In French history, the period from the end of the Franco-Prussian war (1871) to the start of the First World War (1914) is called the Belle Époque (the beautiful era). It was a period marked by relative regional peace, economic prosperity, scientific and technological advancement, and fine art and literature. It overlapped with the Victorian and Edwardian eras in the U.K., and the Gilded Age in the U.S.
A tool of development
In light of a war-torn past, it was imperative for the governing classes in each of these countries to renew and assert their political identity. The need was to reorient the developmental path. The hosting of global mega events was one of the ways of doing this. Starting in 1900, the second, third and fourth editions of the modern Olympic Games were held in Paris, St. Louis and London, respectively.
This pattern was seen after the Second World War too, with the most notable example being of Tokyo hosting the 1964 Olympics to shed Japan of its militaristic past. In fact, one of the first major actions of post-apartheid South Africa under Nelson Mandela was to host the Rugby Union World Cup in 1995. South Africa then had not even joined the group of bellwether economies from the Third World. The success of it — South Africa became the champions — and the improved image of the country convinced Mandela to lend support for the FIFA World Cup bid; a failed bid for the 2006 tournament was followed by a successful one for the next edition. That a man of Mandela’s stature would see in them effective tools of soft power sent a message to the world far and wide.
In this period from the early 1990s to the late 2000s, the world was ordained towards being truly global. A certain degree of interdependence and transnational governance resulting in a global flexible economy was desired. Big events such as the Olympics and the World Cup were expected to provide the cultural and economic resources to adapt to such a world. China, with its staging of the 2008 Games, wanted to assert this very aspect — not necessarily as a display of one-upmanship, but more a reminder that it was inferior to none.
It was this world that the Brazil of 2009 wanted to join. Along with India, it was among the world’s fastest-growing large economies. In the aftermath of the economic meltdown in 2008, the country seemed a shining light and the driver of international growth. That it won the right to host the 2016 Rio Games was no coincidence. “I’ve never felt more pride in Brazil,” the country’s then president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said after Rio was awarded the Games. “Now, we are going to show the world we can be a great country.”
Brazil at the moment
Brazil of 2016 is far from it. The current recession is its worst in decades, principally owing to the slide in global commodity prices. Crime and corruption seem endemic. Two highly popular presidents not so long ago, Mr. Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff, are facing corruption trials and impeachment proceedings. Coming as it does in the midst of all this, the Olympics, after the 2014 World Cup, is the inevitable target. A majority of Brazilians think of it as trivial and populist ephemera. The general feeling is that it is indifferent to the problems of the real world and the big issues of the day such as class inequality and social inclusion.
In a sense this is emblematic of the thinking outside Brazil too. There is an increasing resistance to globalisation. Even if there is no outright denouncement, it is being viewed with circumspection, especially by those classes which have borne the brunt of the uneven development of society.
Yet, Rio might have well heralded a change and offered a sneak peek into the kind of role the Games might play in the future. Set in a context of extreme strife, in a departure from the past, the Olympics sought to resist in subtle ways the threats the global order might bring. In an increasingly homogenised world, it displayed a certain amount of uniqueness. It didn’t bother hiding the Favela, Rio’s crime-ridden slums. Neither was the historical stain of slavery left out of the equation. As Barney Ronay wrote in The Guardian, it was “a fairly decent take on the country itself: a little messy, a little muddled at the edges, but unavoidably absorbing.”
The popular refrain that these are just money-guzzling extravaganzas bereft of any soul was also sought to be dispelled. The ‘big issues of the day’, climate change and environmental disaster, were highlighted. The struggles against racism and xenophobia were addressed as the loudest cheers were reserved for a team of refugees. That the Olympics had gone back to providing a focal point and an arena for debate was indeed noteworthy.
In fairness, none of this should trivialise the angst that a common Brazilian citizen may have towards sporting events of such magnitude and spending. But it’s the same individual self which thought the world had crashed when Brazil lost the World Cup semi-final to Germany. It will be the very same being who will take the elusive gold medal in football over everything else.
As in the 1900s and in the many decades since, the role of the Olympics as a tool to further soft power is here to stay. But by showing a mirror to the world and unto itself, it might do a lot more good.