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Rio 2016: evidence of greatness or a bid for recognition?

The eve of the opening ceremonies of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics is a good time to reflect not only on Brazil’s role as the organizer of the games, but whether the experience of the host country can tell us anything about the status of the BRICS — one of the most important economic groupings in the world, and one which you may never have heard of.

As nations much showcased since 2001 (when Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs first clustered them together) as big, dynamic, rising countries, much of their global projection has focused as much on spectacle as on substantive achievements.

In the world of diplomacy the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) reproduced many of the same features embedded in the activities of the G7 forum made up of the old Western dominated establishment. Coming together initially as a foreign ministers meeting before being elevated to a full-blown summit of leaders in 2009, the BRICS aimed to show that they were constitutive of a new geography of power. The purpose of such collective action was to a considerable extent symbolic, with a focus on status enhancement whereby the BRICS countries pushed for recognition as influential actors in the international system.

However the grasp of spectacle has not only been confined to the sphere of high politics. More than any other grouping of countries the BRICS have embraced the value of linking soft power dynamics to major sporting events, with the Olympics at the top of the list.

In its most robust form this approach has embellished the image of an individual member of BRICS as a country deserving of top-tier ranking. Although pollution and a number of human rights controversies threatened the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the games was deemed by most observers to be a successful coming out party for China. Not only were the main physical images of the Olympics – the “Bird’s Nest” stadium and the ‘water Cube” aquatic centre–consistent with the narrative of a big rising China, it influenced the parallel enterprises of the other BRICS countries, most notably the Russian 2014 Sochi Winter games.

Yet if the winning and running of major sporting events held enormous opportunity this approach equally exposed extreme risks. Indeed, rather than reinforcing top-tier reputation at the apex of global society, the experience of hosting the Olympics or other such event could confirm that the BRICS (as former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castenada put it) are simply not ready for prime time.

In terms of the hosting of major games it must be recognized that the success of the Beijing Olympics was a singular achievement in the context of the BRICS. Although hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup provided a needed upgrade for South Africa’s transport infrastructure, South Africa backed away from bidding for the 2024 Summer Olympics. And despite speculation that India might compete for the 2024 Olympics this scenario also proved false.

More than any other grouping of countries the BRICS have embraced the value of linking soft power dynamics to major sporting events, with the Olympics at the top of the list. Image CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Pixabay.
Olympics games ladder by ksobolevo. Public domain via Pixabay.

What is fascinating about Brazil’s hosting of the Rio Olympics is how it stretches across the entire range of images about the BRICS. In October 2009 Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva stated that he was the proudest president in the world when hours after Rio de Janeiro had won the right to host the 2016 Olympic games. Not only was Lula instrumental in seeing off the efforts of US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign for Chicago, he received congratulatory messages from most heads of state from South American countries, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

By the opening of the games this sort of optimism is long eroded. Common sentiment agrees with the view of Rio’s mayor; the Rio Olympics marks a “missed opportunity” for Brazil to demonstrate on a big global stage that it is a rising power. Former president Lula is under indictment for his alleged obstruction of the Petrobras scandal. Moreover the tardiness in the completion of Olympic venues, contamination of the waters where the nautical events are to held, and concerns about the Zika virus, all reinforce the problematic caricature of Brazil for inefficiency.

Yet, notwithstanding all the predictions about disaster, it must not be forgotten that the hallmark of the BRICS both individually and collectively is an aspirational quality. Even as the BRICS have endeavoured to move up the global hierarchy, it is their constraints in the context of development as much as their comparative advantages. But there is plenty to be optimistic about in tracing the geo-political trajectory of this grouping. Building on an unanticipated club culture the BRICS, for example, have been able to create a New Development Bank with innovative ambition.

Unfortunately even beyond the core illustration of Brazil the experience of the Rio games threatens to exaggerate the divergent – and often negative – qualities of the individual BRICS countries. China is analyzed as the main competitor with the United States to lead the medal count. Russia’s outlier status is reinforced as it struggles with charges of systematic doping. India’s status as the perpetual underachiever is anticipated as it only won 9 gold medals, and an overall total of 26 medals in 30 Olympics Games. Although South Africa has escaped controversy on sports related issues, this success is overshadowed by the turmoil for the ruling ANC party as it faces serious tests in local elections.

Holding the Olympics in Rio remains a testimony to the aspirational goals of countries outside of the traditional centres of power. But meeting these goals is – and will continue to be – a messy and uneven affair.

Featured image credit: Sport treadmill Tor by RemazteredStudio. Public domain via Pixabay.

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