Reflecting on the Games: A Look Behind the Olympic Smokescreen and the Rio 2016 ‘Success Story’

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The entire world has spent the last two weeks gripped by incredible feats of sporting achievement and superhuman athletic prowess, all occurring right here in Rio de Janeiro. The plethora of problems in the lead up to the Games seem to have faded from memory for many of the 30,000 journalists in Rio to cover the Games. Yet the problems haven’t gone away–they’ve not even been put on hold during the Games, as many had hoped. The Olympics has served as a huge distraction, with the world’s attention on the sport as the government continues to kill and evict its poor and marginalized population, all the while spending billions on claiming this “a new world.”

This not an unexpected pattern. Previous research has shown that while press are often critical of mega-events in the lead up to the event, during the event itself the focus turns to the sport, and afterwards the event is proclaimed a success and the problems relegated to distant memories. Criticism also tends to be harsher away from the “developed” world, as criticism from the mainstream media can be deflected away from the valuable Olympic brand, blaming the local government through a neo-colonialist narrative. Essentially, when writing about the social cleansing and gentrification which happen in all Olympic host cities, press are able to report that “Rio is bad,” instead of reporting the more accurate “the Olympics are bad.” This is despite overwhelming evidence that the Olympics leave a trail of destruction and angry locals wherever they go.

Despite the presence of around 30,000 journalists in Rio for the past few weeks, scant attention has been paid to important issues which will continue affecting Rio residents once the five ring circus leaves town. Many residents expected a reprieve during the Games, as the government wouldn’t dare continue abusing human rights with the eyes of the world fixed firmly on Rio. Unfortunately, this has proved to be untrue, the eyes of the world are fixed only on specific parts of Rio –the “new world” of Olympic venues and urban renewal, with scant attention given to the price being paid by residents of the old world.

In several cases, this has been people paying with their lives. After ten days of the Games, Amnesty International had five confirmed deaths as a result of police operations in the city. Many more deaths and injuries at the hands of the police have been reported from community activist groups such as Maré Vive and Coletivo Papo Reto, with further shootouts recorded by the Rio de Janeiro Youth Forum’s Nós Por Nós app. The brutal attacks on poor, black Brazilians continue right under the nose of the world’s press–yet there has been little coverage. This coverage should have been easy, there are endless numbers of community groups publishing information through social media–journalists could write the story from a hotel room in Copacabana. But they didn’t, or if they did, their editors refused to run the stories. The Olympics haven’t been an important moment for Rio. Nothing has changed, the Olympic legacy for the city’s poor, according to a post by Maré Vive, is “hot lead, repression, death, and zero investment.”

The scene after a police operation in which a 14 year old was killed. Photo by Carlos Coutinho / Coletivo Papo Reto
The scene after a police operation in which a 14 year old was killed. Photo by Carlos Coutinho/Coletivo Papo Reto

As was heavily reported in the lead up to the Olympics, the Games have brought the threat of evictions back to Rio’s favelas. Various developments, such as a growing recognition around the world that upgrading is a preferable policy to removal for informal settlements, the victory won by Vila Autódromo, and the removal of the Olympic impetus for development have served to inspire hope for favela residents that this period of evictions is coming to an end. That doesn’t seem to be the case though, with the 200-year old community of Horto next in the cross hairs of real estate development. While the community had hoped the Olympics would give them a reprieve, during the Games themselves the government issued a 90 day eviction notice. And yet despite this story having many of the same compelling characteristics as that of the heavily covered Vila Autódromo, it has been picked up little by the press, despite the huge numbers in the city.

The Olympics will no doubt be looked back on as one of the greenest games ever (an almost compulsory title for each Olympic event since the IOC embraced sustainability rhetoric in the 1990s), not least due to the emphasis on climate change in the opening ceremony, including the legacy project to plant an athletes forest of 11,000 trees. Yet this forest looks frankly insulting next to the failed promise to plant 34 million trees to help offset the Olympic-sized carbon footprint. Not a single environmental legacy promise has been fulfilled, a horrific record for the city–and yet plaudits are being gained due to a fancy opening ceremony performance. The golf course and luxury apartment complex built on an environmental reserve, which was the site of protest during the Games, and the eye-watering levels of pollution in the Guanabara Bay and Rio’s other waterways remain the true environmental legacies of the 2016 Games.

Brazil and Rio have an uncertain future. The impending impeachment trial of Dilma Rousseff threatens to bring about an undemocratic change of government for the first time since the end of military rule in the 1980s. At the same time, the Minister for Justice under the temporary administration has authorized police to use high powered weapons confiscated from criminals–this in a country where it is widely acknowledged that the Military Police commit human rights abuses with impunity. The economy is showing no signs of improvement, with the State of Rio de Janeiro bankrupt and the City finances not much better. The legacy projects promised for after the Games will surely be cut, with no money left to pay for them.

Yet throughout the Games, the international press have been setting themselves up to declare Rio’s Olympics a huge success, relegating the impact on the city to an irrelevant footnote. Owen Gibson, sports editor for the normally critical The Guardian newspaper, described many of Rio’s Olympic problems accurately, but concluded his article that the Olympic spirit of the athletes could still save the Games. With the Games over, media outlets all over the world are proclaiming the Games a success. But with over 2,600 deaths at the hands of the police and over 77,000 people having lost their homes–seven for every athlete in the Games–these Olympics cannot be considered a success for the people of Rio, no matter how much ephemeral “Olympic spirit” was on show. And the Olympic fanfare Rio is currently receiving from around the world only serves to legitimize the City’s damaging and abusive policies, hindering the city’s prospects of recovering from the wounds inflicted by hosting the 2016 Olympic Games.

Adam Talbot is a doctoral researcher at the Centre of Sport, Tourism and Leisure Studies at the University of Brighton, UK. He is undertaking an ethnographic project focusing on social movements and activism at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.