what made their story so easy to consume, but to use that fact to mask their wrongdoings is sickening. Lochte is rightfully suffering for his actions, financially and from a credibility perspective, but Rio is now suffering because a world-class athlete abused his authority and his power to insult an entire city and its culture.

So what does all this actually mean for Rio de Janeiro and how we now perceive ‘Brand Brazil’? I picked up the fancy-sounding term on a Monocle24 radio show back in February 2016, when Brand Brazil was still a strong mix of Copacabana Beach, Caipirinhas, the Amazon Rainforest and mediocre footballing skills. As an emerging BRIC economy, Brazil was a desirable place to go, for both pleasure and business. However, with recent events taken into consideration, the tropical dream has been shattered; the words ‘chaos’ and ‘danger’ might now come to mind when people think of Brazil, and needless to say, that is not a brand that can remain strong on the world stage for very long.

A country’s brand is not only another topic of conversation that Monocle loves to discuss, but has become something that subconsciously weaves its way into our perceptions of nations on a daily basis, whether it is when choosing a holiday destination or when choosing which fruit to buy at Tesco’s. This, in turn, impacts on a country’s soft power, which is one of my favourite topics of conversation. Soft power refers to a country’s ‘intangible personality’, based largely on its culture, values and politics, which is then used as part of persuasive campaigns in both international relations and internal contexts. Joseph Nye, the master behind the concept, labelled soft power ‘the means to success in world politics.’ Let’s take Foreword’s new favourite Justin Trudeau as an example. He has drastically changed Canada’s national brand from maple syrup and bears to let’s-welcome-everyone-and-everything-and-let’s-do-it-with-style. Not only are Trudeau’s polls sky-high, but Brand Canada itself has shot up on the world map. Brazil, on the other hand, has not been so lucky; its post-Olympics soft power has been broken by international criticism, and will probably take a while to rebuild. It’s all very geopolitical.

What is sad is this: all circumstances, finances and difficulties considered, the Rio 2016 committee actually did a fantastic job of hosting the games. The eco-friendly theme that underpinned the event was beautiful in its own, subtle way, and extremely relevant for a country in which deforestation is a constant threat and at the same time an opportunity for development. But human nature is such that negative traits always stick out like a sore thumb amongst a sea of positives. Let’s see now how the Rio Paralympics rise from the ashes.