The run-up to this year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has hardly been without controversy. From the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff to the rapid spread of the fearful Zika virus, events in Brazil have provided a worrying backdrop to the games, which start next week.
It’s tempting for Londoners to look back at the games four years ago as a golden age, when we got to show off our modern metropolis, not to mention our cultural superiority, in that stunning open ceremony.
But we should try looking at the games in a different light. By looking at the benefits they bring to host cities, in terms of long-term investment in infrastructure and public transport, we can ask ourselves a trickier question. How good were London’s games, really? Might Rio outperform us?
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2016
Rio's Maracana Stadium, February 2015. Image: Getty.
There’s no doubt that Rio is set to benefit from enormous investment in its transport network in preparation for the games. Current estimates put the total expenditure on public transport investment at 24 billion reals, or around £5.5bn; though it’s highly possible that this figure could rise in the coming years and months, as final costs are totted up.
One of the main regeneration projects associated with the games is the Porto Maravilha (literally: “Marvellous Port”), a stretch of the bay-front near Rio’s city centre that has seen a complete overhaul of day-to-day urban infrastructure like sewage systems to water pipes. The development has also seen 11 miles of cycle paths built, 18.6 miles of light rail laid down, and a huge highway flyover demolished.
Seperately, the city has also opened a new tram line, running from Santos Dumont Airport, the city’s second major hub, to the bus terminal of Rodoviaria Novo Rio near the city centre.
The good news goes thus far but no further.
A planned metro extension, running from the renowned beach-hugging suburb of Ipanema (tall and tan and yes you know the rest), through super-rich playground Leblon to the Olympic Village in Barra da Tijuca, has been hit by delays and budget overruns.
Its original cost was estimated at 5 billion Brazilian reals (£1.2bn); but in the course of building it, its price has almost doubled to 9.7 billion. We still don’t have a final figure for how much the project has cost.
To top it all off, it’s not even opening properly before the games start. Back in May, the city said it would be ready to go on 1 August, which is just four days before the opening ceremony. Even then, the service won’t be open properly. For the first two months, Metro 4 line will be available only to those connected to the games: officials, competitors, or spectators with tickets.
After the Paralympic Games wrap up in September, the service will be opened to the public, with a slow increase in the regularity of service until eventually (at some unspecified date) it’ll be running at the kind of level you’d expect from a metro.
London, UK, 2012
London's Olympic Park, shortly before the games in 2012. Image: Getty.
Not too fast, there, Londoners. I see you, smugly sipping your coffee as you replay the 2012 Opening Ceremony video for the umpteenth time with a borderline-patriotic tear trickling down your metropolitan cheek. We didn’t do such a great job of all things transport either. Indeed, if you think about it: what did we do?
Transport for London did extend the East London line of the London Overground was extended, connecting Highbury & Islington in the north, to West Croydon, Crystal Palace, and New Cross in the south.
But to be honest, it didn’t have that much to do with the Olympics. It was given the go-ahead in 2001 before Tony Blair had even vaguely considered jet-setting to Singapore to clinch host city status as a vague way of patching up his bleak third term in office. And it doesn’t even go to Stratford.
Some tweaks were made to the Docklands Light Railway, adding more carriages to services, and… no, wait, that’s the lot.
The games did see the launch of a loudly-trumpeted new high-speed service, triumphantly titled “the Javelin”, connecting St Pancras to the misleadingly named Stratford International station. No international services, Eurostar or otherwise, stopped at Stratford International for the duration of the games, or indeed since. On the plus side, you could get to Kent really quickly, which is always nice.
One of the biggest transport investments for the 2012 London Olympic Games – the clue apparently not being in the name – was in Dorset.
Weymouth Bay was chosen as the location for all the sailing events of the games, but it was already known that in the summer months roads in the area became heavily congested with all the additional tourist traffic. Rather than moving the sailing to another location, the organizers of the games decide to spend £77m (to possibly £89m; it depends who you believe) at Dorset to build a great big relief road to make everyone happy.
And, of course, how could we forget the cable car. Estimated to have cost £60m, the cable car’s lack of utility is a thing of great renown to all in the capital. Reports circulated that it had just four regular commuters, which has since become no regular commuters. The parody twitter account Emirate Dangleway really says everything you need to know about London’s great Olympic adventure:
hi London i am still here #tubealerts
— EmirateDangleway (@Dangleway) June 9, 2016
These tweets could make a grown man cry.
Rio’s games, opening next Friday, will be an interesting test of how a nation under such intense political and cultural pressure copes with the eyes of the world watching.
There is no doubt that there will be hiccups, and its legacy will be intensely divisive. But in time cariocas will be able to ride their extended metro, hop on a new tram, cycle along a new cycle path, and explore an area released from a tyrannical flyover, safe in the knowledge that an investment has been made in their city and its transport.
Londoners can only hop on the Dangleway sporting a “I hosted the Olympics and all I got was this lousy cable car” T-shirt, and hope that being ironic will make the pain go away.