Last Saturday in Rio, as the Olympics roared a five-minute walk away, a group of residents and their allies gathered in Vila Autódromo, to celebrate the survival of a community perched at the edge of the Rio Olympic Stadium complex. Vila Autódromo managed to beat the odds against the five-ring bulldozer and in doing so, perhaps provided what will be the longest lasting “Olympic legacy” of these games: the idea that you can fight the Olympic machine and win. A community of 650 families was down to their last 20. Bruised and battered by the experience, they nonetheless had beaten city hall.
Vila Autódromo is a working-class neighborhood nestled along the Jacarepaguá lagoon on the edge of Barra da Tijuca. In launching the Rio Olympic bid back in 2009, city leaders—including Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes—pledged to transform this western zone of the city into an Olympic playground for billionaire real-estate barons. Their master plans included razing to the ground Vila Autódromo, a community with roots going back to the 1960s. Originally a fishing village, the spirited residents of Vila Autódromo threw down their anchor and girded for a fight.
Paes and his henchmen adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy, negotiating individually with the more than 650 families as to the size of their compensation payments and relocation plans. Although the mayor aimed to undermine their collective strength, residents stuck together, and after a whipsaw battle including the facing down of brutal acts of police violence, the ones left standing decided to take an evening last weekend to have their own Olympic party.
In the late afternoon, people began to gather in the paved street that slices through the revamped community, dividing one row of identical, brand-new houses from another. As official Rio 2016 vehicles darted to and fro, DJs ramped up the music and various pungent meats and vegetables hit the grills. Residents of Vila Autódromo—including many children—milled about, alongside activists, academics, journalists, and curious onlookers, many of whom sported lanyards with Olympic credentials.
Nearby, the Comitê Popular da Copa e Olimpíadas (Popular Committee of the World Cup and Olympics) set up a table with informational brochures about displacement in Rio brought about by the Olympic Games. They also distributed a recently published book, Atingidas: Histórias de Vida de Mulheres na Cidade Olímpica (Affected Women: The Life Stories of Women in the Olympic City), a stirring collection of stories about women from Vila Autódromo and elsewhere who have stood up and fought for justice. Women played a leading role at Vila Autódromo as well as in the organizational structure of the Popular Committee of the World Cup and Olympics. As Larissa Lacerda of the Comitê Popular rightly noted, “Throughout Rio, women are on the front line of resistance, claiming their right to housing, sport, culture, work—their right to the city.”
The Comitê Popular has long stood in active solidarity with residents of Vila Autódromo. In the lead-up to the Games, they joined forces with around 100 local activist groups to create a series of events and interventions under the banner Jogos da Exclusão (Exclusion Games). These events culminated in a mobilization and march on the same day as the opening ceremony for the Rio 2016 Games.