Rio Olympics

Brazil’s favelas pay price of hosting Olympics

A young man sits next to graffiti in Vila Autodromo favela, Rio de Janeiro, where hundreds of families have been evicted, April 9 2016
A young man sits next to graffiti in Vila Autodromo favela, Rio de Janeiro, where hundreds of families have been evicted, April 9 2016 CatComm | RioOnWatch

The 2016 Rio Olympics are expected to cost roughly 11 billion euros, with some economists predicting this could escalate to as much as 18 billion euros. While organisers tout the event as a goldmine, researchers warn of the negative social impact of the Games on Brazil's local communities, as has been the case for previous Olympics host cities.


When the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games kicked off at Maracanã stadium on 5 August, one segment stood out more than others.

It was the 'Favela voices', a portrayal of Brazil's favelas (slums), showcasing happy, singing kids, that offered a very different portrait of the suffering these communities have long been subjected to.

"There could be two ways of looking at it," Helene Jefferson Lenskyj, author of Inside the Olympic Industry told RFI by phone from Toronto on Tuesday.

"One is that this is progress, drawing the world's attention to the fact that there are human beings like you and I living in favelas. But on the other hand, I've seen so much cooptation of disadvantaged people in Olympic bids and preparation that I would be cautious of bestowing unqualified praise for having that in the Opening ceremony," she said.

Lenskyj isn't the only one with doubts.

Residents from Rio’s favelas and other commentators have been quick to denounce the hypocrisy of this glossy portrait, which belies the huge number of forced evictions (77,000) around the capital to make room for games-related construction.

"Sometimes there has been really heavy fighting [with police] because the various elements that were proposed for relocation were not very satisfying," Marc Joly, head of the NGO Terre des Hommes, which has been documenting forced evictions in Vila Autodromo favela, told RFI by phone from Geneva.

"Whole favela communities have been completely torn apart because of the Olympic Games and scattered around the city or relocated to other places 22km away."

"There are always risks involved with any huge investment," Raf Tuts, Coordinator for Urban Planning and Design at UN-Habitat, told RFI by phone from Nairobi. "One of the risks is that there will be need for some type of rehousing, eviction, but that should not be a problem if it is done in a proper way."

Criminalising poverty

Critics like Andrew Zimbalist would argue otherwise. He's repeatedly said the Olympics do not provide tangible benefits for local communities.

Given the spate of evictions and privatisation of public land to make host cities more respectable, Lenskyj agrees with him.

"Atlanta and Sydney are both examples," she says.

"In Atlanta, something like 10,000 homeless African American men were shipped off to the suburbs so that the image of the Olympics in Atlanta would be a city that has no social, or racial problems and so that former public space where homeless men were, the downtown parks, were privatized. Even the vans that distributed free food to homeless people in downtown Atlanta, these vans were policed by private security and given parking tickets if they stopped to hand out food."

For Lenskyj, this was tantamount to criminalizing poverty; and in the case of Sydney, a lot of these bylaws are still in place 16 years on.

Scandals like this have tarnished the Olympic rings. But not irrevocably.

Sport's positive values

The Olympic movement still conjures up the stuff of dreams, where sporting values marry hopes of social good, so powerful that they've pushed aside the problems leading up to the Games: such as the zika virus and Brazil's unstable government.

"We're not against mega sporting events in principle, because sport, especially when you talk about young people, carries very positive values, which certainly need to be defended. It's how the relocation process is carried out that needs to change," suggests Marc Joly.

Rights groups like Terre des Hommes call for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to show greater responsibility.

"Strict criteria on human rights and the protection of children's rights needs to be set. This is why we're calling on the IOC to put in place such criteria so that for bidding cities to apply they need to respect certain rules in terms of social impact."

Where's the willpower?

This requires not only influence on potential host countries, but will power. The IOC has neither says Lensky.

"On the human rights issue, the IOC tends to say they're domestic problems we don't have any power, they wash their hands -- Beijing's a good example. The IOC members and the president at the time were saying well we can't tell China to stop its human rights violations but behind the scenes we'll try and do something. Nothing was ever done, if you look at the human rights situation in China since 2008, you'll find that they've got worse not better."

Some reform has been made to fix the bidding process. Members of the IOC are no longer allowed to jet around the world to various bidding countries for free wining and dining, after several bribery scandals broke out in the 90s.

"But these are cosmetic changes, the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes still continues," says Lenskyj.

Monitoring needed

What does this dark legacy mean for Rio's favelas?

That caution is needed.

While, urban planners remain optimistic that the Olympics will deliver on its promise of social transformation, including better transport and infrastructure for citizens, they all agree that this needs to be accompanied by close monitoring on the ground to see how local organisations proceed with the organization of the Games.

"Due process needs to be followed and it depends on that country's legislation," says Raf Tuts of UN-habitat. "But it means definitely consultation and providing good alternatives and financial compensation to what evicted families had before."

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