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South America / Brazil

Will the population of Rio really benefit from hosting next year’s Olympic Games?

Eduardo Paes looked right at home on the TED talk stage. Giving a talk in 2012, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro brimmed with the bubbly optimism that comes natural to Brazilians, and the relentless drive that comes natural to big city mayors. Speaking in English tinged with a Brazilian lilt, he assured the crowd, “You’re looking at the guy who has the best job in the world!”

Sensing that his charm offensive had worked, Paes quickly shifted to a more emotional tone. “I really wanted to share you [sic] a very special moment in my life, and in the history of Rio,” he said. On cue, the massive screen behind him played a clip of the announcement of Rio de Janeiro as host of the 2016 Olympics, made three years earlier. As the announcement was made, the Brazilian contingent leapt out of their seats. Brazil’s then-president “Lula” da Silva and football legend Pelé hugged each other enthusiastically.

For Paes, it was a dream come true. And despite brief moments of uncertainty, such as his remarks after the 2013 Brazil bus-fare uprising in which he expressed doubts about the legacy of the World Cup and the Olympics, he has remained faithful to bringing that dream to life. But for many in his city, the Olympic vision looks a lot less rosy. 

In preparation for Rio’s 2016 Olympics, as well as last year’s World Cup final, Paes worked alongside city officials and the state of Rio de Janeiro to draft an urban investment plan that would amount to a total of $16.6bn. Chief among these costs were the city’s “Porto Maravilha” shorefront improvement plan, and a plan to build an extensive bus rapid transit (BRT) network. Other schemes called for improvements in housing and basic services.

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But these plans quickly ran into difficulties. In many cases, those “difficulties” seemed to be poorer favela dwellers living a bit too close to stadiums or event venues, who the Rio government preferred to move out of the way before the cameras started rolling.

The Maracana Olympic stadium under construction in Rio. Image: Getty.

These issues began as far back as 2012. Alongside the land slated to become Rio’s Olympic Park, west of the city centre, an informal settlement known as Vila Autódromo became the target of eviction efforts by the Government. The New York Times reported that Paes’s government had paid $11m to two real estate developers who had donated to his campaign to resettle the land; Paes’s government later cancelled the deal.

In 2014, as the World Cup was about to begin, similar plans were made throughout the city. And these plans continue. Last month, local news source Rio On Watch reported that evictions and demolitions had begun in the favela Vila União de Curicica, near Vila Autódromo. The demolitions were planned so as to enable the construction of the new Transolímpica rapid bus system; they were carried out despite an earlier agreement to reroute the planned western line of the system.

But the problems go beyond favela evictions. In January, Rachel Glickhouse at Fusion reported that the city was falling far short of the contamination clean-up target it had set itself. Due to a 95 per cent budget cut, city officials acknowledged that “the government would fail to reach its 2016 goal to clean the filthy Guanabara Bay by 80 percent before the games,” Glickhouse noted, before highlighting other sanitation issues such as excessive trash dumped in the bay and contaminated sand on Rio’s famous beaches.

Even Rio’s signature Olympics improvement project, the Porto Maravilha, is running into trouble. The project consists of converting an elevated freeway in Rio’s port zone into an underground tunnel, using the newly open space for pedestrians and streetcars. The freeway has now been demolished – but it remains to be seen whether the underground tunnels will open in time for the games.

In addition, specialists question whether the residential developments planned as part of the project will ultimately be beneficial. Ephim Schluger, an urban specialist for the World Bank, told Bloomberg News that the buildings of the new development “will not have the life of a city”. Others worry about inequality. In an interview with Jornal do Brasil, urban planner Humberto Kzure-Cerquera worried that the project would “marginalize the poorest population” of the area and “create a social abyss”.

Dead fish float in Guanabara Bay, part of which is due to be the Olympic sailing venue. Officials have recently admitted their cleanup goals won’t be met in time for the Games. Image: Getty.

To top off Rio’s problems, last year the city’s preparation efforts were dubbed the “worst ever” by International Olympic Committee vice president John Coates. In response to what was deemed to be poor preparation, the IOC appointed its own experts to Rio’s local organising committee.

Could Paes have foreseen all these issues when he took the stage at the TED talk back in 2012? Given the issues cities so often face when hosting the Olympics, it’s hard not to think so. And yet, the prestige of becoming an Olympic host city was enough for Paes to turn a blind eye to potential problems.

In a cruel irony, the process also seems to have blinded him to one of the principles he stated so proudly back during his TED talk: to respect the slums. In that talk, he urged cities in countries like Brazil not to destroy their slums, but to incorporate them into the rest of the city.

In some cases, Paes has delivered on this; the Complexo do Alemão favela is now connected to the city with an aerial cable car, and other Rio favelas enjoy new parks and urban amenities. But it’s hard to look at the clearance projects in Vila Autodromo or Vila União de Curicica and think of them as being effective “slum upgrading”.

When the opening ceremonies begin in Rio in 2016, viewers from around the world will probably be treated to the same spectacle they are every four years: torches, concerts, lots of athletes competing in sports some of us may not have even have heard of, perhaps a bit of cool drone footage of the “Christ the Redeemer” statue. What remains to be seen is whether residents of places like Vila Autódromo will be any better off than they are today.
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