Looking back at Sochi, lessons for Brazil's turn on stage

By Evan Ward

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Feb. 23 2014 5:32 p.m. MST

Yet what can Brazil learn from the Sochi and Beijing Olympic Games, and other competitions being hosted in the developing world? Beyond the obvious need for security, which serves as the foundation for well-run mega-events anywhere in the world, there are a few lessons that the hosts of the 2014 World Cup should learn from their predecessors.

First, empty seats in prime time have less to do with cost of tickets and more to do with choked streets leading to the venues. Despite the fact that the Russian government spent $8 billion to $9 billion on the 30-mile railway between Sochi and skiing venues at Krasnaya Polyana, the trains did, for the most part, transport competitors and fans to the winter sports park efficiently. Brazilian city officials will have to find creative solutions to the gridlock that chronically brings traffic to a halt there. Rio officials might also do well to look to Bogota, Colombia. Faced with the exorbitant costs and logistic headaches of building a subway system, Colombian officials instead appropriated selected street lanes for the exclusive use by buses. This critically acclaimed solution to traffic jams alleviated traffic in Colombia’s capital and helped to clear the air.

Second, Brazilian officials should learn from the Sochi Games that preserving the physical integrity of fields of play is as important as building gleaming stadiums and five-star hotels. Icy ski slopes and slushy halfpipes became too much of an active participant in Sochi’s tropical winter competitions — and compromised athletic performances.

Every mega-event is unique. Brazil will face stiff challenges accommodating all of the spectators in comfortable hotels during the 2½ years. In 1968, when Mexico City hosted the first Olympic Games in a developing country, the organizing committee encouraged local residents to host visiting spectators, knowing that not enough hotel rooms had been built to accommodate demand. Nearly 50 years later, Brazilian authorities might encourage broader use of online services by the public, such as AirBnB.com, which has turned many spare bedrooms into viable lodging.

Despite these challenges, global gatherings generate constructive possibilities. I base this optimism on an experience I had in Beijing two months after the completion of the Olympic Games. One Saturday afternoon I rode the subway from downtown Beijing to the Olympic complex. Having heard of the economic downturn that has often tarnished the reputation of host cities after mega-events, I was pleasantly surprised to see the same types of small gatherings and conversation going on in the public spaces between the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube that I encountered during an early morning visit to the Temple of Heaven across town. Grandfathers stood, conversing with children and grandchildren, in the shadow of the latest "wonders" of the Olympic universe. Hopefully the legacy of the Sochi Olympic Games, and future games in Brazil, will include similar opportunities.

Evan R. Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University and studies the history of global tourism development. He can be reached at evan_ward@byu.edu.

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