Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Gamble

Photo: Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil/Flickr

The 'Morar Carioca' project to urbanise Rio favelas is one of the initiatives related to the Rio Games that has been gutted due to political and financial crisis, writes Juliana Barbassa. Photo: Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil/Flickr


By Juliana Barbassa
Rio 2016 was promoted as an engine for urban renewal and lasting change, a positive addition to years of social progress and growth in Brazil. But unfulfilled promises in a country now challenged by a deep economic and political crisis show that the Olympics did not function as a lever of development. This failure might be Rio 2016’s most lasting legacy, reports Julianna Barbassa.

When International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge held up the envelope with the five rings and pulled out the name of the host city for the 2016 Olympic Games, Rio de Janeiro residents exploded into celebration: fireworks and confetti lit up the sky, and thousands wearing yellow and green, Brazil’s national colors, danced along Copacabana Beach. The festivities lasted into the night.

The glee of beach-goers on that October day in 2009 was an immediate reaction to the IOC’s vote, but it was fueled by a larger phenomenon – a momentous transformation of the country.

Brazil was flourishing economically and it was politically stable. To those who lived through the rocky transition from a military regime to democracy in 1985, and remembered trying to make their salary stretch to the end of the month while inflation galloped at more than 2,000 percent per year, this was something worth celebrating.

But there was more: the deeply ingrained inequality that marked the country was diminishing. With Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a Workers Party (and working class) president in power, and the discovery of oil along Rio de Janeiro’s shore there seemed to be money and political will to address the historical deficits in education, health, and access to rights that hampered so many Brazilians, and hamstrung the country’s development.

The IOC’s decision to hold the Games in Rio, after Brazil had already been chosen to host the World Cup, was read as recognition of these achievements and a vote of confidence in a future that held more of this growth in store. The competition had been used in this way before: Tokyo’s 1964 Games signaled the country’s emergence from the devastation of World War II; Seoul hosted in 1988, just when brand Korea was taking off; and Beijing’s 2008 Games marked its emergence as a global power. Now, it was Brazil’s turn. The 2016 Olympic Games would provide the stage to display this new, up-and-coming nation.

An engine for changes
To Rio residents, known as cariocas, authorities promoted the Games as not only a chance to highlight achievements, but also as an engine for to push for more, and necessary, changes. Authorities told the population that the investments and improvements would ultimately benefit them.

There was reason to believe this: the bid came with promises to address some of Rio’s most serious challenges, and with a concrete deadline by which to fulfill them. For example, there were specific commitments to clean up the Guanabara Bay at the center of metropolitan Rio in time for sailing competitions, to improve transportation in the notoriously congested streets, and to improve safety in the streets, a problem Rio residents grappled with daily.

The biggest social legacy would come through a program called Morar Carioca, which Rio mayor Eduardo Paes touted regularly in speeches and in outdoor billboards during his successful run for a second term in 2012. This was not part of the bid, but Paes linked it to the city’s broader transformation. The program’s goal was to bring basic services – running water, safe electricity, sewage collection – to all of the city’s favelas by 2020, and to do so in a participatory manner that included consultation with the communities’ residents. The $8 billion program would have been the most comprehensive one of its kind in Rio’s history and could have served as a model for other cities. If implemented, it would impact the lives of the one in five Rio residents who lives in a favela.

It would also send a powerful message. In a country, and a city, in which public funds and resources traditionally circulated and accumulated in the hands of the already rich and powerful, serving to further enhance their wealth and power, this program was an investment in a population that was historically disenfranchised and structurally cut off from those circles of affluence.

Over the course of Rio de Janeiro’s history, favelas were at various times deliberately deprived of government services (so as not to have an incentive to stay); or displaced by force (as during the 1960s and 1970s, when the federal government implemented an official removal policy). Seen within this context the Morar Carioca program was a radical break with the past that seemed to indicate a paradigm shift.

Nothing in 2016 is as expected
Fast forward to April 2016. Nothing is as expected. Brazil, mired in a serious political and economic crisis, scarcely seems the same country. There are crowds in national colors surging along Copacabana beach again, but this time, they are furious. Banners call for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the hand-picked Workers Party successor to Lula. Effigies representing the former president show him dressed in a prisoner’s black-and-white stripes.

The crowd’s indignation stemmed in part from Rousseff’s inability to stop the downward spiral of the economy and control finances. In 2015, the country’s GDP shrank by nearly 4 percent, and the prospects for 2016 were not much better. The unemployment rate rose to above 8 percent for the first time in years, and a resurgence in inflation made each trip to the supermarket more meager than the last. After a decade of hearing that they were Brazil’s new middle class, many in the crowd found their expectations dashed as they could not longer afford the car payments, the new English classes for their kids, the family vacation.

The country was adrift, but Brazil’s politicians were too distracted by other scandals to focus on governance. The Workers Party and the opposition were deeply embroiled in an illicit scheme in which leading politicians; the national oil giant, Petrobras; and the country’s largest construction companies traded influence, bribes and padded contracts to their mutual benefit. For the past two years, an investigation had unraveled evidence of corruption of unprecedented depth and breadth.

Even carnival on budget
Brazilian frustration with government malfeasance and misplaced spending priorities was already evident in the mass demonstrations that preceded the 2014 World Cup. Posters had called for investments in education and health, not stadiums, and an end to venality in politics. Now, with months to go until Rio de Janeiro’s Olympics, the marches were back, and bigger than ever. Congressmembers – about 60 percent of them personally facing criminal charges – have voted to impeach the president, whose political future now lies in the hands of the Senate.

The sense of betrayal and dashed hopes was amplified in Rio de Janeiro. The city and the state’s finances were in a shambles. Expected revenue and investment evaporated as the price of petroleum plummeted and the national oil company’s prospects floundered.  By 2016, it had also become clear that most of the social, economic and infrastructural transformations expected from the preparations 2016 Olympics had failed or were deeply flawed, and would not deliver as promised.

It was not a matter of getting the sports facilities ready. Unlike the mad rush to finish stadiums before the World Cup, most of Rio’s sports venues were nearly complete, and test events had been held in many of them. A closer look at the city and state, however, revealed strained systems that were close to snapping. The facilities might be ready, but basic services were suffering cuts. State hospitals closed to all but the direst emergencies. Universities cut back on cleaning crews and maintenance. Even carnival was on a budget in 2016, after the sponsors of street parades ratcheted down their support.

Unfinished infrastructure
Some of the infrastructure essential for the Games was hit hard. With the Olympics just a handful of months away, the subway extension that was supposed to ease the city’s congestion and ferry visitors from Rio’s hotels along posh south-side beaches to the main cluster of Olympic venues was not finished—and would not be without an injection of nearly $250 million from the federal government. At the Maracanã stadium, administrators fired three-fourths of the workers; at another stadium where Olympic track and field events would be held, the electricity and water were cut off as bills went unpaid.

Key Olympic projects went unfinished. Guanabara Bay, whose cleanup was held as a one of the most important legacies of the Games, remained a toxic soup. Independent testing by the Associated Press found the bay to be chronically contaminated with viruses and bacteria characteristic of human sewage. Casual observation was enough to reveal that floating trash also remained a substantial problem. By May of 2015, Rio state environmental secretary Andre Correa admitted that cutting the flow of pollutants by 80 percent was “not going to happen.” He could not give an estimate of how much cleanup would be accomplished by the Games, though he, along with Rio 2016 organizers, said the water was safe and the health of athletes was a top priority.

The flagship public security program launched by the state in late 2008 was suffering a severe crisis. The Pacification Police Units program, known as UPP in its Portuguese acronym, had been launched in late 2008 with the goal of reclaiming for the state territory long controlled by drug dealing gangs. When President Lula and Rio authorities had gone to Copenhagen in 2009 to convince the IOC of their bid to host the Olympics, the program was new and promising; its best known officer had shared the IOC stage with the politicians as a physical reminder of what Rio was doing to tackle its lack of safety. By 2016, UPP officers had been charged with murder, collusion with traffickers and other serious crimes, and in many reclaimed favelas, shoot-outs were common again as gangs sought to take back territory.

Bringing back removal policy
Even the comprehensive favela improvement program Morar Carioca was financially gutted and dismantled without an explanation to the public. Its name was re-appropriated for minor projects that lacked its participatory nature. Meanwhile, the city had brought back the policy of removing favelas, by force if necessary, and sending families to federal housing projects that were up to five hours away by public transportation, a disruption that cost the displaced jobs and continuation at school. According to Rio city government, more than 22,000 families have been displaced since 2009, either because they were in allegedly risk-prone areas or to make way for infrastructure projects related to the World Cup or the Olympic Games.

With this reversal of priorities, the city went from having a favela integration program to actively promoting the spatial segregation of the poor. At times, this dizzying about-face could be seen within at single community: Vila União de Curicica, for example, went in two years from answering survey questions about their priorities for Morar Carioca improvements to being slated for destruction.

The operating expenses for the Games, which had long overblown the original budget, were trimmed under the guise of fiscal responsibility: there would be fewer employees, more temporary structures, and more modest opening and closing ceremonies. Emergency measures promulgated by city and state authorities would make sure that, despite economic retrenchment, Rio would be ready to welcome athletes, VIPs, journalists, and tourists.

Traffic congestion would be ameliorated by declaring holidays during competitions, as happened during the World Cup. Pollution would be taken care of by sending out specially rigged boats to rake in the trash floating on the bay. Security would be guaranteed by sending out 85,000 law enforcement officers to clamp down on the city, turning Rio into the safest place on the planet while the competitions lasted. 

These exceptional measures would turn Rio de Janeiro into an Olympic theme park for the duration of the Games – safe, clean (enough) and with stellar transit. Once the closing ceremonies conclude, cleaning crews in their orange uniforms would sweep up the confetti, and cariocas would resume life in a city that was at least as polluted, congested, unequal and violent as before, if not more so. 

A fundamental flaw
Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Games exposed a fundamental flaw in the Olympic promise: the event, with its short-term deadlines and narrow objectives, does not mesh well with long term city planning goals, but instead captures urban planning agendas for short term demands. The pressure of an impending deadline also crystallized institutional dynamics, reinforcing existing hierarchies, shortening the decision-making process, and justifying the further concentration of power and resources while limiting public input into the process. The face of the city had indeed been transformed – but by 2016 it was clear the changes were for benefit of a small network of political and economic interests, and at the expense of the population as a whole.

In pre-Olympic Rio, the catalytic effect of the Olympics on business as usual meant increased opportunities for graft, collusion and influence trading between political leaders and economic elites. By early 2016, federal police conducting a wide-ranging investigation into government corruption unearthed documents linking Brazil’s construction and engineering giant Odebrecht to bribes concerning multi-billion dollar Olympic and World Cup projects, including the metro line extension, the renewal of the port zone, and the soccer stadium where the opening World Cup game was played. These specific charges are under investigation, but the former CEO of Odebrecht is already serving 19 years in prison on separate charges of corruption and money laundering.

The rush to dispense contracts to favored companies under the guise of meeting Olympic deadlines would have other, grimmer, costs beyond misspent public funds and wasted opportunities. A bike path billed as a key legacy project and built alongside a sheer cliff over the Atlantic collapsed during a sunny holiday in April, sending bikers plunging into the ocean below, and killing two people. It had been inaugurated just three months earlier, in January; its 3.9 kilometers cost 45 million reais (11.4 million Euros), and the project, built by a group called Concremat, was financed with public funds from BNDES.

After the collapse, it emerged that the number of contracts signed between the city of Rio and Concremat went up by 2,132 percent since 2009, when mayor Eduardo Paes took office for the first of his two terms. Of those contracts, 46 percent were offered without public bidding, under the allegation they pertained to emergency works. The group belongs to family members of Rio’s tourism secretary, who was also treasurer of both of Paes’ campaigns for mayor.

The Rio mark on the Olympics
Just as the Olympics left their mark on Rio, the city has left its mark on the Olympics as well. There were many external factors affecting the city’s development during these crucial years. Plus, research has long shown that hosting the world’s biggest sports spectacle is not a money-maker.

Still, the gap between what was expected and what has been delivered is so great, and the dissonance between priorities pursued and those emphasized by the population is so extreme that it makes clear that whatever else they might be, the Games as they are currently cast are not a good tool to foster urban development. Rio residents are watching their government make cuts to school maintenance, close down hospitals, fail to pay public servants and cut back on security funding even as billions in public money are spent on preparing for a sporting event. Coverage of Rio’s preparation for 2016 has helped disseminate that incongruence. Fewer and fewer cities are interested in hosting. This might be Rio 2016’s most lasting legacy. 

The Olympics and Paralympics in Brazil: Who Takes the Prize?


This article forms part of the 70th Bulletin published by the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (ICSSPE) that has Brazil and its upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games as the focal point. The Bulletin is edited by Associate Professor Katia Rubio from the University of São Paulo and international director Jens Sejer Andersen of Play the Game.

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  • john vagm, 15.06.2016 22:56:
    juliana Barbassa is a leftist caviar and does not represent anything of Brazil.
    World cup in rio de janeiro was a complete success and securely public.

    Olympic Games of Rio de Janeiro is the cheapest of all three last editions and the budget stipulated that Followed strictly. Rio2016 will not be 100%, but beautiful, the happened in the World Cup.

    this story I think you shouldnt be careful que nothing is happening in Brazil. Beijing games in 2008 russia sochi, media, always with interest

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