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Photo: TIANA Chinelli; Grupo Votorantim -  Memoria Votorantim. Beatriz García, researcher at the University of Liverpool

Photo: TIANA Chinelli; Grupo Votorantim –  Memoria Votorantim. Beatriz García, researcher at the University of Liverpool.


The 2012 Olympic Games in London cost the British almost 9 billion pounds ($50 billion), yet it left as a legacy the renovation of Stratford, a low-income neighborhood of immigrants. Stratford gained a faster transportation option to the city center, and the Queen Elisabeth park, which had originally served as the Olympic park during the Games. On the other side of the world, in Beijing, the Bird’s Nest was the main attraction of the 2008 Olympics and cost the Chinese of over $420 million, but it is questionable what the benefits of its legacy will be.

The complex construction of the Olympic legacy is often only associated with the benefits of infrastructure and the occupation of spaces. Yet Beatriz Garcia, a Spanish sociologist who is located in the UK, believes that “the true legacy of a great event is the narrative that it helps construct or disseminate.”

As a member of the Olympic Committee Culture and Education Commission and head of research at The Institute of Cultural Capital at the University of Liverpool, in the UK, Garcia is one of the world’s leading authorities on the cultural legacy of major events. She has been present at all of the Olympic Games since Sydney in 2000, seeking to understand how these major events enable real change in the local culture.

In an interview with Comunicação Empresarial, Garcia spoke about the construction of narratives that help produce a positive legacy associated with major events and warns of the challenges the Rio Games will face in this regard. “The Olympic window is quite small, so the message has to be very strong and clear. I don’t know if Brazil is preparing well for it.”


 Why is cultural legacy important?

The discussion of legacy has been more common in recent years. 2002 was the first time it was considered important in the context of the Olympic games. Countries that wanted to be considered for the Games were required to address the issue of legacy in their presentations to the Olympic committee. Before that, we had over 100 years of competition, exhibitions and various great events, but the concept of legacy was only emphasized during the Games.

The discussion has revolved, of course, around the legacy of physical structures, the impact of transformations of spaces, the creation of new buildings and in infrastructure improvements. The idea of legacy also arises in relation to the improvements in transportation systems, stadiums, hotels, airports, streets, etc. It has always been a legacy measured in terms of economic and physical improvements, which are very important, of course. But for me, structural development is only sustainable if it is accompanied by social and cultural initiatives that are sensitive to local interests. For this reason, cultural legacy is also very important.

Without this focus, major events may result in an enormous development of new spaces, but they don’t connect with the city and quickly become obsolete. They turn into  the so-called “white elephants.” Often, these are wonderful spaces but people don’t know how to connect them to the needs of the neighborhood and the local communities.


Is cultural legacy more important than physical legacy?

I would say that the cultural legacy is equally as important as the physical. It is the cement that binds the physical spaces and gives them meaning. Cultural heritage is what makes the initiatives linked to mega-events significant and allows them to be incorporated into the different communities involved. It is not only a matter of media impact, to get headlines — but it has to be something deeper. It should not be a legacy solely focused on image, a way to attract visitors, but one that transforms the way we discuss the identity of that place, in that country.

Barcelona, which is always cited, is a good example. In 1992, when the city hosted the Olympic Games, they were able to express and transmit various messages that Spain wanted to convey: the idea of a democratic country after the fall of General Franco, and a country full of diversity, beginning with Catalonia. These are important cultural legacies, and they are not just buildings. In Sydney, the organizers presented Australia as a diverse country, with Aboriginal communities, that went beyond the stereotype of the Anglo-Saxon Australian surfer. This trend could also be seen in other cities such as London and Beijing.

This intangible element has significantly attracted the attention of everyone. My research, for example, is focused on capturing the symbolic elements of the Olympic Games, without which the tangible legacy does not function.


But some say that major events don’t have the same power of transformation as local ones do…

Yes, there is also the problem of scale. Many scholars who have studied smaller cultural events say they have the most profound impact on the population. The mega event has this contradiction: it is an event that draws a great deal of attention, but it can also have a very aggressive posture towards the local community. It can be very top-down.

We have to look at these mega events as not only a platform for opportunities, but also for risks. Events such as the Olympic Games involve many global stakeholders that make different demands. If cultural and social planning is not well thought out, the mega-event can be alienating and have other negative effects.

From a regional point of view, we can say that the Olympic Games have a very Eurocentric history, very Western. When this type of event happens outside of these areas such as in China or Brazil, we have to ask what are the local opportunities that can influence it. Pierre de Coubertin went back to the classical model of the Olympic games and also added a tone of European aristocracy, which is the model that has endured until today. These days, however, we have to see how this model dialogues with the different forms of interpretation that can be given to the Olympic Games, in the different venues where the event is held.


How can we create this dialogue between the local and the global?

We have to understand the cycles and levels of activity. The mega event creates a conducive environment for discussions in local communities about who they are, what they aspire to be, and how they want to project this to the global sphere that surrounds the event. This ultimately affects the way people see themselves. The discussion is always positive, but from the point of view of the organization and the construction of this dialogue, we have to understand how to use the available platforms.

The opening ceremony is a very important vehicle for both the organizers and the community because it provides an opportunity to present the event on a global stage. This is achieved, albeit, in a simplified way, by transmitting a series of images of the stadium on television. I see this ceremony like a book cover. You just give an idea of the content, but not everything. What it presents in a superficial manner is, in fact, much more complex and diverse, and should be presented in other venues throughout the Games.

There is a need to combine the symbolism of large events, such as the opening and all its pageantry, with a deeper cultural program. The coordinators of Rio 2016 should consider how to create connections between the outlying areas of the city, the different regions of Rio de Janeiro and other of parts of the country with the official narrative. It is very important that these bridges exist. In addition, they need to think about how other cultural events in Brazil will connect with the Games.

To achieve these objectives there must be both an effective coordination of the cultural initiatives and a more sophisticated idea of how to build a narrative for such an event.


What is the role of communication in the construction of the narrative?

Without communication, no one will talk about it. It’s not just about communication from the center, the organizing committee, but we must also have the capacity to take in information from the streets, from the community.

I always say that an event that happens in a school, on a side street, which seems to have no importance, can be much more valuable if the network of contacts manages to bring this message to the top. The opening ceremony creates these waves of effects, which can then be enhanced by communication. We have to connect the smaller events to the larger experience of the mega event.

This depends not only on communication, but also on good leadership. Who in the central committee, responsible for organizing the Games, will connect to the various ambassadors? Who will carry the message to communities and also bring messages from them. They must create an ecology around the event so that it is not seen as an imposition from above or as a bubble within that community.

Until recently, there was no one in the official organization who was concerned with engagement. Today, it is a department within the organizing committee of Rio 2016. They are responsible for following people’s reactions to the actions and planing by the committee. If there are protests or criticisms, it is their job to identify the real problems that are often overlooked — so they can then monitor the projection of the desired message, either at the local, national or international level.

Another important element of legacy is the creation of channels of communication between the various agencies and stakeholders who are required to work together and understand the levels of scale. In some cases, there are lines of communications created between various sectors such as tourism, communication, art, etc. These are closely connected areas that need to collaborate to produce the best results.

Foto: TIANA CHINELLI; Grupo Votorantim - Memoria Votorantim. Beatriz García, pesquisadora da University of Liverpool.

Photo: TIANA Chinelli; Grupo Votorantim –  Memoria Votorantim. Beatriz García, researcher at the University of Liverpool.


How does social media influence the creation of these networks?

Social media has been quite revolutionary for events like the Olympics and it has caused many changes in the organization of the Games. This is due to the rapid growth and the diversity of digital platforms. Not long ago, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) discussed how to bar these initiatives, as if they were a problem. Today, they talk about them as something positive, in part, because they are perceived as inevitable.

Social media has had a very interesting impact on the issue of brands, because it is something you cannot control. The restricted use of logos, for example, can quickly become memes and videos. People end up doing what they want, you can’t control them. This new reality is forcing the IOC to rethink the idea of exclusivity in the Olympics, and the organization has become more flexible because of it . You cannot prevent people from taking their smartphones to the stadiums or from writing something about an athlete when they see them on the street.

Thus, the narrative of the Games will constantly be changing, because it is less and less controlled. Before, there was an official message, which came from the stadiums and was then delivered to the public by accredited sports journalists. Today, that is no longer so.

At this point, we do not know the effects of all of this. It’s all very recent and we cannot compare it with other games such as Sydney or Barcelona because social media did not exist at that time. In China, for example, the effect of social media was very interesting. As a regulated country where there is strict control over the message, they suddenly had to deal with all these new platforms, not only from the international community, but also from the Chinese community.

In the context of Brazil’s games, perhaps the central question will revolve around the impact of social networks and new technology on the use of different languages. To what extent will English continue its global dominance? Is it possible that social networks and other platforms are converted into mechanisms of communication that influence and value other languages? I am interested in how this question will be debated in Brazil and how this debate will be discussed in languages other than English. Let’s see what happens.


Can social media interfere with logos of sponsors?

Certainly, the IOC is concerned that many parallel actions and discussions displayed over social networks can dilute the exposure of sponsors who pay millions of dollars for exclusivity in relation to the event. The debate, at the moment, is around the creation of a viable business model for the Olympic Games that guarantees exclusivity for sponsors and the media, so that they continue to make significant investments in the Games. But these initiatives must also be inclusive so that communities feel they are a part of it. In the past, this has created difficulties when evaluating popular initiatives, but now it needs to be faced because of the transforming power of social networks.

As far as businesses are concerned, it is important that they are not focused solely on sports. Sponsors must play a role in creating educational and cultural programs, because this is what leaves a legacy. On the other hand, the organizing committee should have someone who will explain how these companies can achieve their corporate mission to effect change on a social level.

Some sponsors have their own cultural programs. Visa, for example, who has been an Olympic sponsor for years, created The Visa Olympics of the Imagination, an art project where children create drawings related to the Games. These kinds of programs have not always been designed to meet the real needs of local schools and were often created from the company’s point of view. Again, it is essential that someone from the organizing committee explain to the sponsors, in a clear and compelling way, how they can participate to achieve the best outcome. Without this dialogue, companies create additional programs with no potential to cause social change. It is important to point out that the Games are a great opportunity for local sponsors who already have a history of social work in these communities.

On the other hand, the media and opinion leaders have the responsibility of asking the right questions and demanding programs from organizations that promote a cultural and social agenda related to the Games.


What are your expectations for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro?

It is interesting to see, with all the games, that there is always something unexpected that holds the media’s attention, diverting the discussion from cultural issues. For Rio 2016 the major challenge is the Zika virus and how it will affect the Games.

For the creation of a positive cultural legacy, we have to go beyond this issue. Rio and all of Brazil should convey messages to communicate something important and new about the identity of the country.

In London, the main objective was to present the city as a capital of creativity, distinguishing it from Paris and New York. They wanted London to be known as a city of creators, not the stereotype of a city of bankers, and the UK to be seen as the capital of fashion and popular music. There was a clear positioning of the message and its communication by London and the UK, which was reflected initially in the opening ceremony in a film by director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), known for his great creativity.

I wonder how it will be in Rio. The window is quite small, so the message has to be very clear and strong. I don’t know if Brazil is preparing well for this. Perhaps, as a result of the World Cup, there will be a great deal of attention given to the issue of logistics, and not on building a surprising and new cultural narrative about Brazil.

My expectation is that they will present the traditional narrative about Rio – samba, beaches and Carnival. I have no doubt it will be well produced and beautiful, but it does not bring anything new. Ideally, the cultural aspects of the Games can reveal more about the country, about cinema, drawing, painting, the avant-garde in general. There is a generation of very sophisticated creators in Brazil, whom I hope will have a real presence in the Games. Brazil should be presented as an economy of global scale and a country that will be influential in the world. It should also convey an important social message, particularly about the issue of diversity and the country’s ability to transform its cities into inclusive environments with responsible social agendas. During the Games, the parallel narrative in Rio will be a combination of the physical and symbolic.

The transformation of the transportation system seems very basic, but it can have great symbolic importance. It enables access not only to the Games, but also to remote communities around the city, which in turn provides access to more opportunities. Whether it happens or not — a more accessible city of Rio de Janeiro may also be important for the construction of this narrative, to project an image of Brazil with an advanced social agenda that is progressive, ambitious and realistic.

The Paralympic Games can also be very transformative, particularly to the citizens of Brazil. During the Games, the public will see something they could never have imagined before — people with physical limitations who are often excluded from society. For the first time, they begin to see them as role models and even as heroes. This has the potential to cause a very interesting and important change in the attitudes of the country.

Communication, in general, is behind all this. It is the mechanism to efficiently deliver the messages so that we can build this kind of narrative.

I’m very interested in this and I think the media will be too. I hope the story of the zika virus will calm down so that there will be space for other media narratives. Perhaps, we may be surprised by the narrative that will be constructed in Rio beginning on August 5. That is my hope!