Lula, President of Brazil, holds a national flag during the celebration of the choice of Rio de Janeiro as the host city of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games Lula holds the Brazilian flag as Rio de Janeiro is appointed the host city of the 2016 Olympic Games. Photo: Wikipedia/Agência Brasil

It’s business as usual beneath the bread and circuses of Rio 2016, argues radical ethnographer Adam Talbot 

At the 121st IOC session, Rio de Janeiro was selected as the first South American city to host the world’s premier sporting event: The Olympic Games. IOC president at the time, Jacques Rogge, stated there was not a single flaw in the city’s bid. Nicknamed the wonderful city, Rio seemed a perfect choice to host such a prestigious event, especially given the annual party thrown for carnival in February each year. The party in Copacabana continued long into the night, with Brazilians celebrating that their time had come to leap onto the world stage. Speaking in Copenhagen, the then-president of Brazil, Luiz Ignacio “Lula” Silva, promised that “Rio will deliver an unforgettable Games”.

Nearly seven years on and the attitude of many in the wonderful city seems to have changed. A plethora of problems have hit Brazil, setting in motion events that have led to a coup against the democratically elected president. A slumping economy, mainly due to weakening international demand for exports including oil, Dilma Rousseff, who succeeded Lula in 2011, hugely unpopular. Simultaneously, a corruption scandal of colossal proportions was exposed, engulfing a significant portion of Brazil’s economic and political elite. The scandal centred on inflated contracts awarded by the state oil company, Petrobras. The Petrobras board was chaired by Rousseff between 2003 and 2010. While she denied all knowledge of wrongdoing, the obvious conclusion was that she must have been at least complicit and probably heavily involved.

However, this seems to be one of those occasions when the obvious conclusion is dead wrong. She remains one of an increasingly select group of Brazilian politicians who are not officially under investigation. Despite this, right-wing politicians who were not just under investigation but in some cases have been found guilty of corruption, engineered the public dissatisfaction with Rousseff’s government and it’s perceived corruption to force a vote on impeachment, on largely trumped up charges. The support of the Globo media group, by far the dominant media conglomerate in Brazil and described by Olympic journalist Dave Zirin as “Fox News on steroids”, was crucial in the battle for public opinion. Rousseff was replaced by vice-president Michel Temer, a right wing politician who is currently banned from running for elected office because he was found guilty of corruption. He has proceeded to fill his cabinet with only white men and slashed key social programs that were credited with bringing 40 million Brazilians (20% of the population) out of poverty under Lula.

It is against this backdrop that Brazilian’s will welcome the world’s best athletes to Rio. But the Federal government has always been largely absent from the planning of the Games, which was instead undertaken by the State and City governments. The Olympics therefore, will not be hugely affected by the national turmoil – in fact Brazil’s real life House of Cards may have done organisers a favour, meaning many major social movements are too busy protesting against the coup to focus much attention on the problems caused by the Olympics. Even the economic decline has barely touched the Games, as budgets have continued spiralling out of control even while health and education budgets have been savagely cut. There are currently around 75 schools that have been occupied by students in support of the teachers strike and in favour of better quality education. The State of Rio de Janeiro will remain in a health emergency during the Games due to funding shortages which came to a head in December 2015 – some hospitals were even told they couldn’t have new equipment due to Olympic spending.

Forced Evictions

The debt caused by the Olympics is causing problems now and will continue to do so in the future, but beyond this the money that is being spent for the Olympics is causing its own problems directly. On the 8th of March 2016, International Women’s Day, Maria da Penha should have woken up looking forward to speaking on a panel about being a woman in the city, before receiving an award at the state assembly building for being a strong woman citizen. Instead, she woke up with shock troops and demolition equipment outside her home, ready to destroy not just the bricks and mortar, but her “life story”, as she put it. Ten years ago she married her husband Luiz Claudio Silva in that house, and on that fateful day in March he watched with their daughter as their house was torn down, along with neighbours and local activists who supported their right to stay.

Maria and Luiz are residents of a favela called Vila Autódromo in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro. Their beautiful home overlooked Jacarépagua lagoon in a peaceful and friendly fishing community. They had fought evictions before, when the vice-Mayor for the region, a city official named Eduardo Paes, had tried to remove the community in the 1990s. When Rio de Janeiro won the right to host the 2016 Olympic Games, the area next to the community was designated as the site for the main Olympic Park. While residents fought a hard battle to be allowed to stay, the city kept chipping away, through the use of questionable legal orders and intimidation tactics that have been described as psychological warfare and terrorism. In this way, a community of around 600 families has been decimated to the point that only around 20 remain.

Why? Various reasons have been given by the city. One is the need for an access road to the Olympic park, which apparently couldn’t go anywhere else. Another is environmental protection of the lagoon, laughable given the pollution caused there by city works. A third excuse is the construction of a new BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) terminal, an Olympic legacy project. Finally, houses have been demolished to create a pleasant view around the IOC hotel and media centre. Stories like Maria and Luiz’s are not unique to one favela. Just under 600 families have been removed in Vila Autódromo and the Mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, insists these are the only evictions caused by the 2016 Games. The Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics, an activist forum co-ordinating protest against mega-events in Rio, takes a different view. They took the numbers released by the city and looked at the justification for removal, and concluded that between 2009 and 2015 around 4,000 families were removed directly due to the Olympic construction, with a total of 22,000 families removed across the city.

Construction Issues

The 20 families remaining in Vila Autódromo will be allowed to stay as part of a deal made recently with the city. However, their houses will all be destroyed and new ones will be built – to be delivered before the Olympics, on July 22. With just two months to the date of delivery, building on these new homes has not yet even started and given the City’s inability to deliver building work on time – they’ve already pushed back the delivery date of the new metro line to Barra da Tijuca 4 times – there are concerns about whether these homes will be ready in time. Situated right next to the Olympic media centre, any ongoing building will draw heavy media attention, and therefore it seems more likely that the city will cut corners in the building process and residents will be left with poor quality housing. Of course, from the City’s point of view, they are only concerned that the media and IOC cannot see an “ugly” favela, and it matters little to them if the houses fall apart once the Olympic party is over.

Poor quality building is not new for Rio’s Olympic projects, indeed it seems to be the norm rather than the exception. A cycle lane along the coast recently collapsed after being struck by a wave, killing two people. In their haste to construct their Olympic legacy project, it seems nobody involved with the project had time to consider that waves might be a problem for something built so close to the sea. The recently opened BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system, where specific lanes are set aside for buses to avoid traffic, has suffered problems with poorly laid asphalt, with the resulting bumpy ride causing injuries to passengers and leaving 20% of the bus fleet damaged already. The opening of the new downtown tram system, or VLT, has been delayed as the City had not completed sufficient tests and fulfilled safety requirements. The metro extension to Barra da Tijuca, where the main Olympic park is located, is still under construction, due to be delivered just five days before the Olympics begin – it is going down to the wire whether this will even be ready to transport spectators to events.

Many Olympic projects, including the new metro line, are under investigation as part of the huge scandal engulfing the country. The contract was allegedly inflated by 500,000 reals (£100,000) to give kickbacks to those involved – and this is not the only Olympic contract under investigation by the Federal Lavo Jato inquiry. Around 50% of Olympic contracts, including the metro extension, were awarded to a company called Odebrecht, who’s CEO (until his arrest in June 2014) Marcelo Odebrecht is currently serving a 19 year prison sentence for corruption. In Brazil, the construction industry is hugely powerful, with geographer Chris Gaffney comparing Brazil’s construction industrial complex to the US military industrial complex.

New construction on this scale is always going to be damaging – it is for this reason that Vancouver-based activist Chris Shaw says it is impossible for the Olympics to have a positive impact on the environment. The return of golf to the Olympics for the first time since 1904 has hugely exasperated this problem, as new host cities must give over a vast space of land and cover it in chemicals to get those lush greens ready for TV. Despite many shiny awards won by the city due to its excessively high marketing budget, environmental issues in Rio remain hugely problematic. While it is now commonplace for cities to include various remediation projects in their Olympic bids, Rio has backed out of every single environmental promise it made. The pollution in Guanabara Bay, where sailing events will take place, has been confirmed by various scientists, but frankly their lab tests were a waste of money; if you walk down to the water’s edge you can smell that the bay is full of raw sewage.


While not specifically linked to the Olympics and World Cup, the pacification of Rio’s famous favela communities was begun around the same time as the bids for these events were being awarded. This programme involves an invasion of favelas by police special forces BOPE (the unit which inspired the film Elite Squad) before a permanent police occupation is installed through a UPP: Pacifying Police Unit. So far, there are 38 Pacifying Police Unit’s operating in Rio’s favelas (estimates vary, but some say there are over 1000 favelas in the city). In theory, these UPPs should have been accompanied by community development programmes, but these have been so poor as to be barely worth mentioning. Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes stressed in a recent interview with Olympic journalist Dave Zirin that Rio won the right to host the Olympics bid because of its problems – problems that the Olympics could help fix – and pacification seems to be an effort to address violence and drug trafficking through mega-events.

But pacification doesn’t seem to be fixing anything. Rio’s military police have a well-deserved reputation for brutality, particularly against young, black men. Between 2005 and 2014, on-duty police officers killed over 5,000 civilians in the city, accounting for 16% of homicides in the city. And violence is rising, according to Amnesty International so far in 2016 the murder rate in Rio has increased by 10%. Those killed by police include children as young as ten years old, like Eduardo de Jesus, killed by military police in April 2015. Stories about revenge killings and summary executions by police officers are common. The violence shown by police has eroded trust in law enforcement, with a recent survey finding that in the city’s favelas people are more likely to trust trafficking gangs and illegal militias than the police force. 

UPP officers prowl the favelas with assault rifles, their fingers on the triggers ready to fire. But it’s hard to blame the individual – from their point of view, they could be shot at from any direction at any time. But the policy is fundamentally flawed. It leads with violence and plans to follow up with community development to build trust. Combining the sheer number of police killings with the complete absence of dialogue with communities leads to a distrust of the police. The ongoing violence in pacified communities shows the Pacifying Police Units are unable to protect residents, and leads sociologist Marina Motta to ask whether this is “because of the incompetence of the military police or because protecting favela residents simply isn’t the objective” of the programme. The programme seems to be designed not to protect the people who live in favelas, but to protect those who will visit Rio for the Olympic Games: the programmes funding isn’t guaranteed beyond 2016.

In two months time, the eyes of the world will turn to Brazil, and they will undoubtedly see incredible feats of sporting achievement. But for those who look closer, they will see a city that has been irrevocably changed by the IOC’s demands for shiny new stadiums. While Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes must take his share of the blame for pushing the city’s marginalised communities further into the periphery, a look at the history of Olympic impacts tells us that this story isn’t new in Brazil. In their present form, the Olympics are financially, environmentally and socially completely unsustainable. The demands placed on host cities by the IOC exasperate existing urban issues and the only legacy left is of exclusion. Rio’s Olympic dream has become a nightmare.

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