Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Brazil's Olympic Catastrophe

The 2016 Rio Olympic Games start later this week. Straight of the back of a coup which replaced one authoritarian government with an even more authoritarian government, a financial recession and rising crime rates, things were always going to be unstable in the lead up to the games. However, it seems that affairs are getting downright violent. A couple of weeks ago, mutilated body parts were washed up on Copacabana beach, just a few meters away from a volleyball court. A few weeks before that, a Brazilian Military official slayed Juma, a captive jaguar trotted out to create excitement for the games, during the Olympic torch relay. These events led protesters to picket Rio’s international airport with a sign that greeted passengers with the grim slogan of ‘Welcome to Hell’. These horrible quirks set the Rio games apart from other Olympic events. However, Rio 2016 just extends practices that have become common in 21st century Olympiads. Indeed, as Boycoff points out in his article on the subject, the killing of Juma however disgusting it was, may be an appropriate metaphor for working people stuck in today’s Olympic cities. They are restrained and oppressed in favour of a highly militarized and highly costly spectacle, which is clearly rigged in favour of the upper classes.  While the Rio Olympics may show this taken to its extreme, that does not make this any less relevant.

Remember the World Cup?

The last big sporting event that Brazil got to host was the 2014 football World Cup. According to the Danish NGO Play the Game, The Brazilian stadiums built in the lead up to the world cup are some of the most expensive ever built, and have become sites of exclusion. One of the justifications given for this was that Brazil was not just investing in the tournament, but was also investing in Brazilian cities. The investments included airport upgrades, communication lines, security, hotels and tourist infrastructure. The majority of these projects however, mainly attended to the demands of the Brazilian elite and neglected the poor. The multi-billion dollar investments in airports were long overdue, but mainly benefit business travellers between Brazil’s major cities.  Meanwhile, it is impossible to travel between Brazil’s cities by train and the countries road system has been condemned by the World Health Organisation, for creating up to 50,000 deaths per year. The governments solution of more Bus Rapid Transit Lines are extremely counterproductive in that they mean more cars, less space for bicycles and pedestrians and a massive subsidy for civil construction firms and automobile manufacturers. Due largely to years of non-investment in infrastructure, few spoke out against these developments. This is despite the fact in order to achieve the short term goals of the World Cup, host cities were given an exemption to Brazil’s law of Fiscal Responsibility, leading to studies into the environmental effects of this development being scrapped, and tens of thousands of families being forcibly removed from their homes.
Given all of this, the expectations of riots were not far-fetched in the slightest. The national mood was already sour, Brazilians underwent traditions of painting streets with anti-gentrification messages, and the concept of ‘Imagine how bad it will be during the cup’ dominated everyday speech. So how was such as country so politically dysfunctional capable of pulling off a mega event? Much of it was accomplished by force. The Instituto Humanitas Unisinos finds that Rio de Janerio Military Police, is the force that kills the most civilians in the world. In spite of this the CIA and FBI trained the police in counterinsurgency tactics in the weeks leading up to the event, while Israeli drones patrolled the skies. The National army occupied the streets of Rio a week before the tournament, armed to the teeth and given a mandate to destroy protests. This kind of military operation has not been seen since the military dictatorship, but repeats itself with every major event.

Olympic Gentrification

Since at least the 1980s, the Olympics have been big business. Corporate sponsors flock to the games and bask in the luxuries that it offers them. NBC forked over $4.4 billion to broadcast the Olympics from 2014 through to 2020, and recently paid another $7.65 billion to extend their contract though to 2032. Already the network has raked in about $1 billion for this summer’s games. Despite the false promises of jobs, development and legacy that these companies use to sell the games, the public are the ones who have to pay for these expensive development schemes, which fill the bank accounts of private companies. Indeed, Rio mayor Eduardo Paes even stated in 2012, presumably as a sort of sick joke, that ‘the Olympic pretext is awesome, I need to use it as an excuse for everything’. Take for example Rio’s Olympic golf course. In 2012, Peas called an emergency meeting to pass a law allowing Mauro to build the course inside Marandi Nature Reserve, home to a number of endangered species, and ring it with a number of luxury condominiums. As long as the owners footed the bill for the Golf course, he could sell each condo at $2 million or more. You don’t need a calculator to figure out the massive profits. Thanks to the city’s officials, pesky environmental reports and protests did not slow the project. The same can be said of many other Olympic based developments.
Real estate redistribution also brutally displaces the working poor. Ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, about 1.5 million people lost their residencies. Since Rio won the right to host the Olympics back in 2009, more than seventy seven thousand people have been displaced, in order to make way for the games. One of the hardest hit areas is Vila Autodromo, a favela which has been scheduled for demolishment, by virtue of the fact that it had the misfortune to be located adjacent to the planned Olympic Park site. Despite a spirited fight back against this, the favela was eventually cleared. Of the six hundred families who lived there, only twenty will be allowed to stay in the rebuilt dwellings. Even neighbourhoods that survive this sort of development boom will confront a side effect of all post 9/11 games: the intensified militarization of the public sphere. Justified by the threat of terrorism, they can use this to crush dissent. Eighty five thousand security officials, double the number present at London’s summer Olympics, will flood Rios streets and Favelas. In Brazil this is especially alarming. Since the city officially became the host seven years ago, Rio Police have killed more than 2,500 people. Amnesty International recently found that Brazilian security officials are responsible for one in five homicides. Thanks to sharp budget cuts, officers are in a foul mood. It is for this reason that police have been protesting with signs that read ‘Whoever comes to Rio will not be safe’.


It is true that Brazil is an amazing place with fantastic people who know how to put on a spectacular party at the last minute. Most visitors have a great time enjoying the sport, the sunshine and the company. The same cannot be said however for the millions of Brazilians having their homes demolished, being harassed and killed by police or even working in demeaning jobs. The 2014 world cup acted as a smokescreen for the country’s violent dystopia. Despite this, for many Brazilians this was only a taste of what was to come for the Olympics, where the stark economic and social inequalities that define this country of 200 million, will be further exacerbated.

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