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The Rio 2016 Olympics and the Mega-Event Machine

Jules Boykoff25 March 2016

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Earlier this month, Jules Boykoff, author of the forthcoming Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, spoke at an SXSW panel on The Rio 2016 Olympics and the Mega-Event Machine. We present his remarks below.

I come to you from two very different backgrounds: the first is as an athlete who played at a fairly high level and really loves sports and wants it to do everything it can possibly do. I also come to you as somebody who spent August to December in Rio de Janeiro, observing how the Olympic City is changing on the ground. 

I went with a real interest in talking to actual people, not just the people running the show, but people who were living favelas and being displaced by the Olympics.

The Olympic Games are in a period of immense flux. Many of the big promises about upticks in jobs and development are being cast into major doubt. These are a set of rainbows-and-unicorns assurances that have been bought with a bucket of Bitcoin. This is a real shift in the way we’ve been talking about mega-events, in the media and in the public sphere.

And the residents of Rio de Janeiro aren’t fooled. In 2011, before the World Cup and the Olympics, there was survey where 63% of the people were optimistic that these mega events were going to bring tangible economic benefits to Rio. By 2015, that statistic had plummeted to 20%. And, now, when you go to some favelas, it’s hard to find a single person who wanted the Olympics.

One of the big concerns is Olympics’ price tag. We’ve heard talk about cuts being made to the budget. And that’s true. They’ve scaled back the opening games ceremony, for example. But the larger picture is the price tag is exploding: $1 billion dollars was the estimate for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and it ended up costing $8 billion; London was supposed to cost $4 billion dollars, and it ended up costing $18 billion; and then, Sochi, the big prize here, was supposed to be about $12 billion, and it ended up costing more than $50 billion dollars, more than all the previous Winter Olympics combined. 

Rio had a relatively modest budget at the outset. They were shooting for about $10 billion dollars. In the end, some economists are estimating that, despite these cutbacks, there games will cost $20 billion dollars; this for a society and an economy that’s really struggling right now. 

One thing you’ll hear the mayor of Rio say is, "No problem, the games are funded mostly by private sources." That statement is extremely misleading. We’d do ourselves a favor to be aware of what’s really going on. For starters, he includes a part of the city that’s being developed by private entities that’s actually got nothing to do with the Olympics: it’s the "zona portuaria," the northern port zone, and there are no events there.

Second, there’s an immense amount of tax breaks being given for this Olympics. In the World Cup, there were about $250 million dollars of tax breaks. One study estimated that to amount to $1 billion dollars. So that’s a billion that Rio could be recouping through taxes but that they’re not. Another way it’s a bit of façade to say major private entities are covering it is that they’re getting major payouts down the road. 

The example I would point to is the development of an Olympic golf course. They decided to develop it over the corner of the Marapendi Nature Reserve, which puts many already-at-risk species into even more risk. But also they’ve essentially teed this up as a victory, a real moneymaker, for a well-connected developer in the area, where he’ll pay the $20-30 billion on the front end, but, in return, he gets to develop condos around it, and probably make some $140 billion dollars on the back side. So he’s paying $20-30 billion to get $140 billion. Most people in this room would think that’s a pretty good business deal. 

Exhibit B, if you will, would be the development of the Olympic Village. The way the Olympic Village is developed and what’s done with it afterwards says a whole lot about the priorities of the host city. So what’s going to happen with the Olympic village in Rio? They’re going to covert it into luxury housing. 3,000 apartments will be immediately converted. 

A guy called Carlos Carvalho is developing it. And he sort of did his own Brazilian Montgomery Burns imitation, when he said this place was going to be called, pura ilha, or "pure island." But it’s not actually a geophysical island. It’s just a regular old place like we’re in right now. And he added that he wants the luxury condos to be a "city of the elite, noble housing only, not for the poor," which is a very straight-up articulation of what the plan is.

A lot of people in Rio are being moved to make way for the Olympics. Unfortunately, that’s becoming pretty common. Since the games were announced in 2009, 77,000 have been displaced. That’s more than 100 hundred favela communities just steamrolled. I want to talk about one, in particular. It’s called Vila Autodromo. It’s right on the edge of the Olympic area. 3,000 people used to live there. Now only 30 families are left. It has been decimated.

The other thing I want to talk about is the idea of the games as supposedly sustainable. This has become embedded in the rhetoric of the Olympics. And it’s pretty hard to be against the idea of making the games greener. The trick, of course, is, when we hear big green promises on the front end, to find out if they follow through at the end of the day. A couple of unfortunate examples are playing out in Rio right now.

One is they promise to plant 24 million trees. Great for a carbon offset, great for shade. Everyone could benefit from more tress. But what’s happened is they’re on pace to plant around 8 million trees, a third of the original promise. 

The second example of a broken environmental promise is the water situation, which is absolutely horrific. Every time it rained in Rio, the sewage would gurgle up through the pipes and sit in open pits, in the streets, in big open puddles. Not only did that smell but, now, with the rise of the Zika Virus, this is a breeding ground.

Mosquitoes that pass along Zika can breed in a bottle-cap, and there’s gurgling sewage out in the streets every time that it rains in the city of Rio de Janeiro. I’m talking about some of the nicer areas, like Copa Cabana, not to mention other areas of the city where it can get, sometimes, even worse.

This other promise was that, ‘Ok, we know we have a water problem in Rio. So we’re going to fix this up by treating 80% of the water that comes into the three areas we’re going to use for water sports events.’ Sounds great. Sadly, Luis Fernando Pezao, the vice governor of Rio de Janeiro, said this goal would have to be pushed back from 2016 to 2035. In short, once the Olympics are gone and we’ve all jetted home, there’s very little incentive to put that kind of money into the water system. 

In the sailing areas, there are human corpses, there are dog corpses, there are all sorts of awful things floating in the water. Currently, more than 150,000 gallons of raw human sewage gurgles into the area where they’re going to be sailing. 

I want to conclude, after that gruesome fact, by saying we’ve reached an interesting moment in the history of Olympics, and there’s a serious opportunity for change. We have a president of the international Olympic Committee (IOC) who’s open to making real change, not just the cosmetic kind.

But they’re not going to do this on their own. They need to be pushed. The IOC is a reactive body. It’s a thermometer. And the activists who I’ve studied over the years are more like a thermostat. They have to turn up the heat.

Listen to a recording of the whole discussion here.

Power Games is out on May 17, 2016

Filed under: 2016olympics, brazil, sport