August 2016 – The 2016 Summer Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has dominated news headlines in recent weeks. The athletics event, taking place from August 5 to August 21, featured 207 countries in the Parade of Nations as well as the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. It is the first time the games have been held in South America. But besides highlights on the events and spotlights on athletes’ training regimens and backgrounds, there is another stream of news stories surrounding the Olympic Games. These stories have focused on two key public health issues related to this year’s Games: health disparities and water quality issues.
Rio’s Olympic beach volleyball venue is on Copacabana Beach. Photo from Marcio Jose Sanchez for AP.
Only two years ago the FIFA World Cup was making similar headlines in Brazil. As reported in 2014, and highlighted in this blog, there have been past concerns about access to quality healthcare despite the surge of funds for the World Cup event. These reports unmasked a problematic system of health disparities to a global audience. The Daily Californian stated that many Brazilians were “unhappy that their government [was] funding stadium renovations instead of spending on more instrumental matters like improved health care and emergency services.” Reports relating to the current Olympics have painted a similar picture for the present health scene. As Reuters reported in December 2015, the governor of Rio de Janeiro declared a state of emergency “as hospitals, emergency rooms and health clinics cut services or closed units throughout the state as money ran out for equipment, supplies and salaries.” According to CNN, the financial crisis has been causing difficulties in the “provision of essential public services and can even cause a total breakdown in public security, health, education, mobility and environmental management.”. While the state of emergency declaration provides a critical 45 million reais ($25.3 million) in federal aid and may facilitate the transfer of future funds, estimates state that Rio de Janeiro owes approximately $355 million to employees and suppliers in the healthcare sector alone, and the state needs over $100 million to reopen the closed hospital units and clinics. While the city of Rio spent approximately $7.1 billion on improving toll roads, ports and other infrastructure projects, the Brazil Ministry of Health devoted only $5.7 million to address health concerns.
The Christ the Redeemer statue is visible above the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro. Photo from Joao Velozo for NPR.
In addition to these issues (and the high-profile Zika virus, which is causing health concerns in multiple countries), concerns surrounding water quality and cleanliness in Brazil has garnered considerable attention. A recent scene involving the diving and water polo pools turning a swamp-green color because of an algae bloom left some athletes complaining of itchy eyes. While the Olympic Games have brought international attention to the impact of water quality on the athletes and visitors, the residents of Rio have been dealing with theses concerns on a daily basis for much longer. With almost 13 million people living in and around Rio, the current sewage system is struggling to cope. One news report notes that “about 50 percent of what Brazilians flush down the toilet ends up in the country’s waterways. Diseases related to contaminated water are the second leading cause of death for children under five in Brazil.” Tests performed in a variety of areas, including the sailing venue of Guanabara Bay, over the course of a year found high levels of “superbugs of the sort found in hospitals on the shores of the bay.” The possibility of hospital sewage entering the municipal sewage system remains a concern.
An economic recession, compounded by water concerns, political unrest, and a presently faltering healthcare system all leave many Cariocas— citizens of Rio– who rely on the public health system in a challenging and hazardous situation across the social, medical, and political spheres. With hopes of local profits from the Olympic Games ranging in the billions of dollars, much is at stake for both residents and investors. Despite the risks and tribulations, many residents welcome the international event and attention, and credit the Olympics for cultivating “several underutilized, often abandoned spaces have been transformed to ones that appeal and cater to local residents”. Many “beautification” projects leave residents hoping the installation of new art and the newly constructed spaces will leave a lasting impression on its residents and visitors long after the games end. Despite this optimism, the citizens of Rio are not impacted equally by the Games. The improved infrastructures will likely benefit those who already have access to services. Tourism, and tourism cash, has been weak in the favelas, or shantytowns, which house at least 25% of the population in Rio. The infrastructure inequities have even bypassed some neighborhoods entirely, leaving those residents out of the celebrations.
Overall, these Olympic Games promise once again to bring the world’s cultures together in competition and camaraderie, yet they do not do so without controversy. This global spectacle illuminates athletics and sportsmanship, as well as the intersections between cultural events, politics and nationalism, power and profit, and community health. These larger issues lead to questions about what will happen to the residents of Rio after the Games have drawn to a close.