The Olympic Games have long served as a globally-recognized symbol of the ideals of the liberal international order—among them national self-determination, progress and a common humanity. Every two years, alternating winter and summer sports, representatives from nearly every sovereign state in the world (along with a few non-sovereign delegations) gather together in a world city to compete, celebrate elite athleticism and broadcast their remarkable event to billions worldwide.
While the vast majority of Olympics have occurred in Europe, the United States or Canada, in the past decade the Games and their powerful symbolism have often been used to highlight developing nations. The 1964 Olympics showed a Tokyo and wider Japan that had achieved remarkable success after being ravaged and defeated in World War II. The 1968 Olympics brought the games for the first time to Latin America, in Mexico City. The 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea debuted to the world a country passing through an unprecedented developmental sprint. And in more recent years, 2008’s Beijing Olympics showcased a rising global superpower while 2014’s Sochi Games reminded the world of Russia’s power and influence—each breaking the record for most expensive games ever held. The next three games, as they tour throughout East Asia first to Pyeongchang, then to Tokyo and finally back to Beijing, will no doubt have a similar motive.
The games in Rio were to serve much the same purpose; while the city had bid several times previously to secure the games, only in 2009 when Brazil was at the height of its early 2000’s boom did the IOC see fit to award, for the first time, a South American nation the title of Olympic host. As no doubt the whole world has heard at this point, however, in those seven years since the final round of IOC voting, Brazil’s situation has changed dramatically. And as large-scale crises cloud the news surrounding the Games, smaller-scale scandals have broken out in relation to the Olympics themselves: shoddy construction in the Olympic Village, water pollution in Guanabara Bay and Opening Ceremony budget cuts, each of which has been met with condescending scorn by the Western media. So what happens when a country’s gleaming victory lap loses a bit of its shine? Does the exercise become futile? Or perhaps more valuable?
The difficulties that these Games have faced are not unique to Rio’s Olympic Park; they characterize daily life here in South America. Despite the highest hopes of both Brazilian leaders and American economists, Brazil remains a country profoundly in the process of developing. Here, construction projects around the country suffer delays, not just in the Olympic village; inadequate sanitation infrastructure leaves city streets dirty, not just the bay; and economic downturn has pulled federal funds away from things much more important than an opening ceremony.
Yet, despite these and other persistent struggles, this joyful, energetic, and beautiful nation came together last Friday and put on a show for the world that reflected its history, its spirit and its future. The Olympics shine a spotlight onto their host; what kind of global community would we be if we demanded that that spotlight only highlight a country’s strengths while hiding its flaws? If both those who govern and celebrate the Olympic movement are serious about spreading the Games beyond their stronghold in the developed world, they must understand that the very real obstacles that countries like Brazil face cannot and should not be simply obscured from view while under the world’s gaze.
After Friday’s Opening Ceremony, and for the first time in a while, Brazilians are genuinely proud of their country. They saw themselves, their culture, their history and the essence of their beautiful country displayed in the Maracanã Stadium for all the world to see. They, better than anyone, know their country’s struggles, but for them that makes success all the sweeter. As a global community, we should learn to accept the hardships of the country that we’ve all laid our eyes on and appreciate what Brazil has accomplished in performing on this, the world’s largest stage.