Rio de Janeiro’s Summer Olympics: Searching for Legacies

This week in North Philly Notes, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, writes about the aftermath of Rio’s summer Olympics.  

The Rio de Janeiro summer Olympic and Para Olympic games ended September l8. Most Brazilians, the media, and Olympic organizers concluded the city of Rio and consequently Brazil had done well by the six week marathon of games and individual competitions. The reputation of Cariocas, the name for residents of Rio, as hospitable, upbeat, generous people with a marked talent for improvisation was reinforced. Furthermore, the second act Para Olympics more than held their own. 2.1 million tickets to Para Olympics events were sold, the second largest number in the history of the games. Enthusiasm for Para Olympics athletes was obvious, a victory lap for greater social inclusion, for anyone with a physical disability.

The run up to the games included many efforts to forsee Olympic legacies. In Rio de Janeiro’s 2009 bid, the Olympics were presented as a spur that would set in motion or speed up completion of several large scale projects. Topping the list was master plan to improve the city’s public transportation and traffic flow. By the start of the games in 2016, there were new BRT corridors, completion of a long planned 4th metro line, and a light rail tram line in downtown Rio connecting the main bus station with the domestic Santos Dumont airport. They added high quality links between international and domestic airports, and Rio’s western and northern suburbs. They finally brought rapid public transit to upscale Barra da Tijuca connecting it to prosperous southern zone neighborhoods of Botafogo, Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. The construction of lengthy tunnels replacing an overhead freeway in the downtown port area allowed its revitalization to proceed as a tranquil zone of new museums and pedestrian leisure. The revitalized port was christened Porto Maravilha suggesting a modern world wonder or marvel. For Mayor Eduardo Paes and Olympic organizers, Porto Maravilha ranked in importance with the upgrades in public transportation as the other main legacy of the Olympics.

Layout 1Clearly, the middle and upper classes benefit from BRTs, the new metro line, and the opening of long downtown tunnels where traffic flow is not interrupted. They reduce travel time, and demonstrate contemporary big city public transportation at its best.  But will new bus and expanded metro service be within reach of low wage workers and their families, many of whom live in favelas, and distant suburbs? They commonly earn the monthly minimum wage of approximately $300. The cost of a month’s travel to and from work taking the BRT and metro has been calculated as 1/3 of a minimum salary.  Without employer paid travel to work, as might be the case in the informal economy, the cost will be too great for someone earning the minimum wage. The job seeker will look for work close to home. Moving beyond work to leisure, the cost of public transportation to and from Porto Maravilha can also be high. This reinforces a tendency of residents of poor communities to stay at home, to turn inward and be more community bound than they might want. Often overlooked is the frugality of Rio’s low wage workers as they budget for basics such as food, clothing, rent and transportation. Perhaps for these reasons, authorities have considered the option of free rides on the new light rail tram that passes through Porto Maravilha. No doubt they felt a need to show good faith in putting its attractions within reach of as many of Rio’s communities as possible, even more so in the midst of hard fought municipal elections.

There are also distinctly negative legacies. One that dogs the reputation of Mayor Eduardo Paes was yet another cycle of removing poor residents, even whole communities, from homes largely built by them. They were moved and their homes demolished in order to make way for new road and Olympics construction. Removal was part of the first remaking the port area between 1902 and 1906 as overseen by then Mayor Pereira Passos. 20,000 individuals were uprooted as their residences were razed. Many resettled in the nearby favela of Providencia. In the early 1960’s, when the federal government moved to Brasília and the city of Rio de Janeiro became the state of Guanabara, its governor Carlos Lacerda removed 30,000 favela residents from areas he saw as belonging to the middle and upper classes. Lacerda also wanted land for building what became the state university of Rio de Janeiro. Lacerda’s uprooted residents were relocated to the then-new Cidade de Deus (City of God), and to Vila Kennedy, a distant suburban community where the cost of building the housing was partly paid for by the United States Alliance for Progress Program. However, these numbers do not approach the estimated 77,000 individuals removed by Mayor Paes.

For most evicted residents, there was new public housing, or the promise of new public housing. But it was away from the communities in which they had lived which in some cases might be entirely eradicated. A 2016 study of the evictions by Lucas Faulhaber and Lena Azevedo, explained how this was done. In the case of the squatter settler without title to the land removal could be relatively easy. The land might be declared an “area of risk,” meaning the state was acting to save lives, an argument not always easy to contest. Where residents had titles, removal was more difficult. Such was the case of Vila Autódromo whose history as a working class community dated to the late 1960’s. A main quality of Vila Autódromo was tranquility, even bucolic tranquility, in densely populated, noisy Rio de Janeiro. Furthermore, it was a stable working class community without drug traffickers, militias, violence or homicides. For good reasons, its residents did not want to leave. Furthermore, they felt secure having been granted a 99-year right to use the land by former Rio Governor Leonel Brizola in 1994. As late as 2010, Vila Autódromo had a population of 4,000. However, Vila Autódromo stood at the designated point of entry into the Olympic Park for athletes, reporters, Olympic officials and visitors.

Mayor Paes was determined to remove the community. He brushed aside the document with a 99-year right to use the land. It was a “papelucho” or piece of paper of a political demagogue. Paes claimed he needed to build access roads through Vila Autódromo to the new Olympic Village. In 2013, a group of urban planners from the two local federal universities developed a plan showing that building access roads was possible without removal, and that under this plan, the cost would be much lower. The plan went on to win the Deutche Bank Urban Age Award. Paes then argued people coming to the Olympic village would feel unsafe at the sight of a Brazilian working class community so near to them. It was a case of visual pollution. Vila Autódromo did not look middle or upper class. Vila Autódromo defenders pointed to its record of safety, without shootouts or drug trafficking gangs. The Mayor’s team continued to pressure people to leave in exchange for an apartment in one of two new public housing projects. As time passed and people continued to stay, large cash indemnities began to be offered. Residents were harassed as water and electricity were turned on and off. Still a dwindling group determined to stay. Heloisa Helena Costa Berto was a poor black woman and candomblé priestess with a small home and ceremonial religious center in Vila Autódromo. She was also intent on staying. Mayor Paes told her he wanted the area “cleaned.” For critics of removal, Berto had become a victim “social cleansing.” She watched her home and center being demolished in February 2016. Then three months later on May 13, the date slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, she received an award from the state legislature “conceded to those who work for the improvement of Afro-descendant, Latin American and Caribbean women of the state of Rio.” In Brazil, many contradictions are on display, or as the local expression has it, “Brazil has these things.” For twenty residents who continued to hold out, the city of Rio was forced to build 20 houses on a small area of what had once been Vila Autódromo.

Perhaps the most unconvincing appropriation of legacy was the illegal and unjustified construction of the Olympic golf course. Golf is an elite, not popular sport in Brazil. A newly built Olympic golf course was partly sold as a contribution to growing its popularity, particularly since the course would be open for a few years to the public. But with green fees of $75, few who are not in the upper middle or upper classes were likely to try golf. Furthermore, Rio de Janeiro already had one private club suitable for international championship golf. But Paes and the local Olympic committee did not pursue this option. Instead, the Rio city council passed a decree in December, 2012 allowing a substantial piece of land to be detached from the Marapendí ecological reserve for building the Olympic golf course. The decree violated Brazilian law in two ways: there were no public hearings, nor was there a required environmental impact study. The transferred land was no longer subject to strict environmental regulations. Without the regulations, it was easier to build nearby luxury high rise condominiums that were the specialty of developer RJZ Cyrela, a large campaign contributor to Mayor Paes. An odor of corruption has overhung the construction of the Olympic golf course from the beginning. Marco Mello, local biologist and environmental activist looking at Olympic area condominium building, and the history of the unnecessary golf course provided his own legacy judgment: “Without a doubt, the Olympics are a great real estate scam.” In the October 2nd election for mayor, Eduardo Paes’ handpicked candidate to succeed him finished badly in third place with 16% of the vote.

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