Six months ago, the world watched on in wonder as the 2016 Olympic Games opened with a colourful ceremony in Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracanã stadium. Just over two weeks of heart-stopping drama, superhuman performances, incredible feats of power and precision and one lying swimmer later, it was all over. Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, closed the Rio 2016 Olympic Games claiming that “history will talk about a Rio de Janeiro before and a much better Rio de Janeiro after the Olympic Games”.
Bach refers here to the legacy of the Games, a much touted phrase to describe the apparent benefits of hosting mega-events like the Olympics. All too often, the focus of discussions about Olympic legacies focus on the claimed positives, such as increased sporting participation, boosted visitor numbers and economic growth. Legacy should be extend to include the damage left in the wake of the Games. It should include the 80,000 people evicted from their homes, the 2,500 killed by police, and the massive public debt placing pressure on city services.
Thinking about this insidious legacy, what have been the big stories in Rio in recent months? It would be no surprise if you hadn’t heard anything, since most of the international press flew out of Rio just after the athletes. Even those who’d lived there for years were reassigned, with bureaus planning to relocate to São Paulo or Brasilia, where the economic and political stories are.
The Olympic Mayor, Eduardo Paes, has been in a spot of bother with the authorities after leaving office in October 2016. His assets have been frozen in relation to mismanagement of the contract for the construction of the Olympic golf course. While bringing golf back to the Olympics was heralded as a success for the IOC, the impacts of the event have been far from positive in Rio.
The environmental damage involved in building the golf course was similarly egregious. Course construction routinely involves damaging practices; these include deforestation, destruction of natural habitats and heavy use of chemicals. But despite these impacts, Rio’s Olympic organisers decided they needed to build a new course, ignoring the existing golf courses in the city. Golf courses require vast amounts of water to prepare, which was particularly difficult at the start of 2015 when Rio was experiencing a drought. The sprinklers stayed on, despite reports that some of Rio’s residents didn’t have access to water to drink. The Olympic show must go on it seems.
As if the potential impacts couldn’t get any worse, the course was constructed on the Marapendi nature reserve. Given the difficulties this situation would normally entail, it is perhaps no surprise that Paes is charged with administrative impropriety for waiving the need for an environmental license. The real estate developers who won the contract to build the course were also given the public land and the right to build condominiums there as part of the deal. The legacy here is an exclusive golf course, a reduction of publicly owned assets, and a severely degraded environment.
You may recall seeing the photo above just before that Games, when the State of Rio de Janeiro declared a state of emergency due to lack of funds. The State paid for most of the major Olympic construction costs and found itself overstretched. Brazil’s economic crisis and a global dip in the price of oil, a major industry in the state, resulted in lower revenues and a huge budget deficit.
Of course, the Federal government stepped in to keep the Olympic show on the road – although the Paralympics were cut significantly. But now the Olympic stardust has moved on, and the federal government has no burning imperative to hand over more cash. Radical changes must be made, they said.
Perhaps one of the most striking proposals is the closure of the State University of Rio de Janeiro. Despite being ranked among the top universities in the country, budget cuts have put the university’s future in jeopardy. It seems that despite the lofty rhetoric of the IOC and educational bedrock of Olympism, the Olympic legacy in Rio will reduce educational opportunities.
Jules Boykoff’s Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games describes how the Olympics are used by governments to force through regressive changes with a political urgency created by the deadline for the event. The Olympics work in a similar way to the disaster capitalism Naomi Klein writes about in The Shock Doctrine, where disasters provide the same urgency. Here we see the one-two punch of celebration and disaster capitalism, as an illegitimate government forces through legislation to freeze public spending for the next twenty years due to levels of public debt.
Of course, if the Olympics leave one thing behind it’s modern stadia. And in Rio, there is no stadium quite like the Maracanã – the spiritual home of association football (soccer). Surely, in football-crazy Brazil, there would be no problems using these stadiums after the Games. The national stadium in Rio, renovated three times since 2000 at huge public expense, has been transformed from a theatre – temple even – of sport into a shopping mall.
Despite the blatant commercialisation of the stadium, it still cannot make a profit. Rio’s utility company recently switched off the power at the stadium due to unpaid bills. One of the major phenomena during the Games was the performance of the Brazilian women’s soccer team – cheered on even more than the men’s team at times. After the Games, any authority looking to secure a legacy had a solid foundation to build on. Instead, the CBF cut key programmes for the women’s game.
Not only has elite sport been stunted by the Games, local sporting facilities have been shut down. The Célio de Barros arena, a key venue for community sport, was gutted and threatened with demolition. This is just one example of Rio’s Olympics harming community sport for the sake of a 17-day elite competition.
Brazilians have an expression for things done for the benefit of foreigners masking the harsh reality of life for Brazil’s poor. They say it is “for the English to see”, an expression dating back to the abolition of the slave trade under pressure from British government. Many criticised the Olympics as being “for the English to see”, as the authorities covered up their problems. But the English aren’t looking any more.
And so the International Olympic Committee took the profits they made from the Games and scuttled away from Brazil, leaving the legacy in the hands of an unelected, corrupt president. Now they can be found lending legitimacy to the destruction of forests in South Korea and evicting the homeless in Meiji Park, Tokyo. Only time will tell what atrocities those five rings will be used to legitimise in Beijing.
Adam Talbot is a doctoral researcher at the University of Brighton. His research focuses on social movements and Rio 2016. His wider interests include urban politics, mega-events, Latin America and human rights. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamTalbotSport