Home >> Build It Bigger, Season 4, Episode 4: Brazils Olympic Hydro Electric Project

Build It Bigger, Season 4, Episode 4: Brazils Olympic Hydro Electric Project

by Danny Forster on Apr 21, 2010

Simplício Hydroelectric Dam, Rio De Janeiro
Episode 4 season 4
What′s interesting about this hydroelectric dam? Why are we here? Honestly there are others like it in the world—and even bigger ones. Plus, as a massive, spread-out piece of infrastructure, it′s difficult for viewers to really see because you can′t get it all in one shot.

For us, the reason to cover the construction of this massive electricity-generating endeavor had more to do with the city of Rio and the country of Brazil than it did with the weight of the concrete foundation (although it is heavy, don′t get me wrong).

To really appreciate what drew us to this project you need to think back to October 2009, when President Obama, nine months into his first year in office, traveled to Copenhagen to present Chicago′s 2016 Olympic proposal to the International Olympics Committee.

The three other finalist cities that Chicago was competing against were Tokyo, Madrid, and Rio. The media had described the competition as coming down to a two-horse race between Chicago and Tokyo. And I suspect Chicago′s delegation figured the young president′s popularity (not to mention his eloquent oratory) would lend them just the extra boost they needed to bring home the gold.

But we all know what happened next: In a global shocker, neither Chicago nor Tokyo, but instead Rio, the team that was pegged for dead last, won the right to host the 2106 Olympic games. It was quite a story—and not because Obama stumped and then got rebuked (though that′s what the media at the time was fascinated by). The real story had to do with a new way to think about what it means to host the Olympics.

Rio was the only developing city among the finalists; the others were all developed cities. And without a doubt, Chicago, with its lake, river, sports infrastructure, and historic skyline would have been a no-brainer as a suitable place to hold the games. The same can be said of Madrid, with its incredible mixture of traditional and modern architecture, its amazing metro and numerous cultural institutions. Tokyo, that monument to glass and steel and modernity, could also have worked.

And all three put together glitzy presentations that demonstrated how their already developed cities could handle the demands of the games. They basically celebrated what their cities represent and what, given their enormous economies, they could create in the intervening years.

Rio did something different. Rather than show off all the attributes of the city, the Rio delegation did something unprecedented for an Olympic bid: it highlighted the city′s problems. The Brazilian Olympic committee divided Rio into quadrants and identified specific areas where the city needed help. The committee located infrastructure issues, transportation issues, environmental issues, even housing and poverty issues, and demonstrated how using the games as an urban investment catalyst could spark the rehabilitation of their city in a way that would radically change its landscape (and in a way that they could never afford to do without the games).

Instead of aggregating all the Olympic events into single quadrant of the city, essentially creating the typical "Olympic Village," Rio proposed to disaggregate the new structures to help improve various parts of the city. They wanted to take the different events and spread them all over the city. The idea was that bus lines to ferry tourists from one event to another would also, in time, become the bus system for an area that now lacked one. The committee brilliantly argued that the spotlight of the games and the investment opportunity that comes along with it could be used not just to showcase one of the world′s greatest cities but also to help create one.

It was a bold gamble, but it paid off. And then one month after pulling off this historic upset, Brazil suffered the worst blackout in human history.

Sixty million homes went dark, and the entire neighboring country of Uruguay went dark too. Facing the prospect of a global embarrassment at a scale that cannot be overstated, Brazil decided to rebuild their electrical infrastructure in order to deliver the additional power they′d need for the games.

What′s great about challenges like these is that they often become the site of innovation as well. In Rio′s case, in order to guarantee that they′d not have another blackout, say, when over 4 billion people were watching the torch-lighting ceremony (the single most globally viewed event in human history), they′re building this revolutionary hydroelectric project just 100 miles outside of the city.

So while the construction is absolutely amazing, and I got closer to an explosion during the making of the show than I ever want to, I thought the story behind the story might also pique your interest . . .