In Brazil, a debate raged throughout 2013 about whether two plus two equals four, or if in fact the correct answer was five. Those arguing that two and two was four were the millions of workers, students, academics, and citizens who said that spending billions on building new stadiums for the 2014 World Cup was a criminal use of resources. They said that every shred of data we have shows that mega-events require mega-spending, which leads to mega-debt, mega-displacements, and mega-militarization. The other side said that the World Cup would be a glorious affair providing not only international acclaim but an economic tide that would lift all boats.
But the resisters would not be mollified by slick ad campaigns, bright billboards, and celebrity spokespeople They took to the streets to argue that this was not a battle of contrasting opinions or ideas. It was facts vs. faith: obvious blaring facts vs. cynical profiteering masquerading as faith. In the end it didn’t matter that the history of hosting these events painted a picture of the future so vividly bleak, Marley’s Ghost might as well have been standing there, chains rattling, imploring the faith-based World Cup boosters that this endeavor would fail. But all the logic, mass demonstrations, and counterexamples dotting the earth—like places destroyed by the mega-event monorail—didn’t matter. From the rotting Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing to the 2004 Olympic structures sheltering the homeless of Greece, facts were not only reframed as conjecture, but also met with tear gas, truncheons, and tanks. That’s what happens when the government, the arms industry, the real estate barons, and the construction magnates reach their own consensus that this is good for them. Might makes right and if they believe that two and two equals five, then people better just get with the new math.
Now, as NPR has reported, all the predictions made in the streets of Brazil have proven true, expressed in a Jackson Pollock splatter of tragedy and farce across the country (which is a more erudite way of saying “we can now see that FIFA vomited all over Brazil”). All the tragedy people were assured would be minimal—the displacements, the eradication of favela communities, the endless debt amidst austerity—have been super-sized.
But then there is the farce. All the new stadiums—festooned with their FIFA-quality bells and whistles—have become punch lines. As NPR reported last week, they now seem to exist as satirical props. In Brasilia, the $550 million stadium is now a being used as a “parking lot for buses.” In Natal, the soccer field—again built with public funds—can be rented out for weddings and kids parties. In Manaus, the Amazon’s much publicized new arena has been suggested by politicians as a possible open-air prison. In Curitiba at their new stadium, it was found that the locker rooms had been broken into and were being used by the homeless. This proved, if nothing else, that at least some folks in Brazil aside from the dissenters, learned from the Olympic disaster in Greece.
My one problem with the NPR report is that it describes what is happening in Brazil as a “World Cup hangover.” That implies a party where people drink heedlessly and pay a price. This is more like a populace being forcibly strapped down and given medication “for their own good,” only to have an intense allergic reaction.
I spoke to Joao, a street merchant I became friendly with when in Rio, and he said, “We were angry in 2013 because no one wanted this. I want to say people are angry now and they are. I want to say that anger is going towards resisting austerity, but I cannot. Dilma and the Workers Party are seen as the left wing, and people are scared that challenging them will open the door even further for a right—a fascist right—I haven’t seen so confident in years. In 2013 it looked like a new movement could emerge. Now the right is banging their pots. The anger is real, and they are answering it even though their solutions don’t address any of the problems the World Cup brought.”
Rio is a particularly perilous place at the moment, because even as people are still reeling from their World Cup sickness, the 2016 Olympics are right around the corner.
The 2016 Rio Olympics—with all of their hidden and attendant costs—now present an irony for Brazil too wearying to contemplate but too enraging to ignore. Ninety percent of this recently built World Cup infrastructure won’t be worth a damn for the Olympics, since the World Cup is a national operation, with stadiums splayed out across a country larger than the continental United States. The Olympics, of course, are all about Rio, with the infrastructure projects, dislocation, displacement, and militarization falling upon one city. This outmoded style of organizing the games should have the effect of muting national protest against the Olympic monolith by confining the social disruption to the Rio coast, even though the entire country—once again amidst austerity—will be financing it, its future tied to public works projects that will become the squatter shelters, wedding party backdrops, and parking lots of tomorrow.
As we speak, another team of business leaders, former politicians, and star athletes are attempting to use their combined charm and resources to convince the people of Boston that two and two equals five, and their city should host the 2024 Olympics. Yet people in Boston are fighting back. As those in Brazil have learned, when dealing with the Olympic vultures, being right is never, ever enough. Keeping the Olympics out of your city isn’t a “battle of ideas” on a level playing field, but it is in fact a battle. To win, you can’t just raise arguments, you have to raise hell.