Like a Carnival reveller waking with a blurry recollection of the night before, Rio must have asked itself: “We did what? We agreed to stage the World Cup and the Olympics inside three summers?” The dangers of too many Caipirinhas, right there.
If Cariocas thought last summer’s World Cup was a big deal, wait till the Olympic spaceship lands. Football’s biggest tournament was dispersed across this vast land, with big games – including the final – at the Maracana, now a distinctly corporate arena. But the Olympics consume a host city, squeezing 42 sports and 10,500 athletes into a single metropolis and demanding the full attention and commitment of its citizens.
So next summer’s Games will be more than a giant fan zone on the Copacabana and fixtures at the Maracana. Nor are just 32 countries on show.
The whole planet, and all of its games and pastimes, will descend on a city that is using the Olympic catalyst to transform infrastructure and erase favelas, mainly in favour of upscale property schemes.
London attempted much the same trick, employing the Olympic deadline (and budget) to bring the east end of London in line with the more prosperous west. This is the new Olympic function: structural hot-housing, with a 17-day sports jamboree attached.
Brazil already knows the risks of white elephantism. Its cities groan with the cost of World Cup stadium building – and maintenance. Rio’s party line is that this fragrant and dramatic coastal sprawl of interlocking influences and 12 million residents will attain modernity in one great leap.
Thus far we have not mentioned the sport much. The politics of Olympic hosting are all-consuming, this far out, as they were in London, which set a new standard for warmth, enthusiasm and mass support. Britain has never seemed a more open and energetic country than when the deep scepticism and anger over ballooning budgets gave way to euphoria.
The slow-starting wave of British medal success helped, as Mo Farah, Chris Hoy, Jessica Ennis and Ben Ainslie advertised the host nation’s talent. Brazil will need the same gush of success to justify the inconvenience. The beauty of London’s audience, though, was that they attached sacred value to the event itself; to the privilege of seeing sport everywhere, from the cyclists on Box Hill to the sailors on the south coast and the equestrianism on a wonderful high stage at Greenwich.
London was made vivid and vibrant by the sport. And the sport acquired grandeur when set against great London landmarks: Lord’s, the Mall, Wimbledon, Hyde Park. In triumph, Bradley Wiggins sat on a throne at Hampton Court. This symbiosis of sport and setting turned the population giddy and brought the best British values to the fore. Many reported feeling better about the country they live in, and its people, who were partisan but also scrupulously appreciative of foreign athletes, especially in the Paralympics, which enjoyed a golden fortnight.
Rio will not hope to live up to this. Crime, water pollution and favela “pacification” will not be removed from the backdrop of South America’s first Olympiad, however much the locals embrace it.