Itamaraty is key to successful Olympics

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Hosting the Olympic Games is a tremendous opportunity for a country to enhance its global visibility. In addition to several hundred thousand tourists, journalists from all over the world will come and report not only on the event itself, but on the host country's politics, society and economy. All this matters even more when the host country is located, like Brazil, on the fringes of global tourism and the news cycle, making the opportunity far more unique.

Indeed, for Rio de Janeiro, organizing the Olympics is far more important than for previous host cities such as London: While the number of international tourists coming to Brazil stands per year stands at around 7 million, more than four times as many -- 32 million -- come to the United Kingdom per year. Indeed, in a normal year London alone welcomes 17 million international tourists, more than Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela combined. It thus matters greatly when, two months from now, more than 10,000 athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees (NOCs), including first time entrants Kosovo and South Sudan, will travel to Brazil. Rio de Janeiro will become the first South American city to host the Summer Olympics -- a truly historic moment for a continent that usually receives only limited attention.

The 2016 Games, alas, could hardly come at a more difficult time for Brazil, which faces a series of profound political and economic challenges. Indeed, Rio de Janeiro currently produces a seemingly unending string of bad news, ranging from the collapse of a recently inaugurated scenic bike path (causing two deaths) and the announcement that the state of Rio de Janeiro can no longer pay the installments of a loan taken from international institutions to a horrific case of gang-rape of a 16-year old girl and the spread of the Zika virus. While all these indeed point to real problems in Brazilian society, they currently gain even greater attention because they fit into the somewhat simplistic but journalistically irresistible narrative of Brazil's amazing rise and tragic fall. 

It is the Zika virus, however, which now creates the greatest threat to the Olympic Games, and for months, debates about whether to postpone or change the location of the event have lingered in the international news. Recently, leading public health scientists penned a letter arguing that the Rio Olympics could spark 'full blown global health disaster'. They argue

We are concerned that WHO is rejecting these alternatives because of a conflict of interest. Specifically, WHO entered into an official partnership with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in a Memorandum of Understanding that remains secret.

Amir Attaran, a professor of public health and law at the University of Ottawa and one of the authors of the letter, also made the case in a widely circulated essay this month in the Harvard Public Health Review. The author's verdict is damning:

Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago. Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession.

A number of famous athletes, such as Serena Williams and Jessica Ennis-Hill, have begun to openly voice concern about the Zika virus, even though none so far has canceled their participation in the 2016 Olympics because of it. Public health concerns have the potential to seriously undermine the successful organization of the Olympics, and a famous athlete's decision to stay home could lead to a domino effect, affecting both other athletes and tourists. The Brazilian government is, of course, already investing time and energy in combating the spread of the Zika virus, and international observers tend to overestimate the importance of the issue in Brazil's domestic debate. That alone, however, will be insufficient to assure successful Olympic Games.

In addition, a balanced but firm communications strategy on a global scale is key to project calm and avoid the spread of misinformation. Brazil's diplomatic network, one of the world's biggest (in terms of the number of representations) is ideally positioned to do the job. Indeed, in February, Brazil's Ambassador to the United States, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, wrote an op-ed in Americas Quarterly, striking exactly the right tone -- transparent and direct, showing that Brazil is aware of the problem but that a global panic is both unnecessary and unhelpful. In the same way, Maria Elisa Berenguer, Ambassador of Brazil to Colombia, wrote a piece in El Espectador, along with several other articles across the world.

In addition to publishing an op-ed, every Brazilian ambassador abroad can actively and directly address the issue in the local media and explain the situation. The website of the Brazilian embassy in London, for example, includes the latest recommendations of the World Health Organization. This is key since not providing any information is potentially dangerous in today's interconnected world, where rumours and misinformation can spread like wildfire. Each embassy's facebook page and twitter feed should at least once directly mention the topic and explain why it is safe to travel to Rio or any other part of the country. Brazil's Ambassador to Canada should invite critics like Amir Attaran -- and any journalist interested in the topic -- and explain how the Brazilian government seeks to address health concerns. Finally, Brazil's new Foreign Minister José Serra must fully embrace Itamaraty's effort to defend the Olympics and project confidence up until the Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony on August 5.

Financial constraints made emulating the British government's remarkable pre-Olympics Games marketing strategy, which involved UK sports stars traveling the world, an impossible dream. Rather than lamenting missed opportunities, however, Itamaraty can still make a huge difference in the nexts two months by articulating a global communications strategy to assure the world that Rio de Janeiro is up to the task -- and that, while Brazil takes the spread of the Zika virus seriously, postponing the Games or changing their location is unnecessary. 

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Correction: This post wrongly stated that Brazil's Embassy in London did not contain any information about the Zika virus. It has been adapted on May 30, 2016 to include the link provided by the Embassy.

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