Rio 2016: Beautiful Games at Huge Cost

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From August 5 to August 21, Rio will be the home of some of the most beautifully intense displays of athletics during the 2016 Summer Olympics. While fans will rightfully be enjoying the amazing displays, we should also pay attention to the social impacts that being an Olympic host city has had.

Economic Costs

When Brazil won the hosting rights to the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, their economy was booming. However, as the time came to begin funding these mass expenditures, the country was beginning to face an economic recession, declining oil profits as well as a political scandal involving politicians and Petrobras – their state oil company. The situation has grown increasingly dire. As Henry Grabar recently wrote in Slate:

“Public workers have been working with delayed salaries since the start of the year; teachers and other workers have been striking for months. The Rio state security budget has been cut by 30 percent this year. Hospitals are in crisis and have been running out of essential supplies like syringes. Welfare programs like Bolsa Familia, a Lula-era project that gives cash transfers to low income families that send their kids to school, are being suspended.”


These difficulties have been compounded by a recent development — needing to combat the Zika virus. Despite this crisis, the faltering economy and growing economic problems with the drop in oil revenues, the government prioritized spending an estimated $15 billion to host the 2014 World Cup. Current estimates are that hosting the 2016 Olympics has cost at least $10 billion. Meanwhile, authorities have only spent $600 million to combat Zika.

Hosting mega-events like these has rarely been a boon to local economies. As the Major Programme Management at Oxford business school showed, the average Olympic cost overrun has been 179% and all host cities since 1968 have gone over their projections. This is especially concerning given that the Popular Committee on the World Cup and the Olympics noted in their research dossier called Rio 2016 Olympics: The Exclusion Games, the public has been responsible for over 60% of the costs.

While recent pronouncements have been made by the Mayor of Rio that rightfully declare the Olympics are not solely at fault for causing the economic calamities, prioritizing the funds to the mega-events has contributed to and exacerbated the problems.

Environmental impacts

In preparation for the Games, Rio 2016 organizers pledged that they would plant 24 million trees as a way to offset the pollution. By September 2014, they announced that they would now plant 34 million trees as well as taking on significant efforts to clean some polluted waterways and lagoons. However, the authorities balked and said they’d not be completed for the Games.

The Olympics also require that host cities build a number of new facilities. With the inclusion of golf as an Olympic event, the government has partially turned a protected nature reserve into a golf course.

The reserve’s space has been bisected and the government approved this via a special law. The ruling allowed the golf course to be approved without doing any environmental impact studies or management programs and no public hearings allowing for general input. At the conclusion of the Olympics, the land will become the site of privately owned luxury condominiums and apartments.

Evictions and Real Estate Speculation

Using the Olympics as a mode of transferring public spaces into private hands has been a growing concern of many residents on the ground in Rio.

According to the Popular Committee on the World Cup and Olympics, an estimated 77,000 people have been evicted from their homes between 2009 and 2015. Most of these evictions were predicated on needing the land for World Cup and Olympic infrastructure use. But, the legacy of these decisions appears to have more pernicious and privatizing rationales at their heart. Many residents believe that the Games are a vehicle for real estate developers to get land that can be used after the Games as high priced housing. The story of the Vila Autodromo favela ties all of these issues together clearly.

Vila Autodromo has been a long standing, thriving favela community with legal right to their land since the 1990s. Despite having ownership title and multiple court rulings affirming the community’s ability to stay, Mayor Eduardo Paes announced in 2009 – right after Rio won the 2016 Olympic bid – that there would be imminent evictions of the community because it buttressed the land proposed for the Olympic Park.

The favela residents had worked with city planners to develop a workable solution that showed how the proposed Olympic facility and the community could easily co-exist. After court battles to stop possible eviction, they had reached an agreement with Mayor Paes in 2013 that they’d be able to stay in their homes if they desired. However, many residents noted that there had been significant pressure from the government to get them to leave Vila Autodromo.

Parts of the Vila Autodromo favela were walled off from the rest of their neighbors by Municipal Guard. Residents would need to get special permission and identification badges to walk through areas of the community. The families that remained had to deal with the stressors of the demolitions of community spaces, the persistent presence of government authorities and a significantly limited access to utilities. Residents who ultimately chose to move were not appropriately compensated by the government.

As of this writing, approximately 90% of the Vila Autodromo favela has been evicted to build the Olympic Park facilities. After the Games conclude, the Olympic Park will become a luxury apartment complex called ‘Ilha Pura’ (Pure Island) meant to be, as real estate developer Carlos Carvalho called it, “a city of the elites.”

Policing and the Games

Despite threats of strikes by police and state security forces in Rio, there is set to be an estimated 85,000 police present for the Olympics — more than double the security at the 2012 London Olympics. The massive surge in police presence in advance of the Games is deeply concerning to human rights advocates .

Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have noted “serious human rights violations” in regards to police killings, especially in communities of color. These organizations have also noted the disturbing trend of police killings happening more often in 2014 and 2015. A new report from Amnesty International issued July 1 cited that there was a 135% increase in people killed by Brazilian police in May in Rio (city) and a nearly 50% increase in Rio state. A similar increase was also observed in the 6 months prior to Rio’s hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup with a 62% surge in the country and a 43% rise in Rio.

Hosting the Olympics Games is putting a spotlight on these issues but also allowing police to have a largely increased presence and a wider latitude to do what is perceived as necessary to ensure the events continue. To that end, the Brazilian government passed an ‘anti-terrorism’ law with provisions vague enough that it could be used to criminalize protest and allow for the arrest of activists to keep them from highlighting their causes to the international press that will be present at the Games.

Grappling with the Games

British Olympic fencer Laurence Halsted recently wrote in The Guardian, “I have been forced to grapple with the fact that the Olympics come with negative side effects for the host nation. Silence in the face of such injustice could be wrongly interpreted as implicit approval.”

He continued, “The current model of staging increasingly extravagant Olympics is unsustainable and cannot, in all good conscience, continue. There is much that can be done…As a society we need every voice we can to pitch in on the social and environmental issues that are threatening our future….It is time for athletes to embrace this new paradigm and start speaking up without fear of derision.”

While refreshing to hear another athlete use their platform to speak out, Halsted does raise a prescient point — that we can have entertaining sporting events with amazing athletic displays without the damaging and devastating effects on host cities…and that it is on all of us to embrace the new paradigm to make it a reality.

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