Behind the Glamour Curtain of Rio’s Olympic Games

Rio 2016 Logo

Rio 2016 Logo

The Story of Vila Autódromo

The world is five months shy of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The dazzling Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca is almost complete, soon to be engulfed by luxury condos, swimming pools, artificial lakes, and beautiful gardens. Adjacent to the flashy Olympic scene, nestled on the edge of Rio, are some of the few remaining homes of the Vila Autódromo favela (slum) that await destruction. Vila Autódromo, an impoverished shanty town of fishermen and construction workers, was originally part of the Olympic plan; the community would exist next to the Park and its housing conditions would be improved.

Vila Autódromo is now being bulldozed in the name of the Olympic Games. In its place will be high-end market condos catered to the wealthy. Most residents have accepted compensation or alternative housing, but others who have lived in the community their entire lives and have personal attachments to their homes are resisting the court order to leave. Greeted at their doorstep by riot police and demolition teams, they are fighting to avoid the forced eviction.

The number of homes in Vila Autódromo has gone from 550 to 47 in under two years. According to the World Cup and Olympics Popular Committee of Rio de Janeiro, 4,120 families have been displaced due to the World Cup and another 2,486 are threatened to be moved as a result of the upcoming Olympics.

International Prestige at the Expense of National Interests

Brazil has chosen the path of prestige and glory associated with hosting mega-events. Its 2014 World Cup was the most expensive to date, and its Olympic Games are projected to cost an extravagant 13 billion USD (17.18 billion CAD). But behind the glamour curtain is a string of social controversies. In addition to gentrifying slums and pushing the poor to the periphery, the state is widening the gap of inequality and denying basic services. For instance, it grapples to provide adequate housing and disrupts or suspends access to basic services such as clean water, sewage, waste treatment, electricity supply and more.

Brazil, once known as Latin America’s largest economy, has slipped into the deepest recession of the century, exacerbating the myriad of political and social woes that it faces. Deeper cuts have been made to the already inefficient public sector, imposing more barriers to access to public services. In the health sector, for instance, funding shortages have prevented some hospitals from admitting patients. At a time when public funds are needed most, they are being funnelled into the Olympic Games, a 13 billion USD investment that benefits a handful of elite.

The Façade of the Olympic Effect

Supporters of these mega-events will usually speak of the “Olympic Effect” — the positive consequences that ensue following the event. The city is in the spotlight on the world stage, leading to a rise in tourism, new infrastructure, and urban renewal. The 2012 Games in Barcelona and the 2012 Games in London revealed the legacy of urban transformation associated with hosting the Olympics. However in Barcelona and London, there had already been a trajectory for urban rejuvenation: a movement or a history to invest in the improvement of urban conditions for workers and low-income neighbourhoods. In these developed countries, the legacy of urban transformation was driven by public interest. The Olympics played an additional role in executing urban interventions.

In Rio, however, no such trajectory was established and urban transformation is led by private capital. The public-private partnerships often mean that the public sector takes the risks and the private sector reaps the benefits. In addition, public participation is absent during the planning of the World Cup and Olympic Games. As it was witnessed during the World Cup, the most vulnerable populations are the ones who suffer the most. About 170,000 people lost their homes due to the infrastructure projects for the World Cup and thousands were forced to relocate to basic huts without electricity and water. In Brazil, these mega-events may generate money and investment, but the ones who profit are companies and large businesses, often at the expense of the poor. Also, the generated revenue almost never covers the ballooning costs to build and stage the games. The infrastructure projects built for these mega-events are not used in daily public life. Many of the massive stadiums that are built for the World Cup and Olympics are left vacant and unmaintained. Such an example is China’s iconic Bird’s Nest stadium which has been referred to as the empty “museum piece”.

In developing countries, where the degree of social problems is greater and the wealth gap is wider, resources should be leveraged to reduce poverty. Scarce public dollars should not be diverted from welfare spending for citizens of the developing world because they are the ones who need it most. However, it’s the developing countries who tend to spend most extravagantly on the mega-events. Rio had the most expensive bid for the 2016 Games of all the finalists which included Tokyo, Chicago and Madrid. This bidding process is currently under scrutiny as part of a wider corruption investigation. The international community has a responsibility to remind the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA that the opportunity to host the mega-events should not be given to countries who have the highest bids, but who represent the true values of the Olympic Games and the World Cup. The IOC and FIFA, both who have been involved in corruption scandals, have turned a blind eye to the human rights violations that occur during the preparations for the Games or World Cup. Instead of solely focusing on profit, perhaps the IOC and FIFA should also consider awarding the mega-events to countries who strive to do the following: respect human rights, eliminate corruption, reduce wealth disparities and listen to the voice of the people. Until then, what are we really celebrating?

Larysa Lacko (1 Posts)

Larysa Lacko obtained an Honours BA in French-English Translation from Concordia University. She is currently completing a Master of Public and International Affairs at York University, Glendon College. In 2015, she completed an internship with the International Development section at the Embassy of Canada in Hanoi (Vietnam), and participated in and received two awards at the International Model NATO simulation in Washington, DC. Her interests include international development, security, international trade agreements, and Eastern Europe.


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