In six months time the world’s biggest sporting event will get underway in Rio de Janeiro. Here, Jules Boykoff, author of “Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics” takes a look at the winners and losers in the race for financial, rather than Olympic, gold.
By Jules Boykoff
Rio de Janeiro and Portland, Oregon
When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff appeared at the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee headquarters brandishing a plaque with her “Ten Commandments of the Rio 2016 Games” – a list of social legacy-oriented good intentions – in November, the cameras dutifully snapped and flashed. The plaque was a gift from Eduardo Paes, the beer-quaffing, English-speaking, mediagenic mayor of Rio, a politician well versed in the art of the photo-op. But with the Games opening in only six months, many of those “commandments” now ring painfully hollow.
This might make Rousseff and Paes Olympic sinners. But as the Games approach, there are also real winners: well-positioned real-estate moguls, construction magnates, and perhaps Paes himself. Meanwhile, ordinary Rio residents are left with only shattered promises, with some even being forcibly displaced to make way for the Games.
These days, very few Cariocas believe the Olympic hype. In 2011, 63% in Rio thought that sports mega-events like the Olympics and 2014 World Cup would bring the city great benefits. By the end of 2015, only 27% shared that illusion.
As with much Olympics-induced public relations, the “10 Commandments” ripple with vapid prattle — one vows to “deliver a better city after the Games,” whatever that means. But some of the promises are quite specific, such as “use private money for the majority of the costs.”
This is relevant because in recent years the Olympics have been unmasked as a fiscal boondoggle, despite five-ring honchos in Rio asserting at every opportunity that taxpayer reais will make up less than half of the overall costs of the Games, with private interests paying the rest. Mayor Paes unswervingly repeats the assertion that private sources are paying for two thirds of the Rio Olympics bill.
But this statistic is extremely misleading. It fails to consider the quiet ways that Rio 2016 shifts public resources into private hands, ginning up large profits for well-connected impresarios with connections.
For starters, Rio 2016 brings enormous tax breaks. One study found that Olympic tax exemptions would be around four times higher than those of the World Cup, where tax breaks were nearly $250 million. In addition, public banks in Brazil are taking on speculative business risks to backstop Olympic projects. Also, local authorities have used the Olympics as a smokescreen to bestow valuable public land to developers at bargain-basement prices.
Nowhere has the transfer of public wealth into private hands been more brazen than in the construction of the Rio 2016 golf course. The Rio Olympics mark the return of golf to the Games after a 112-year hiatus. As was touted in Rio’s original Olympic bid, the metropolis already has two elite golf courses that have staged major tournaments. One of these could have been renovated to meet Olympic standards.
But in an audacious maneuver Mayor Paes decided to locate the golf closer to the Olympic complex in Barra da Tijuca, a wealthy western suburb, even if that meant plunking the course inside the Marapendi Nature Reserve, home to numerous threatened species.
In doing so, Paes teed up a staggering deal for billionaire developer Pasquale Mauro. As long as Mauro paid the bill for the golf course — between $20 and $30 million — he’d also win a contract to build 140 luxury apartments around it.
While the mayor’s office has pointed out the benefits of no public money being used in the construction of the site, these units start at $2 million, with penthouse condominiums pushing upwards of $6 million. It doesn’t take a math whiz to calculate the value of this multi-million dollar sweetheart deal, gift-wrapped by City Hall.
If the Olympics are all about real estate, Exhibit B has to be the Olympic Village. Built by Brazilian construction behemoth Carvalho Hosken, the Village will be converted after the Games into a luxury-housing complex called “Ilha Pura” (“Pure Island”). But Ilha Pura isn’t even an actual, geophysical island. Carlos Carvalho — founder of Carvalho Hosken and campaign donor to Mayor Paes — explained to The Guardian that the name in fact referred to a “social island,” saying that he wanted to create “a city of the elite, of good taste…For this reason, it needed to be top class housing, not housing for the poor.”
But weren’t Rio’s poor supposed to benefit from the Games? One ‘commandment’ vowed to “Prioritize the neediest areas and the poorest part of the population.” But Rio authorities are acting as if “prioritize” means “prioritize for eviction.”
Since the International Olympic Committee awarded Rio the Games back in 2009, around 77,000 Cariocas have been displaced. “The number is likely much higher, since these are official statistics that traditionally undercount favela residents in all aspects of data collection, much less eviction,” Theresa Williamson, founder of Catalytic Communities, a Rio-based NGO that monitors human-rights issues in favelas, told From Brazil.
“Without the pretext of the Olympic deadline, very few of the evictions undertaken by the Paes administration would have been possible,” she added. “Thanks to the state of exception created by the Games, a small, insular group of people close to the mayor have been making broad decisions during the pre-Olympic period.”
Paes’ office has denied any wrongdoing. “City Hall does not use the instrument of compulsory removal, when families are evicted without prior knowledge or a transition process, and new housing is not offered. In any situation where people have to leave their homes, they only leave with the guarantee of a new home or compensation,” it said in a statement last August.
The experiences of one community, however, tell a rather different story. Vila Autódromo, a small, working-class favela on the edge of the Olympic Park, has found itself in front of the Olympic steamroller. As Rio stretched westward in the 1990s, Mayor Paes, then a young deputy mayor of Barra da Tijuca, alleged the neighborhood was causing environmental and aesthetic damage, and required demolition. He has since led the charge to expel every last resident of Vila Autódromo. In June 2015, efforts by the police to forcibly evict residents even turned violent.
Recently the psychological seesaw has verged on psychological warfare. Authorities have cut the favela’s water and electricity. Residents have experienced out-of-the-blue “lightning evictions” carried out by the Municipal Guard. Even the Polícia de Choque (Rio’s heavily armed and armoured shock troops) have played a part, intimidating locals and erecting a wall so obtrusive it would make Donald Trump proud. Meanwhile, on the other side of fence, Rio Mais, the construction consortium building the Olympic Park, cranks away.
“The Municipal Guard has protected the interests of the Rio Mais consortium against the interests of the population,” Larissa Lacerda, an organizer with the Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics in Rio de Janeiro who has worked closely with residents in Vila Autódromo, told From Brazil.
Although Vila Autódromo has been decimated, some families have refused financial compensation and are determined to stay in their homes. “Cruelty in Vila Autódromo has increased day by day, with City Hall doing everything it can to make life there unbearable. Yet a group of residents continues the resistance,” Lacerda explained.
In late November, I attended a cultural festival in Vila Autódromo that doubled as a solidarity rally. A large group —comprised of residents as well as busloads of community allies who traveled from other parts of Rio — assembled at the community’s cultural center, for music, information-sharing, food, and fun.
But even amid the good cheer, latent frustration bubbled up. Throughout Vila Autódromo slogans — photos of which are posted here — were scrawled in spray paint on the standing walls of demolished homes and on the white wall separating the community from the Olympic zone.
Wending through the rubble afforded an appreciation of the community’s grit and creativity in the face of peril. Someone had written “Paes Sem Amor” (“Paes Without Love”) on the wall that separates the community from the Olympic construction zone: a play on the phrase “Paz e Amor” (“Peace and Love”). Another took aim at a certain construction baron with a penchant for social stratification: “Carlos Carvalho, Não Somos Pobre/Você Sim é Pobre” (“We Are Not Poor/Rather, You Are Poor”).
But the predominant slogan around the favela was “Lava Jato Olímpico,” a reference to the widespread corruption scandal gripping Brazil’s political class by the gullet. The fiasco has, quite understandably, gobbled up the media’s collective attention. One side effect is that Operação Lava Jato has deflected attention from the Olympic build-up and all its deficiencies.
In a way, the double-whammy of political and economic crisis has been a blessing for Olympic organizers, allowing their logistical hiccups to fly under the public radar. But as the Games draw closer, more people are pointing out the stark fact that billions are being spent on the Olympics at the same time as social services in Rio are being slashed. Public spending reveals priorities and values. With the Rio Olympics, it is not hard to see who is being prioritized and valued and who is not.
“Favelas are not always a problem. Favelas can sometimes really be a solution, if you deal with them, if you put public policy inside favelas,” Mayor Paes explained in a slick Ted Talk in 2012. One such “public policy” was Morar Carioca, an ambitious favela upgrade program designed to bring basic infrastructure like paved roads, sewer systems, and improved electricity lines.
In 2010, Paes said that thanks to “Olympic inspiration” the Morar Carioca program would be a lasting legacy of Rio 2016. But by 2014, the program had stagnated and Paes had made a political U-turn, asserting Morar Carioca had absolutely nothing to do with Olympic legacy. The original collaborative spirit of the program has vanished, even if the Morar Carioca label is occasionally trotted out and pinned to public works projects.
If Rio 2016 runs smoothly, Eduardo Paes may be able use his platform as five-ring kingpin to catapult to higher office. Eduardo Cunha, the scandal-wracked Speaker of the lower house of Congress currently being investigated for having millions of dollars reportedly squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts, has anointed Paes as his favored candidate for the 2018 Brazilian presidential election.
The Olympic Games inevitably feature winners and losers on the track, in the pool, and on the velodrome. But Rio 2016 Olympic luminaries vowed to make ordinary Cariocas into winners as well. “Leave a legacy for the entire population of the city,” chirps one of the commandments. With the Games only six months away, this hopeful boast reads like gripping fiction of the cruelest sort.