It was October 2, 2009, roughly around 2 a.m., when I received a call on my cell phone in my hotel room in Rio de Janeiro.
“Gabriel, we have a problem down here and need you to take a look,” the producer said.
The problem? In a few hours time the International Olympic Committee was going to announce which city – Rio, Madrid, Tokyo, Chicago – would be granted the 2016 Summer Olympics.
But on Copacabana beach where the city was going to host a giant “watch party” event, the set up was a mess.
With just hours to go until the announcement, giant movie-screen size TV screens were still being put into place on the beach, the multi-story scaffolding stage for the media was barely being set up, and there was absolutely zero visible organisation.
Guess what? By the time the announcement was made that Rio won the rounds of voting to host the 2016 Games, everything was in place (albeit at the last minute). It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. And the only image that mattered was the thousands of people in Copacabana cheering, screaming and waving Brazilian flags at the announcement.
But let’s go back even further, to 2007, when athletes from 42 countries, and tens of thousands of tourists came to Rio for the Pan American Games – the Americas version of the Olympics. In the run up to the games people were saying the facilities wouldn’t be ready, Rio’s ‘out-of-control’ drug gangs in the favelas would be a threat to the fans and athletes, and the water in the bay was too dirty to compete in water sports events.
I was in Rio for the entirety of the Pan Am Games in ’07, and you know how many major incidents there were for any of those issues mentioned? Zero. And Rio’s security situation was much more precarious in 2007 than it is today.
50 days to the World Cup
So here we are now: Less than 50 days to the World Cup, and Jerome Valcke , FIFA’s Secretary General, says some of Brazil’s preparations for the World Cup – namely the stadium in Sao Paulo – won’t be ready until “the last minute”. He’s right.
But when I heard that, I couldn’t help to think back to that moment in Copacabana ahead of the Olympics announcement.
Setting up some movie screens on the beach is much different than organising a World Cup or Olympics. The Pan Am Games aren’t the Summer Olympics.
But there are some lessons. Primarily, that Brazil has an uncanny way of making big events work…in the end.
The question I am most often asked over the past couple years is, “Will Brazil be ready for the World Cup?” I’ve stuck to my stock answer: “Depends what your definition of ‘ready’ is?”
(For sharp alternative answer to that question from a longtime Brazil resident, I suggest reading Andrew Downie’s Brazil Blog.)
But we are where we are now. And I suspect if history is any indication, Brazil will be “ready” to host the football tournament.
Barring any more unforeseen tragedies or mishaps, the stadiums I bet will all get done, albeit with little time to spare. Three remain partially unfinished.
The airports won’t be Chennai or even O’Hare, but they’ll be able to get people from point A to point B to point C and back and most, but not all, will be much better than they were in 2007.
There likely will be some muggings of tourists and foreign journalists, and it will make news, but my guess is the chance of a major, doomsday security breakdown (like what Brazil narrowly avoided during the Confederations Cup last year) is slim during the World Cup. Drug traffickers in Rio are businessmen, not terrorists, so they’ll do what’s good for business.
Street protests? I readily admit I mis-calculated the historic protests last June and did some soul searching. No doubt, there will be protests during the World Cup. The only question is, how big, how widespread, how intense, and what will be the police response? The answers to all those questions are quite fluid.
So, will Brazil be ready for the World Cup? Depends on your definition of the “r” word. Everyone has an opinion on that question right now, it’s all based on which lens you view “r”. We’ll all find out soon enough.
But looking back at Brazil’s recent past can help shed some much needed perspective on what is happening today and what will happen over the next couple months.
But it’s not the World Cup that foreign tourists or athletes have to worry about. Brazil, I suspect, in the end will get that sorted out and be ready enough for the tournament and all it entails.
The real question is what comes after all the tourists and football stars have left. It’s then that Brazilians will be stuck with the bill, and have to ask themselves if it was all worth it? And that is when things will get really difficult and much more nuanced. Because by then “ready” won’t matter anymore.
That part of the story in Part Two, in an upcoming blog post in this space.
Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel