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Why Is Rio 2016 South America's First Olympics?

Picture of Luke Bradshaw
Sports Editor
Updated: 30 August 2016
Rio welcomes the world’s athletes at the Summer Olympics this August, yet the Brazilian city is the very first host in South America to stage the prestigious event in its 120-year history.

Various arguments have been put forward as to why this is the case, including political instability, a lack of money and/or infrastructure, and even the fact that August on the continent is officially winter, it is a question of whether they stack up.

The issue regarding winter can be immediately dismissed, due to the southern hemisphere hosting the games in 1956 and 2000, in Melbourne and Sydney, respectively. The average temperature for Rio in August is 22 degrees Celsius and it experiences some light rainfall. It’s sunny and warm, without being detrimental or oppressive for the athletes competing, so seemingly perfect conditions.

The Sydney 2000 Olympic Games’ closing ceremony.
The Sydney 2000 Olympic Games’ closing ceremony. | ©wikipedia

The other arguments, however, seem to have greater substance. Cesar Torres, Professor at the College of Brockport, State University of New York, an expert in Latin American sport, believes the reasons have evolved over time.

‘In the early part of the 20th century there was definitely a Eurocentric bias, but since then regional dynamics and rivalries have been a real problem,’ Torres told The Culture Trip. ‘For instance, Buenos Aires fell short in their 1956 bid by one vote, and there were quite a few South American countries that didn’t vote for them.’

How bids are submitted, and subsequently won, is important to highlight. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) bidding process can be a complex affair, with plenty of different parties pushing separate agendas. Without a common South American alliance, bids from the continent have consistently struggled.

The IOC can now, after choosing Rio, maintain their party line, that of trying to effect change with their choice. The committee awarded Beijing the games in 2008, hoping to help open China up to the world. Seoul’s successful bid for the 1988 Olympics was a contributing factor in helping usher in a civilian government.

The decision to choose Rio could help the country develop faster and once the bid was successful the IOC’s rhetoric took the form of bringing the Olympic movement to an entire continent for the first time. The difficulty with that, however, is that it only raises the question of why it wasn’t done sooner.

The Maracanã will host a number of events during the games.
The Maracanã will host a number of events during the games. | ©Renato M Fonseca/Flickr

The worry for South America is that there are other areas in the world facing the same issue, so while Rio has finally won out in staging the event, it may have to wait a very long time for another opportunity, given that neither Africa, the Middle East nor the Indian subcontinent have hosted the Summer Olympics either, so may well get preference in future decisions.

There is no official rotation system, and geopolitical interests are constantly changing, so it is difficult to predict the way votes will go. What is true is that European cities are less interested in submitting bids than 20 or 30 years ago, based on the potential for economic burden.

That said, aside from Rio, Buenos Aires is the only other South American city capable of hosting the games. Torres explains that Santiago ‘would be a maybe’ and ‘Caracas would have a shot but its economic situation counts against it’.

It is not as if the continent has no experience in hosting major events. The Pan American Games have been hosted in Rio, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Mar del Plata, Cali and Caracas, with Lima set to play host in 2019.

For Torres, this can be a blessing and a curse: ‘The Pan Am Games has, for some time now, been viewed as a stepping stone towards hosting the Olympics. Some have had problems with infrastructure, and would have confirmed the perceived fears of the IOC, but Rio’s successful hosting in 2007 certainly helped them with their 2016 bid. Buenos Aires will be hosting the 2018 Youth Olympics, so a successful event there will undoubtedly help them.’

Rio’s bid committee celebrate their success.
Rio’s bid committee celebrate their success. | ©wikipedia

The FIFA World Cup has been held in South America in 1930 (Uruguay), 1950 (Brazil), 1962 (Chile), 1978 (Argentina) and 2014 (Brazil), but the football tournament is spread over an entire country (sometimes more), not just one city.

The reason it has taken the Olympics so long to arrive in South America is a complex one. Starting out on the back foot during the organization’s infancy, internal squabbling, political entanglement and a lack of desire beyond Rio and Buenos Aires who’ve tabled bids have all played their part. It is also difficult to see the pattern changing any time soon.