This week, with news that a mutilated body had washed up onto the beach at the upcoming Olympic beach volleyball venue, the tabloid headlines once again returned to Rio. News coming out of Rio has focused on the lurid. The raw sewage in Guanabara Bay, where sailing events will take place. The seemingly endless photos of babies suffering from microencephaly. But while the problems in and around Rio leading up to the Summer Games in Rio are legion, most haven’t captured the attention of the international audience just yet.
As corporate America slaps a glossy sheen on all things Olympiad, the reality for the citizens of Rio hasn’t been as golden as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would have their audience believe. In addition to the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff in May and Brazil’s economy suffering through the worst recession in 25 years, Rio organizers failed to deliver on promises to many of Rio’s neediest citizens. USA Today’s Nancy Armour can’t remember an Olympic Games with so many problems so close to Opening Ceremonies. “As far as the combination of environmental, logistical and governmental issues that Brazil is facing, this is unprecedented in my 20 years of covering the games,” Armour says.
Opening Ceremonines are now a little over 30 days away, and the corporate Olympic juggernaut has begun to groan to life. Already, Americans hear the Olympic theme daily on NBC, see the faces of the newest Olympic hopefuls in commercials for cereal and cars and Gatorade. Every day, the Olympic drum beat grows louder. But before the reality of Rio falls prey to the corporate glitz and glamour of the games, there are things the world should know about Rio.
The Water Is Bad
Really bad. In his book, Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, Dr. Jules Boykoff of Pacific University recounts two separate die-offs of more than 35 million fish in Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and Guanabara Bay in 2015, where the rowing, canoeing, and sailing events will take place. In addition to raw sewage that flows freely into the city’s water ways, bumping up against human corpses, as well as animal carcasses, is not unheard of. When the US Rowing team took part in the World Junior Rowing Championships in 2015, 13 of the 40 athletes suffered “intestinal distress,” which team doctors attributed to pollution in the water where the competition was held. A German sailor who took part in the same test event in Rio came down with a MRSA infection, despite wearing plastic overalls in an attempt to protect his health. The stories go on and on.
But while the media has focused on the health and safety of the athletes who will compete in the water events, little is said about Rio’s residents, who won’t get to hop on a corporate jet and leave the city once the games conclude. Boykoff, who lived in Rio for several months while completing his book, recalls the city’s sanitation problems even in Rio’s tony Copa Cabana Neighborhood. “When it would rain intensely, and it did often, you would see the sewage gurgling up through the pipes and up to sitting in open pools in the streets,” Boykoff says. “The problem with sewage plays into (the Zika virus) and makes it worse. Of course, the poor communities suffer the worst, because they lack the infrastructure.”
Boykoff adds that Olympic athletes are far better-positioned to fight off any bacteria and viruses they encounter in Rio than many of the city’s poorest citizens. “If anyone has the immune systems to combat what they’re going to see in the water there, it’s these top-flight athletes. But there are people that live there. When we all helicopter out and the IOC jets off in their super jets to the next place, the people of Rio are going to be living there and they’re going to be have to swim in this stuff. That goes back to a broken promise. It’s a mess.”
A broken promise indeed. While many cities that host the Games fail to live up to all the pledges made while trying to sell the games to the IOC and its residents, the failure of the Rio Games to deliver on the promises of improved infrastructure are especially heart-breaking. In 2010, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes unveiled the Morar Carioca program, which was to be the legacy of the Olympic Games in the city. Morar Carioca was not only to be on all-out attempt to upgrade Rio’s infrastructure in time for the Games, but an overhaul of the city’s water, sewage, and drainage systems and was to include the construction of public parks, modern transportation systems, and housing and social services centers for Rio’s most vulnerable citizens.
As part of Morar Carioca, the water in Guanabara Bay was to be 80% clean in time for the Games, a long-overdue cleanup of the city’s waterways that would have a positive effect on the overall health of its residents. But in 2015, Paes announced that the city would not meet its goal for Guanabara Bay in time for the Games. Indeed, Paes said that the water in Rio won’t meet the 80 percent threshold until the year 2035. Paes has promised that 60% of the water in the Bay will be treated in time for the Games, but, thus far, has offered no evidence to support such progress.
According to Boykoff, “The Morar Carioca program just got pushed aside and no one is talking about it anymore. So you have one more thing on the list of broken promises that could have improved the city, but is definitely not going to happen before the Games.”
Many People Lost Their Homes
An estimated 77,000 residents were displaced as a result of construction for the Games. That’s not the worst number in Olympic History (Bejing displaced about 1.5 million people for the 2008 games), but it’s significantly more than the 1,200 displaced by the London Games in 2012. The majority of those forced to relocate lived in Rio’s infamous favelas, including in Vila Autodromo, which was leveled to make way for an Olympic Park. Many residents of Vila Autodromo refused to leave, even in the face of violent clashes with the police.
“A lot of people from there have been relocated to a place called Parque Carioca, which is like an apartment complex,” Boykoff says. “But this is a community that has been there from the 1960s onward, so a lot of people have had generations of family staying there. It’s right up against this beautiful lagoon. I talked to lots of people that were displaced. Some sad stories, but also really powerful stories of fighting back.”
But forcibly relocating families for the Games pales in comparison to what many see as the social cleansing of the more desirable neighborhoods in Rio. The Olympic Village, dubbed “Ihla Pura” (Pure Island) is set to become luxury apartments in the midst of a city with 220,000 homeless residents. One researcher told the Associated Press that the real story of the Games is the massive real-estate grab by politically-connected construction firms:
Christopher Gaffney, who spent 5 1/2 years in Rio researching the 2014 World Cup and Olympics, called the village “a transfer of wealth program from the public (treasury) to private construction firms.”
“Beyond the floodlights, the Olympics are always about real-estate speculation in the local context and Rio, with its already major problems of housing stock and social polarity, is definitely no exception,” said Gaffney, an American who teaches geography at the University of Zurich.
The claiming of Rio’s real-estate for the upper-class, as well as the failure of the Morar Carioca program and the amount of public funds being used for Rio, is troubling to Boykoff. “The public is actually putting in quite a bit of money. It’s staggering when you look what’s going on in terms of the shutting down of hospitals, the selling off of state assets to the try to make money, the privatization of many services in the city because the money doesn’t exist. At the same time you’re seeing this huge billions-of-dollars party for the privileged sliver of the worlds’ one percent. People in Rio are really aware it, that’s for sure.”
The Security Situation Is Dangerous
Any time a global event takes place, the possible intentions of ISIS and other terrorist organizations are front and center when it comes to security concerns. What isn’t discussed nearly as often is the threat from the Rio security forces themselves. “Basically local security forces at nearly every Olympics use it as their own private ATM machine. They get all the weapons they couldn’t get during normal political times,” says Boykoff. “In Brazil, they are going to have 85,000 security forces, double the number they had in London. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should be feeling relieved about it.”
In the fall of 2015, Amnesty International released a report finding that almost 16 percent of the homicides in the city proper, more than 1,500 murders, we committed by Rio police. “Rio de Janeiro is a tale of two cities. On the one hand, the glitz and glamour designed to impress the world and on the other, a city marked by repressive police interventions that are decimating a significant part of a generation of young, black and poor men,” said Atila Roque, Director of Amnesty International Brazil.
In addition to the possibility of 85,000 trigger-happy security forces patrolling Brazil with weapons intended for a battle field, police in Rio staged a strike yesterday, with some officers claiming they hadn’t been paid in over five months:
As August’s Olympic Games draw closer, news from Rio de Janeiro continues to be less than reassuring. Recent reports said Rio police were greeting visitors at the city’s international airport with a sign reading, “Welcome to Hell. Police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.”
Moreover, Rio’s budget crisis has led to security concerns just one month before an estimated 500,000 tourists descent on the city for The Games:
An attack on Rio’s largest hospital, close to the Olympic stadium, sparked security concerns. More than 20 armed men stormed the hospital on 20 June to reportedly free a drug kingpin being held inside, leaving one person dead and two injured.
The police could not call for backup because they do not have a helicopter at their disposal.
“I’ve always taken the approach that we need not devote ourselves to the death of complexity,” says Boykoff. “I don’t have a hard time separating the athletes and their hard work from the corporate parasites that have attached themselves, barnacle-like, onto the Olympic Ship. We can have complex thoughts on this where we can appreciate the athletes and critique the uglier, seamier sides around the Games.”
Armour, who is set to cover her 11th Olympic Games in Rio, says there are important takeaways from the myriad issues around Rio. “When you put the games in developing countries or countries with totalitarian governments, there are going to be problems. That, to me, needs to be the lesson that comes out of this. It’s great that the IOC wants the games to be inclusive, and not only put them in North America and Western Europe. But it cannot continue to allow countries to mortgage their futures by spending billions they don’t have to put on a games, and the IOC has to hold its hosts to the promises they make as far as civil and human rights.”
It remains to be seen if Rio can camouflage its problems for two weeks whIle the world watches. While there were doubts about Beijing and Sochi’s ability to pull off their games, as well, it’s fair to say that the scope and severity of the issues facing the Rio Games are unmatched in Olympic History, and appear to be worsening as the Games draw nearer. With Opening Ceremonies less than a month away, even those most excited for the Games can’t continue to ignore the toll they are taking on the surrounding community.
Featured Image: Flickr/Priscilla Jordão