Displacement and gentrification in the 'city of exception': Rio de Janeiro towards the 2016 Olympic Games

Mega-events often change the daily life of thousands of families. The sometimes illegal displacements of local neighborhoods are discussed by Dr. Bárbara Schausteck de Almeida and PhD student Billy Graeff Bastos.

By Bárbara Schausteck de Almeida and Billy Graeff Bastos

Excerpt of article from ICSSPE’s Bulletin no. 70/2016 – see further reference at the bottom of the page.

The preparations for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are being tainted by violent and sometimes illegal displacement of poor families for the building of urban structure and sport facilities. This paper will focus on the social consequences of RIO2016 regarding these displacements. For this purpose, the literature on the theme will be reviewed as well documents produced by different actors. We show that previous Rio de Janeiro proposals for hosting the Olympic Games were changed in the name of city’s aesthetic and supposed safety for the Olympic family, whereas gentrification became a norm and few groups were privileged. On the bright side, the approximation of academics and community strengthened social movements of resistance.

Mega-events and particularly Olympic Games are often used as opportunities for countries and cities to mobilize their public relations agendas in the international sphere (Hiller, 2000; Pope, 2014): to create or promote ‘brands’ (Knott, 2010; Knott, Fyall & Jones, 2015), to form myths and icons, to promote products and to create international references (L’Etang, 2006). The former aspect seems to be considered useful for cities seeking public funds to invest on urban renewal, and then send distinctive messages to attract tourists and investments. Hosting an edition of Olympic Games can become a lifetime occasion to reach the status of ‘world class cities’ (Whitson, 2004: 1218; Gold & Gold, 2008). The cities aiming this ‘global’ profile may wish to reinforce their positions – as shown by the recent bids of London, Paris and New York (Scherer, 2011; Whitson & Horne, 2006; Shoval, 2002). Likewise, cities on ‘peripheral’ countries have been also showing similar ambition (Cornelissen, 2010).

Thus this construction happens through marketing strategies, when the image of a city is managed via metaphors on concrete - monuments, architecture, nature and immaterial symbols - habits, routines, discourses, stereotypes (Vanolo, 2008). On this conjunction, the commodification turns cities positive features into organized, identifiable and recognized references for international audiences, using sports and mega-events popular appeal and visibility as a mean to this end (Tranter & Lowes, 2009). Preserving cases specificities, urban agenda through sports mega-events has shifted from citizenship to consumerism, as local citizens’ social rights became less important than the consumption of services for certain citizens and visitors (Whitson & Horne, 2006).

Sport mega events (SMEs) in general and the Olympics in particular have been increasingly related to ‘issues of gentrification and the accompanying displacement of low-income communities’ (Kennelly & Watt, 2012: 151), tendency already well documented (COHRE, 2007; Porter, 2009; Rolnick, 2009; Kennelly & Watt, 2012). The recent history of the displacement of large Latin American city inhabitants, in turn, has been strictly characterized by gentrification processes (Janoschka & Sequera, 2016). The city of Rio de Janeiro, in particular, has been a scene of rapid and massive transformations in such contexts. Elements as violence, militarization and lack of democracy have been constant in the urban re-spatialisation plans put in place, such that those urban processes carried on led Vainer (2011) to develop the idea of ‘city of exception’. And the role that SMEs and the 2016 Olympic Games (RIO2016) play were pointed out as pivotal in Rio de Janeiro’s spatial dynamics in the beginning of the 21st century (Silvestre & de Oliveira, 2012; Sánchez & Broudehoux, 2013; Steinbrink, 2013). However, these processes do not take place without conflicts (Gaffney, 2010). This paper will focus on the social consequences of RIO2016 regarding displacements caused by works related to RIO2016. For this purpose the literature on the theme will be reviewed as well documents produced by different actors will be considered.

Mega Rio and sport mega-events as 'development' catalysts
On October 2nd 2009, the city of Rio de Janeiro was chosen by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to host the RIO2016. The election happened after a concentrated effort from the Brazilian Olympic Committee in conjunction with the three levels of government (city, state and country). Following the 2004 Olympic Games bid fail, the Brazilian and Carioca[1] Olympic group invested on hosting the 2007 Pan-American Games. This event was a turning point in the investments path and urban changes that the city of Rio de Janeiro has been through in the previous 15 years, as well as the beginning for the RIO2016 successful campaign.

The Rio 2004 Olympic bid was one of many strategies adopted by the city of Rio de Janeiro, assisted by politicians and urbanists of Barcelona, in its strategic plan of 1993, mention below. Hence, the bid had a similar project to that developed by Barcelona in which the Olympic Games would be part of a broader urban planning (Fernandes, 2008; Silvestre, 2013). Rio’s bid was leaded by Rio de Janeiro city hall with the support of the state of Rio de Janeiro and the Brazilian government. The bid book proposed to use the infrastructure for the games as a legacy for unprivileged areas (Rio de Janeiro Olympics Bid Committee Rio 2004, 1996) and a social agenda was developed by activists to use the opportunity to overcome social barriers of the city (Silvestre, 2013).

On the Brazilian report on the Rio 2007 Pan and Para-pan American Games, the ‘2004 experience’ is referred as a lesson on how to plan and execute the bid and the event ‘more properly’ (Brasil, 2007: 12). The bid proposed some consecrated areas for tourism to receive the competitions (the Maracanã Stadium, the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, the Glória Marine, Copacabana beach and Barra da Tijuca), but also set the area of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) on the Ilha do Governador as central to the event, as there would be built the Olympic stadium, the Olympic Village, the broadcast center, the Olympic hospital and other facilities (Brasil, 2007; Silvestre, 2013). The report points out that the IOC ‘considered the project inviable’, because there were no guarantees on sports facilities and security (Brasil, 2007: 12). According to the report, these flaws were due to disagreements among the bidding committee (Brasil, 2007). Silvestre (2013) points that those disagreements were mostly due to the centrality of Ilha do Governador in the project. The area had two slums (favelas) with 62,000 inhabitants and was the opposite of the economic and real state appeal of Barra da Tijuca. The mayor of Rio de Janeiro in 2007, César Maia, is cited on the report arguing that

The Olympic Games are, most of all, an economic event related to sport. It has its logics and demands. Imagine a first page photo in a newspaper showing an athlete and in the background a favela with a squalid man. We don’t need neither want to hide our problems, but it’s important to understand the complexity of the Olympic Games (Brasil, 2007: 12).

As Carlos Roberto Osório, the general secretary of Rio2007, states, although the Olympic Games support that the host city changes, these changes need to be controlled to not put in risk the routine of the participants (Brasil, 2007). In this case, we understand that the men behind the 2007 Pan-American Games and later the 2016 bid did not see the event as an opportunity to improve poor areas and build facilities useful for a public university, but as a risk-free endeavor for businesses around the sport competitions. This is the point where the notion of development through SMEs earns new contours. This new entrepreneurial logic, in opposition to a social agenda, was behind the hosting of the 2007 Pan-American Games and continued during the bid and preparation for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. During this timeframe, the city of Rio de Janeiro hosted the 2011 World Military Games and some matches of the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2014 FIFA World Cup on the edge of the Olympic preparations.

Studies show the centrality of the Olympic project as a mechanism to accelerate the transformation of Rio’s urban space in areas to privilege few investors and social groups (Gaffney, 2010; Mascarenhas, 2013; Silvestre, 2013; Vainer, 2011). The shift presented on the possibilities of SMEs’ projects pointed to the interests of capital and ignored possibilities of long-term changes in the city’s social landscape (Gaffney, 2010), neglecting some of the basic human rights of disadvantage communities in the building of the RIO2016 (Mascarenhas, 2013). These logics introduced unparalleled use of military force, as well as resistance and social mobilization against it also appeared, as shown in the sessions above.

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[1] Carioca is the general term used to designate those from the city of Rio de Janeiro, capital city of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Southeast region of Brazil.


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