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.”