For Rio, what is success?

PALM DESERT, Jul. 31, 2016 – The screams are always loudest in the week before the Opening Ceremony. But now that the Games of the XXXI Olympiad are almost here, what constitutes success for Rio?

Having served with more than two dozen organizing committees of many kinds of events – Olympic Games, Pan American Games, World University Games and others – this question is too often raised too late in the process to allow a meaningful answer. But there are five elements which are much more critical than others.

Get the first four right, and Rio 2016 will rightly claim success on August 21.

(1) Community safety
Safety really is first when putting on a major event. And this is only partially about security and the tens of thousands of soldiers working in Rio. It’s also about whether the streets and highways hold up, if no one is hurt in transportation accidents and the widespread fears of medical problems do not turn up. These are the priority for any city hosting a mega-event and is much more about the government than the Olympic organizing committee.

Please remember that the most infamous Olympics of all was also one of the most meticulously organized: Munich ‘72.

(2) Competition continuity
The Olympic Games are about sports competitions. These events, which are run by the respective International Federations for each sport, need to be operated efficiently and on time, especially as to the start of each event (ask the television folks how important that is!).

In most Games, this is the element that usually works best. Despite their obvious problems in other areas, the Montreal ‘76 and Atlanta ‘96 sports organizers were outstanding.

Rio's 2016 Olympic Stadium
Rio’s 2016 Olympic Stadium

(3) Spectator support
Brazilians and visitors combined will have paid about $1 billion (U.S.) for tickets to the 2016 Games. They need to be able to get to the venues, be admitted and see the competitions without difficulty or harassment.

Rio has gotten off a good start, with the publication of a fairly thorough set of spectator guides which have been available online for several weeks already.

(4) Technology
Even with millions of in-venue spectators, the Games will be experienced by billions on television and online. As long as the television signals flow smoothly from the venues to the International Broadcast Center and then to home networks worldwide, people will enjoy the Games. Same for the results systems and feeds to press and broadcast outlets who will flash them to phones, tablets and computers to every area of the world.

That’s what’s important between August 5 and 20. The rest is just noise.

How the Rio Games are seen, even a year later, is another matter, which brings us to the fifth ingredient in Rio’s recipe for success:

(5) Legacy
The Rio organizers, for all their efforts, have only partial control over this aspect. They can work carefully to assure that the sports venues are useful in the future, but until the undercurrents which are roiling Rio, all of Brazil and the Olympic Movement are settled, no judgement can be reached.

Of course, we can list some of these: (a) the cost of the Games preparations to the local, state and national treasury, (b) the impact of the multiple governmental crises such as the ongoing impeachment proceedings against the national president, (c) the promises made to the public back when the bid was won in 2009, such as improvements in housing, water quality and business conditions, and things that have nothing to do with the Rio organizers like the expanding doping scandals enveloping the Olympic Movement.

If people are safe, the sports competitions are held on time and with a minimum of errors, the spectators are able to attend the Games and the results and television systems work without significant interruption, the Rio organizing committee will claim – on the day after the Closing Ceremony – a success.

As a long-time organizer myself, if they pull it off, the Cariocas will deserve to feel good about what they have done. As the Russian premier told his generals in Clint Eastwood’s 1982 thriller, Firefox, “there will be time for recriminations later.”

Rich Perelman has served and supported organizing committees of 20 multi-day, multi-venue events, including five Olympic Games, in the U.S., Canada and Europe. In addition to nearly 100 books and pamphlets, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, Track & Field News, Universal Sports and many other publications.

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