Rio’s Olympic Legacy: A Body Count

Rio’s Olympic Legacy: A Body Count

The current calamity in Rio was predictable. Every prospective Olympic city, especially Los Angeles, should be warned.


I am absolutely convinced that history will talk of the Rio de Janeiro before the Games and the much better Rio de Janeiro after the Olympic Games.
—International Olympic Committee chief, Thomas Bach 2016

Last year I was in Rio de Janeiro, writing dispatches for The Nation about the ways that the Olympic Games were being constructed on the backs of the poor. I started with the above quote from Thomas Bach and wrote the following:

Mr. Bach is delusional. But he is correct about one thing: People will talk about Rio as a city “before” and “after” the Olympics. It just won’t be the conversation of his fantasies conjured inside his Olympic-sized bubble. Now that the 2016 Summer Games have been completed…the real story begins: the story of how badly the Olympics will end up warping the city itself…. The second half of Rio’s Olympic story is predicated on a simple question: How are all the bills from 2016 going to be paid?

Predicting a post-Olympic calamity was not difficult. The future was already unfolding in the present. Only an IOC dignitary living in a tinted-window SUV could have missed what was happening to the city. It wasn’t only people displaced from their homes while stadiums rose from their rubble, but also corruption, militarization of public spaces, and reports of growing debt.

The country’s GDP had quintupled while Worker’s Party leader Lula da Silva was president from 2003 to 2011. But this boom flatlined in 2013 and 2014, with just enough fumes in the engine to get through the nation’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup. But then the economy sputtered to a halt in the lead-up to the Olympics. With its finances in tatters, the Olympics became like a vulture picking the meat off the bones of this remarkable city.

Yet, while crisis was inevitable, never in my wildest fears did I think it would get this bad. The relentless attacks on the living standards of the poor, led by unelected President Michael Temer, who has a popularity rating just north of zero, and the cutting of social programs to pay the Olympic bills have tortured Rio. The state is bankrupt, and the short-term jobs that were created for tourism and construction have vanished with the games. Adding insult to the injury, it seems that every week there is a story about the obscene heist of public funds that took place. As Stephen Wade of Brazil’s Associated Press desk just reported Sunday, “Another Rio Olympic ‘White Elephant.’ Juventude Arena in shuttered Deodoro Park. Cost about $35m. This in a state that’s bankrupt.”

This structural violence is, unsurprisingly, now being played out on the ground. There has been a dramatic rise in street violence, with stray bullets hitting an average of three residents per day and the resulting deaths becoming a numbing, daily reality. (During 2009–13, stray-bullet killings in Rio had dropped to almost zero.) These stray bullets are hardly the province of the favela-patrolling street gangs alone but also come from the militarized police force that has killed 480 Rio citizens in the first five months of 2017. Ninety police officers have also been killed in that time span.

As Silva Ramos wrote at The Conversation, “Rio de Janeiro’s crime rate is stunning. It is now impossible not to notice that the city’s Police Pacification Units (UPP), once a much-vaunted anti-violence force, have all but collapsed.” This “collapse” is due to mistrust of police in the favelas and the drying out of funds to do the kind of manpower-heavy “community policing” that had proven effective in the recent past. It’s more cost-effective to pick up that state-of-the-art weaponry purchased for Olympic security, shoot, and ask questions later.

That this eruption of bloodshed has come in the aftermath of the Olympics is not happenstance. I spoke to Juliana Barbassa, author of the indispensable book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro and the Olympic Dream. She said,

The Olympics, like the World Cup two years before it, fit neatly into an existing corruption scheme in Brazil by which politicians dished out lucrative public contracts to a handful of construction companies. These companies returned the favor in the form of licit or illicit bribes and campaign contributions. This drained away public funds, worsening Brazil’s, and Rio’s, economic crisis. There is no money for the most basic services: state workers are going without pay, hospitals, universities and schools are suffering. Police officers have to leave patrol cars in the garage for lack of gas money. The UPP program was the most visible security project in the years before the games, and was widely used by authorities to signal that the city was safe and open for tourism and investment. Now residents have been abandoned to their fate as criminal factions regain control of territory. The saddest aspect of all this is that it was predictable, and predicted.

The people of Brazil have a massive fight on their hands to realign the priorities of their country. But their experience also needs to stand as a warning to every prospective Olympic city: Be afraid. Rio makes the lesson brutally clear: The Olympics are the cutting edge of a unequal and unaccountable global economy, in which the rich and powerful travel the world throwing lavish parties only to pack up and flee when times get tough, forcing everyone else to foot their bill and bear the brunt of the violent state militarism they’ve left behind.

I also think about Los Angeles and its mayor, Eric Garcetti, grasping for the 2024 or 2028 Summer Olympics. I think about Garcetti’s refusal to declare LA a sanctuary city, almost certainly in order to preserve its Olympic bid, since ICE and Homeland Security would need to be patrolling the streets of any Olympic host city in the United States. It’s a recipe for violence that Garcetti and his cronies are blithely ignoring. That cannot stand. Let them know Rio’s truth: No matter the country, the Olympic legacy that always leaves the most lasting mark is the body count.

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