The True Story Behind How Underdog Rio de Janeiro Landed the 2016 Summer Olympics

Olympic rings in Rio | © stux / Pixabay
Picture of Will Lees
Updated: 2 May 2018
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People who live outside the United States are always baffled when the winners of the Super Bowl or the World Series call themselves ‘World Champions’. In 2016, Rio de Janeiro was granted the privilege of holding the true ‘World Championship’—the Olympics.

The inaugural event of the first Olympic games was held in Olympia, Greece, almost 3,000 years ago (around the 8th century BC), though it wasn’t until 1896 that the Olympics as we know it today was reinstated, this time in Athens. Since then, a different city has hosted the summer games that are held every four years, though no South American city got to have its turn until recently, in 2016.

OIympic street art in Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro was not new to bidding for a chance to host the Olympics, as the country was first rejected in 1936 when Berlin walked away with the honour. The city took a step back and prepared itself to try again in 2004 with another bid to host the games, and though its application was successful, it didn’t even get to the voting phase. Rio de Janeiro, feeling it wasn’t far from a successful bid, returned in 2012 for yet another attempt, but was dealt a serious reality check when it came in 7th out of nine countries during the voting process, with only Turkey and Cuba behind it. Having made little progress since 2004, the city was considered a long shot in becoming the host of the 2016 games, but it nonetheless submitted an application once again. A week later, Rio was recognized as one of the seven applicant cities—first hurdle cleared.

Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro

The city still had a long way to go, however, and needed some luck in order to actually win the bid. Some of the issues that concerned the International Olympic Committee included Rio’s general infrastructure, the state of its sports venues and the evident problem of safety.

Another enormous obstacle that Rio faced was its competition with the cities of Tokyo, Chicago, Madrid, Prague and Doha (located in the thriving country of Qatar, which will be hosting the 2022 World Cup).

Baku, in Azerbaijan, as expected, fell out of the running very early after scoring the lowest points in environmental conditions, finances, experience, infrastructure, legacy, sports venues and safety. The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) ranking system of 11 categories states that if a city’s weighted average is above a 6, it is deemed capable of hosting the Olympics. Rio de Janeiro snuck in with a ranking of 6.4 points, barely making the grade and coming in as the city with the lowest score to make it through to the final round of voting, which included Madrid, Chicago and Tokyo (Prague and Baku were already out of the running for scoring too low and Doha was eliminated as it had been trying to host the Olympics during the cooler month of October, which was outside the date requirements for the Summer Games).

Rio from Sugarloaf Mountain

The final stage began with the Olympic Committee visiting and evaluating each city and in April of 2009, the Evaluation Commission arrived in Rio de Janeiro to what they described as ‘the most welcoming’ of all the potential cities. During its stay in Brazil, the IOC Evaluation Commission was thoroughly impressed with not only Rio’s long-term development plans, but also the quality of its presentation and the unified support of the government. Suddenly, a city that had seemed to be falling behind in the bidding process was deemed a very possible candidate—the application documents submitted by Rio were said to be of ‘very high quality’.

As the voting was completed, Rio de Janeiro placed 2nd in the first round, behind Madrid, 1st in the second round (with Madrid taking 2nd place this time) and the city was declared victorious in the final round of voting. It was, overall, a curious and heavily scrutinized process, but Rio became the first South American city to host the Olympic games.

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