Glory Eclipsed by Shame at the Rio Summer Games: A Social and Environmental Review of Brazil in 2016

Rio Olympic Games Special Feature : Brazil, the good, the bad, and ugly 

Copacabana Beach, the heart of the Rio summer olympics, 2016

Brazil is a complex amalgam of sustainability successes alongside epic social and environmental fails. The interplay of heroes and villains in Brazilian society sometimes makes it hard to differentiate one from the other. Brazil is a study in contrasts as illustrated by the incongruous site of lavish beach houses framed against the backdrop of Rio’s hillside slums.

Rio 2016 boasts a record number of countries participating in a record number of sports. The 11,239 athletes from 206 National teams are vying for 306 sets of medals in 28 Olympic sports. Brazil hopes that the summer Games of the XXXI Olympiad will put country’s sustainability leadership on display. However, a behind the scenes look at Rio 2016 reveals environmental degradation, economic chaos, political disarray, corruption and social injustice.

The opening ceremony was an impressive spectacle that included a video on climate change. This is entirely appropriate given that Brazil is facing some severe environmental problems including the impacts of climate change. According to climate models, Brazil is expected to get hotter and get more precipitation, including the Atlantic coast where Rio is situated.  Even Brazil’s iconic Carnaval is impacted by drought.

The issues that plague the games leave many questioning how host city Rio de Janeiro beat out Madrid, Tokyo, and  Chicago. However, it would be grossly unfair to dismiss the nation’s sustainability efforts altogether.

Brazil is a global leader in commercially viable recycling and through its involvement with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the country plays a pivotal role in driving sustainability disclosure at a national and global level. NGO’s and academic institutions are also onboard leading the way, offering a growing number of sustainability-focused educational opportunities to students in business, public administration, and management.

The Brazilian government is a signatory to Agenda 21 (the UN’s sustainable development action), and the country concluded an emissions reduction deal with the U.S. last year. Brazil has said it will reduce CO2 emissions 37 percent by 2025. Brazil even took a very progressive stance at the COP21 climate talks in Paris. The country joined the “high ambition coalition” of countries including the European Union and the U.S.

Despite some impressive sustainability achievements, it is clear that the games fall short of the promises made leading up to the Rio Summer Olympics. Even before they got underway, corruption, socioeconomic difficulties, and political intrigue have overshadowed the games.

 In a tragic turn of events that foreshadowed the shame of the 2016 games, a jaguar—the Brazilian Olympic team’s mascot—was shot and killed at the Olympic torch passing ceremony. This majestic animal is a threatened species with an estimated 15,000 remaining in the wild.

Doping scandal

This year’s summer Olympic games have been marred by a ban of Russian athletes due to a “state-dictated” doping program and cover up. However, 271 of the 389 Russians planning to attend the games have been allowed to participate in Rio as “neutral” athletes if it was independently verified that they had not engaged in doping. Although doping has been a longstanding problem, the scale of this year’s ban is unprecedented. A total of 118 Russian athletes are banned from competing at the 2016 games in Rio. This number is roughly equal to the total number of athletes caught doping at all Summer Olympics since 1968.

Refugee athletes

Rio 2016 will forever hold the distinction of being the first Olympic games in which stateless athletes are participating. Due to the European migrant crisis and other reasons, the IOC has allowed athletes to compete as Independent Olympians under the Olympic Flag.  In Rio, there is a team of ten Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA) selected from 43 athletes deemed eligible.


Sustainability factored heavily in Rio’s bid for the games and planning documents. As reported by Think Progress, urban geographer Christopher Gaffney analyzed Rio’s bid documents and found that the word “environment” and its derivatives are the second most used terms in the Rio Olympic bid. The word “sustainability” was used three times more often than “education,” and eleven times more than “citizen.”

The games sustainability planning is premised on three strategic pillars – people, planet, and prosperity.

This strategy includes transport and logistics, building, conservation, environmental recovery, waste management, supply chains, management and reporting.

Great strides were made in 2015 with the International Sports Federations’ inclusion of sustainability in the Olympic Agenda 2020.  The 2015 International Federations’ Sustainability report indicates a 400 percent increase since 2008 in the number of International Federations (IF) that have a dedicated person responsible for sustainability. Almost two-thirds of IFs now measure their sustainability activities, and more than 80 percent are aware of ISO standards. Three out of four surveyed Olympic IFs believe that the recommendations arising from the Olympic Agenda’s 2020 inclusion in the IOC roadmap have an important impact on their sustainability initiatives.

As explained by one federation representative: “The IOC prioritizing helps increase the profile (of sustainability) and move it up the agenda.”  Despite these efforts, the Rio Olympics have fallen far short of their sustainability goals.

Estimate show that the Rio Olympic games will have a half-million-ton CO2 footprint.  As the official carbon partner of Rio 2016, Dow is working to mitigate the games’ carbon footprint through energy- and resource-efficiency initiatives and technologies in four key industrial sectors: agriculture, manufacturing, packaging and construction. These projects will help Rio to generate an additional 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in climate benefits by 2026. It will also help Brazil meet its 37 percent CO2 reduction goal by 2025.

As the leading source of greenhouse gasses, Dow is working closely with Brazil’s construction industry to minimize climate impacts. As reviewed in Environmental Leader, Dow has reduced these emissions with the help of building materials with a lower carbon footprint. Dow is working with facility owners and managers focusing on efficient insulation. They have partnered with polyurethane-panel producers and hosted seminars and workshops to educate architects, builders, and contractors about the benefits of these panels, which decrease demand on heating and cooling systems and minimize GHGs. Dow is also working on sustainable packaging, focusing on its patented microfoaming technology that reduces the weight of plastic films and packages, allowing manufacturers to produce more packaging material using the same amount of resin. Finally, Dow has partnered with biomass energy company Energias Renováveis do Brasil to reduce their emissions and increase reforestation.


Deforestation in the Amazon, BrazilOnce the undisputed world leader in virgin forest depletion, Brazil no longer holds that dubious distinction. Brazil may be best known for its massive rainforests, often referred to as the lungs of the earth. To put it more accurately, Brazil has become infamous for Amazonian deforestation. With one-third of the world’s rainforests, Brazil holds one of the keys to combating climate change. Best estimates are that the Amazon rainforest is responsible for a quarter of all the carbon dioxide absorbed by land every year. At least 20 percent of the Amazon is already destroyed by deforestation. Rainforests in Brazil are also under threat from climate change which is expected to make the Amazon hotter and drier. On a more positive note, deforestation rates have slowed in the last ten years.

Water pollution

Water pollution a problem for athletes and residents of Rio

There are high levels of air pollution from vehicle exhaust, but the most serious pollution problem is the water, which is full of untreated sewage and garbage. Heavier rainfalls due to climate change compound the problem by adding to the runoff that seeps into waterways.

Guanabara Bay, the site of sailing and windsurfing competitions, is heavily polluted. Waste flows into the bay through polluted rivers and slums along the coast. Officials have promised to clean up the bay for almost a quarter century, and this idea was a prominent part of the Rio 2016 bid. However, efforts to deliver on these commitments have been inadequate.

Although there has been some progress towards modern sanitation, 40 percent of waste still flows into Rio’s waterways. Around 60 percent of sewage that flows into the bay is now being treated, that is a considerable improvement from 17 percent several years ago. However, it is far short of the goal of 80 percent.  Guanabara Bay is still full of tons of raw sewage that is pumped into the bay each day. Of the eight treatment plants that the Brazilian government had promised, only one was built.

Dead fish and even body parts are innocuous compared to some of the other things in Rio’s water. As reported by Common Dreams, anyone who does brave the water is at risk from infections and meningitis. Dr. Valerie Harwood, chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida conducted extensive research on Rio’s water, concluding that nobody should put their head underwater. Some water samples reveal that there are antibiotic-resistant super bacteria. A sample from Rodrigo de Freitas Lake found more than 1 billion viruses from human sewage in a single liter of water. To put this into context, that is 1.7 million times the tolerable level for Southern California.

“According to a study by the University of Texas School of Public Health, athletes who ingest just three teaspoons of water from the contaminated bay in Brazil have a 99 percent chance of being infected.”

In addition to bacteria and viruses, there is also chemical waste from industry in Rio’s water.

Clean energy

Brazil has fast-growing energy needs. The country is a global biomass leader with vast renewable energy potential. Brazil is well suited to wind and solar. Brazil is working to significantly increase its renewable energy capabilities. The total installed capacity of wind power in Brazil virtually doubled between September 2014 and August 2015. Brazil is now one of the world’s largest producers of wind energy. Last year the Energy Minister, Eduardo Braga, suggested that Brazil is aiming to replace up to 15 GW of fossil fuel-fired power plants with clean energy including wind and solar. In 2014, the country began to get serious about ramping up its production of solar power. Brazil aims to get a quarter (57.8 GW) of its electricity from non-hydro renewable power sources by 2025. However, Brazil also has some deepwater oil projects that have been identified by Greenpeace as a leading carbon bomb.

Economic crisis

Brazil is hosting the games as it endures a severe economic recession and profound market volatility. Nonetheless, Brazil still has the largest economy in Latin America and the fifth largest economy in the world. The 2016 Olympics have cost Brazil R$29.6 billion in public and private investment. This vast sum has been criticized in light of the state of the country’s economy. This year alone the Brazilian economy declined by 3 percent. Just before the start of the Games, Rio’s government declared a state of financial disaster. There have also been many cost overruns including Rio’s new 10-mile rail line, which exceeded the budget by a staggering $1.2 billion.

Political instability

Political unrest in Brazil

A plethora of controversies plague the games, not the least of which is best described as profound political instability. The nation’s president Dilma Rousseff has been suspended due to allegations that she broke budget rules and manipulated economic data. A 440-page Senate report condemning Rousseff was released on August 2, 2016. Many say that Rousseff was impeached because guilty politicians and the wealthy elite want to avoid prosecution for corruption. Compounding matters further, Petrobras is a primary sponsor of the Rio Olympics, having contributed R$3,500,000.00.

Widespread corruption

Corruption is rampant in Brazil so it is very hard to know who is on the take and who isn’t. According to some, they all have their hand in the till. A probe uncovered an elaborate and extensive kickback scheme by state-run oil company Petrobras.  Billions were skimmed off contracts from the state oil company and funneled to lawmakers in Rousseff’s coalition including those in Temer’s party.

In 2014, an investigation by the Federal Police of Brazil called Operation Car Wash, uncovered corruption and a vast money laundering operation at the state-controlled oil company Petrobras.

As reported by The Atlantic’s Alex Cuadros, graft and bribes were a behind the scenes fixture in the building of Olympic infrastructure. He wrote:

“Contracts for everything from stadium and train-line construction to port renovations have funneled billions of dollars in taxpayer-subsidized revenues to a handful of Brazil’s most powerful, well-connected families and their companies.”

Prosperous companies like Carvalho and wealthy neighborhoods like Barra da Tijuca benefited the most from generous government subsidies. To make matters worse, Carvalho’s partners, Odebrecht and Andrade Gutierrez are at the center of the countries multibillion-dollar corruption scandal and investigators have said that they also took bribes from Olympic projects.

 The Guardian reports that due to the rare species put at risk, biologist and environmental activist Marcello Mello called the construction an “environmental crime.” He dismissed the Olympics as a “giant real estate scam.”

The Olympic golf course was constructed by a wealthy businessman in an environmental protection zone where construction was forbidden. In a twist that is stranger than fiction, a sand mining operation owned by the same businessman was the reason cited for removing these environmental protections.

In a classic case of the fox in the hen-house, Temer’s agriculture minister is Blairo Maggi, a billionaire who made his fortune in soya beans. When he was the leader of the environmental committee, he sponsored a constitutional amendment to do away with environmental licensing for public works.


Significant green building features have been incorporated into Olympic sites. As stated by the Olympic Organization Committee, “Each new venue is built according to a plan that assures its sustainability.” They have integrated green features including natural lighting, water conservation, energy-saving, and recycling materials. However, large-scale construction projects have further eroded Brazil’s ecosystems. There are also questions about the quality of work done including some large scale projects. A recently constructed bike lane collapsed in April, killing two people. The new light rail system suffered a major power outage on the second day of service and the new highway near Barra da Tijuca is already damaged with potholes and large cracks.

Zika virus

Athletes and visitors have expressed concerns about the Zika Virus in Brazil, which has been linked to microcephaly in babies. There are a number of reasons why Brazil is ground zero for Zika. One of those reasons is the lack of sewage treatment, another is climate change. One of the corollaries of climate change is heavier rains, this in turn creates stagnant puddles in which mosquitoes reproduce. Mosquitoes are the primary means by which the virus is spread.  To address the problem there are ongoing efforts to eradicate pools of standing water. The Zika virus has alarmed some athletes and a few have even opted to avoid the games altogether.  Zika is not the only danger, there are a host of other diseases that can also be spread by mosquitoes.

Rampant sexism

Rousseff’s conservative vice president Michel Temer is now the interim president and he has fanned the flames of sexism in Brazil. Temer is facing charges of his own, and he is very unpopular with Brazilians. Temer has appointed a cabinet composed exclusively of white males. This is the first time that women have been excluded from the Brazilian cabinet since the 1970s. He also shut down the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality and Human Rights. In stark contrast to Temer,

Women in Brazil face hardships on a daily basis including abuse, exploitation and trafficking. Almost half of all women have experienced some kind of violence in their own homes. According to the UN, a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds in Sao Paulo. More than a quarter of Brazilians agree that women who wear revealing clothes deserve to be assaulted, according to a survey by the Institute for Applied Economic Research. The same poll found that 59 percent of Brazilians believed that there would be fewer rapes if women would “behave.”

Child prostitution

Child prostitution is a tragic problem in Brazil. Unicef says that there are a quarter of a million child prostitutes in the country.  Poverty forces girls as young as 11 to become prostitutes. Hundreds of thousands of sex tourists take advantage of these children each year.

Poverty and inequality

Widespread poverty and inequality in Rio

People are one of the three pillars of the key Olympic Committee document, and “universal accessibility” is a major theme outlined in the games’ sustainability plans.  However, those aspirations are at odds with the reality on the ground. Brazil has one of the most disproportionate allocations of wealth of any society in the world. This inequality is openly apparent at this year’s Olympic games. The crowded shacks that line the steep hills are in sharp contrast to the multi-million dollar dwellings in Ipanema and Copacabana.

Before the games started and while they are being played Brazil’s poor have been pushed aside. To make way for the games tens-of-thousands of impoverished favela residents have been displaced and their homes demolished. This has increased Brazil’s homeless population.

With tickets costing as much as $3,000 U.S. there is no way that Olympic sporting events are even remotely accessible to the poor. No one seems to have noticed that Rio 2016 is publicly committed to “staging Games available to all.” Even after the conclusion of the games, Brazil’s poor will not be able to taste the crumbs. Rather than turn the Olympic village into a much needed housing project for the poor, they will be sold as luxury apartments once the games are over.  Brazil’s wealthy have benefited tremendously from the games while poor Brazilians get nothing.

This approach is diametrically opposed to the sub-brand of the Rio 2016 Sustainability Plan which goes by the name of. “Embrace”. It is intended to invite and engage people. Worse still the UN is complicit in the deal. As part of the agreement with the Olympic Organizing Committee, UNEP is charged with mediation with Brazilians around the subject of sustainability. The social aspirations of the Organizing Committee are found in a document titled Focus: Rio 2016 Sustainability, it is subtitled Sustainability for All. It would appear that those behind the games failed to execute. As explained in the document:

“We have taken up the commitment to use the force of sports and sustainability in order to leverage transformations in people as well as the city.”

Environmental champions

Brazil also has some brave souls who have championed environmental causes. As reviewed in Angella Nazarian’s book, Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women, one such person is Marina Silva. She is often referred to as the Al Gore of Brazil due to her tireless defense of the Amazon. Her efforts played a leading role in the passage of legislation protecting the environment. She is also a recipient of the prestigious Goldman prize. However, being an environmental advocate in Brazil can be deadly. According to a Global Witness report titled, On Dangerous Ground, Brazil has the highest murder rate for environmental activists in the world with 50 confirmed murders last year and more than 200 between 2010 and 2015.

Mayor of Rio

The contradictions in Brazil are exemplified by Eduardo Paes, the mayor of the host city, Rio de Janeiro. Paes is a champion of sustainability who helped to craft  Rio’s bid for the 2016 Olympics. In 1994, Paes was elected to the  Brazilian Congress running on an “ecological and economical” platform. In 2008 he was elected mayor of Rio and he was reelected in 2012. In 2014, Paes was elected chair of the C40 network, a group representing 80 world  cities working together to combat the devastating effects of climate change. He has taken steps to reduce Rio’s emissions and make the city more resilient in the face of climate change. However, many of the so-called legacy issues, including the cleaning of Guanabara Bay have not materialized. His efforts to combat climate change are overshadowed by allegations that his ties to real  estate developers have given them undue influence.

Brazil showed so much promise and many expected the country to emerge as a truly global green leader. However, sustainability demands a regime of environmental protections, sound governance, social justice and economic stability. Sadly, an honest assessment reveals that in 2016 Brazil has little to none of the aforementioned.

Taken as a whole, Rio 2016 does not compare favorably to the Brazilian World Cup in 2014 or even the deplorably corrupt Olympic-sized greenwash at the Sochi Winter games.

During the bidding process, the 2016 Olympics were called “Green Games for a Blue Planet”. However, a more accurate description was provided by striking Brazilian police, who posted a sign at the Rio International Airport saying, ‘Welcome to Hell’.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics, and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Featured image credit: sama093, courtesy Flickr Additional image credits: Getty, Amazon Rainforest News, Christopher Rose

Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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