Even as they were being built, Rio’s Olympic projects were already starting to collapse…
by Mariana Cavalcanti
Mariana Cavalcanti is Associate Professor in the Sociology Department of the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro
Critics of the Olympic project can point a discernible pattern in the delivery of Olympics-related urban interventions: the belated but rushed inaugurations of faulty and/or unfinished infrastructures. Just a brief, non-comprehensive recap of some of the main city headlines in the weeks leading up to the opening of the Games make the point: “Here everything seems still to be under construction and yet is already ruin.”
Each and every one of these incidents (the unfinished athletes’ Village, the cracks in the brand new expressway, the malfunctioning VLT, and the collapsed cycle path) make Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso’s line “here everything seems still to be under construction and yet is already ruin”, borrowed from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ description of São Paulo in Tristes Tropiques, ring uncannily true. This line figures as a rich motif from which to read Rio’s Olympic ruins.
Creative destruction and premature ruin
Two types of ruin are usually related to Olympic games or large urban development projects: the first refers to the ruins of the city before the Olympics, and they take the shape of demolitions, that in turn usually entail evictions. These are the ruins of “creative destruction” that draw attention to the sudden erasure of recent pasts, and they lend themselves both to nostalgic and critical discourses. These ruins come before the Games, and their remains are to be erased by the Games, in exchange for the promise of “legacies” that vary from city to city.
Quantitatively, in comparison to other Olympic venues, the scale of Rio’s removals pales next to the reported 1.5 million evictions unleashed by the Beijing Olympics, or the 48 thousand buildings razed in the process leading up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, affecting 15% of the population. Nevertheless, the estimated 77,206 people displaced between 2009 and 2015, according to the city’s official sources, faced countless human rights violations, as the Comitê Popular da Copa e das Olímpiadas, Amnesty International, Justiça Global and other community based movements and non-mainstream media have diligently documented.
In the process of building the so-called Olympic city, investments in favela infrastructural upgrading schemes have been sharply cut back, while the “relocation” machine got hardwired into city politics and policies with the incorporation of social housing units constructed by the “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” federal social housing program (literally, “My House, My Life”) as standard compensation for evicted families. Rio’s ruins, however, became evident even before the Summer Games.
There is another type of ruin produced by the Olympic Games, one that makes them into an established aesthetic motif: abandoned Olympic stadiums, swimming pools, podiums and former Athletes’ villages draw photographers and artists across the globe and have yielded many books and exhibits (for instance, Olympic City Project and Mark Byrnes’s “Beijing Olympic Ruins”). These “white elephant”-type ruins relate to a certain predilection or sensibility attached to architectural ruins in general (old shopping malls, amusement parks and industrial facilities) that get rendered into hauntingly beautiful images. Here ruination itself is a process that requires time and abandonment to unfold.
In both cases, the Games act like a watershed, that institutes a before and after for the city hosting them; ruins are either erased before the Olympics, or ruination begins after the Games. Rio’s ruins, however, became evident even before the Summer Games.
What went wrong?
In 2009, when Paes took office and the winning bid for the Olympics was announced, the general optimism stemming from economic prosperity, years of declining inequality rates, soaring oil revenues, booming real estate markets, and a great deal of city marketing drew a picture of redemption from a decades-long spiral of social decline, urban decay and rising crime rates.
The optimism was considerably reinforced by the initial success of the Pacifying Police Units Program. Launched in late 2008, the program consisted in the permanent occupation of certain favelas by recent recruits; its manifest objective was to do away with the weapons and armed conflicts that constituted one of the key obstacles to constructing a veritable image of a city hosted to suit global events like the 2014 Soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Games.
And yet changes were more conjunctural than structural, insofar as the moment of prosperity rested largely on the mirages of city branding and on a good deal of wishful thinking, as the ensuing crisis would make evident. By 2015, the context in which the Olympic bid had been announced had dissipated, and expectations were completely reversed: economic recession, corruption scandals, constant shootouts in the favelas, and the state of Rio’s unprecedented debt and institutional breakdown that followed the plummeting of oil prices on the global market engulfed the images of a city gloriously rising out of a long process of decadence and decay.
A brief overview of the fate of some of the main components of the original promised Olympic legacy points to some of the major challenges the city is to face in the coming years:
To favela residents, this comes as no surprise. Back in 2011, when I conducted field research for an evaluation of the UPP Program, residents were already skeptical of its future, and pondered quite candidly that it would only last up until the Olympics. It turns out this was an optimistic estimate.
In the wake of the UPP collapse, the state government has resorted to its longstanding strategies of enhanced militarization and violent police operations in the favelas during the Summer Games. Catherine Osborn recently captioned a gruesome photograph of blood running along the side of a road in the favela of Bandeira 2, where three were killed as the result of a police operation rounded up on August 11, thus: “During the first week of the Olympics, there were at least 59 shootings and shootouts in the greater Rio area. That’s an average of 8.4 per day, almost double than the previous week. 34 people were wounded, of which 14 died: 11 civilians and 3 security agents. An average 4.8 people were wounded per day.”
“White elephants” in the making?
The “morning after” the Games, “white elephant” types of Olympic ruins will begin to emerge. While this process is bound to repeat itself throughout different areas of the city, by way of conclusion I sketch a few remarks on the areas surrounding the Olympic Park and the Athletes’ Village, where I have conducted and coordinated ethnographic research since 2011.
The fate of the development front on the shore of the Jacarepaguá Lagoon, facing the Olympic Park is uncertain given the current crises. The Ilha Pura condo – as the private market version of the Athletes’ Village is known – has not sold nearly as well as its luxurious public launch and upmarket public relations campaign suggested it would. In late 2015, less than half its units had been taken, and of course its market appeal has declined following the fiasco of its inauguration. Its failure echoes that of the Athletes’ Village of the 2007 Pan American Games, that began to crack as it sunk into the marshy land it was built upon. Ilha Pura’s stagnation, in turn, raises questions regarding the feasibility of the housing development and public spaces that are to be constructed in the Olympic Park grounds after the Games; it also begs the question of the future of the permanent structures built there.
In the corporate and shopping enclaves along the waterfront of the Jacarepaguá Lagoon, new shining office and commercial buildings already seem overblown, and emptied out. Further inland, along the Estrada dos Bandeirantes, ongoing construction work on some of the lower middle class condos that had seized the Olympic real estate boom has also stalled; their unfinished structures loom over the debris and dust of the neighboring ongoing construction.
Just as uncertain but much less visible is the future of the workers involved in the material construction of the Olympic Park, the Athletes’ Village and myriad other smaller scale enterprises set in motion by the sudden valuation of the area. The favelas of the region, that over the past years have experienced an exponential increase in the number of households, fed by the proliferation of quitinetes, or one room apartments, kept the real estate market in the favelas in the vicinity of the Barra da Tijuca Olympic cluster booming over the past seven years. Business within the favelas also prospered with ongoing construction work – in all the sites around but also within the favelas, in the very construction of “quitinetes”. In all the favelas of the region new restaurants specializing in serving pratos feitos, a standard workers lunch, bustled at noon with employees bearing badges of dozens of specialized service providing firms involved in the construction of housing, roads, and the Olympic facilities.
As the Olympic trigger of development is extinguished, not only this entire landscape but also other areas of the city are to deal with the debris of the past cycle of urban planning. Next week, when the Games are over and the flow of tourists begins to dissipate, the city will awaken to consequences of nearly a decade of Olympics-centered city planning and politics run by shady PPPs (Public Private Partnerships) and operated by contractors involved in multiple corruption schemes.
Less than two months away from the October municipal elections, the city’s fate is also inextricably tied to the state of Rio’s unprecedented economic crisis and to President Rousseff’s upcoming final impeachment judgment. In this uncertain context, speculations on what is to become of the Olympic city-making process are futile. But the coming administration will have to deal with the aftermath of unfinished, postponed or already crumbling Olympics-related development.
An expanded version of this story was originally published on the UK OpenDemocracy site, available here.
It is republished under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.