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Olympic Games in Rio

Between hope and despair

First the Football World Cup in 2014 and now the Olympic Games this year: major sports events draw attention to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. While the country is politically and economically torn, the people of Rio want substantial progress.
New light-rail infrastructure is reducing road congestion Souza / picture-alliance / NurPhoto New light-rail infrastructure is reducing road congestion

Deodoro is a poor neighbourhood in the west of Rio. It did not have much to interest the world or the media in the past. Most of the news coverage it got related to shootings and muggings or to Bangu, one of Rio's biggest prisons.

In August 2016, a different kind of shooting will make positive headlines here. Deodoro is one of the four venues chosen for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Apart from the marksmanship contests, it will host events in ten other disciplines. As far as completion is concerned, work on the Deodoro facilities is making better headway than at Olympic Village in Barra. This is partly because 60 % of the buildings already existed when Rio bid for the 2016 Games.

The city needs success stories, because the country is in a deep crisis. Brazil's Oceanside metropolis is the first South American city ever to host the Olympics. Its leaders planned to do a lot to meet high expectations placed. Among other things, the authorities promised to:

  • build an Olympic Village that will later be converted into a residential area,
  • completely redevelop the port area,
  • give poor neighbourhoods a facelift and
  • clean up Guanabara Bay, on which Rio is situated.

The list of projects amounted to a virtually complete renewal of the city. Back in 2014, Mayor Eduardo Paes made it clear that the idea was not just to stage a sporting event but rather to focus on economic and social development: “For Rio, the Olympic Games are a chance to implement projects within a predefined time frame. They are not just an international sporting occasion.”

Even if the city at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain is a popular tourist destination, the economic heart of the country beats 450 kilometres farther west in São Paulo. Rio desperately needs investments. But Brazilians are still reeling from the €8.5 billion bill run up for the FIFA World Cup. The most expensive World Cup ever, it prompted angry demonstrations on Brazil's streets. Now the Olympic Games might break all records as well, with costs currently running up to €8.7 billion.

Powder keg

Politically, economically and socially, Rio is a divided city. Over a thousand favelas are growing within the city limits, close to prosperous gated communities. Rio was always a powder keg of social inequality and it seems to be exploding in 2016 because the country is in deep recession. Inflation is at a record level, companies are going bust, the new middle class is wondering what is left of the advancement it hoped for. Politically, the country is descending into chaos (see box).

In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, everything was supposed to get better in the slums. Police were stationed in favelas to raise the quality of life for the marginalised communities. Today, eight years after the first unit was established, many consider the police pacification project (UPP) a failure.

It fast became clear that pacification largely served to improve security for foreign visitors. Even today, fewer than 260 of the thousand-plus favelas have a permanent police presence – and that presence extends only to places that might be frequented by tourists and foreign visitors: access roads, stadiums and beaches.

“The city showed concern for the safety of tourists,” says Raull Santiago, an activist and resident of the favela Complexo do Alemao. “For a long time, our demands were ignored. The UPP creates new problems, more and more innocent people are dying in shootouts.” The police have become a threat, he argues, instead of guaranteeing the security of favela residents. Every month, people die in the growing number of clashes between police and drug gangs. The police officers deployed are often young, poorly trained and unable to cope with the situation.

The security services lack staff and equipment. That is partly due to the bankruptcy of former business wunderkind Eike Batista. That Brazil's richest entrepreneur stumbled in 2013 had dire consequences for the UPP because Batista promised to invest 20 million reais (the equivalent of about € 5 million) a year in the police force. After he was declared bankrupt, financing the security scheme for mega-events became a challenge. The recession is now compounding problems only months before the Olympic Games are due to start.

In mid-March, José Beltrame, Rio's senator for internal security, announced that security manning levels would have to reduced for the sporting event. Accordingly, the UPP that was approved two years ago for the Maré favela community will not be set up this year. There is no money for extra police officers and overtime. According to Beltrame, two billion reais have been shaved off the projected 11.6 billion reais budget for Rio's security during the Olympics. Assaults, however, have increased by 26% since last year, and murders are up by 23%.

The extension of the metro line may also not be completed before the games. It will connect Rio’s poorer north of Rio with the genteel South Zone.

The two major goals of providing Rio with an extensive sewerage system by 2016 and cleaning up Guanabara Bay remain utopian. Industrial waste, garbage and unfiltered sewage from Rio and neighbouring towns flow into the bay. In early 2016, Rio's Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão said: “It is regrettable that we have not achieved the target of an 80% clean-up.” He then tried to soften frustrations: “But conditions will be adequate for water sports.” Rio’s yachtsmen are still fighting their way through dirt and rubbish. And at Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in the south of the city, where the rowers will compete, the water quality is atrocious.

Polluted water is linked to another grievance: the Zika virus is rampant in Rio, transmitted by mosquitoes found near standing water. The dilapidated sanitary facilities and, in favelas, the lack of sewerage systems, are problems that the local government has failed to address despite protests staged in the communities concerned.

Real improvements

Brazilians had high expectations that hosting the mega sporting events would raise living standards for the people of Rio. And indeed, a number of projects will be completed on time, bringing improvements for the population. The new Museum of the Future attracts visitors from all over the city to a formerly run-down neighbourhood. A light rail transit system will run through downtown Rio, bypassing the permanent road congestion that holds up daily bus services. A new bus rapid transit (BRT) system is speeding up long-distance services.

Libraries, sports centres and nursery schools have been set up in the favelas, providing services that the communities desperately need. Numerous projects have made it possible for young residents, in particular, to gain better access to education, even university studies are now within reach for some poor.

Young favela residents previously did not have opportunities as today. Free English courses and sports programmes have been made available even on the outskirts of the city. New support funds have invested in local projects and non-governmental organisations.

Raull Santiago has co-founded “Papo Reto” (straight talk): residents get together with local opinion leaders and discuss problems such as the increase in police violence. In Complexo da Maré, there is a longboard group and photo exhibitions. In Cidade de Deus, there are theatre groups and contact points for musicians.

In recent years, moreover, Favela residents have discovered that they have a voice. They no longer put up with prejudice and refuse to be discriminated against just because they come from the slums. On the contrary, they celebrate favela culture with pride. “What we experience here day after day would be unbearable for a South Zone resident,” writes Mariluce from Complexo do Alemao on Facebook. Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are helping youngsters mobilise and discover that they no longer need the established media to be heard.

“New media are enabling us to show that exciting things are going on in the favelas, that there are creative people, workers and students here – not just criminals,” says Daiene Mendes, who is involved in cultural projects and reports for the citizens medium Voz der Comunidade. With smartphones and Internet, favela reporters and residents also document human rights violations, such as excessive use of force by police. The mega-events have not fulfilled the hopes of fundamental change and peace in the favelas, but they have had a positive impact on how the city perceives itself. 

Julia Jaroschewski is a freelance journalist and founder of BuzzingCities Labs, a think tank focusing on the impacts of digital media on urban development.


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