Former international athlete turned political scientist, Jules Boykoff has researched the political and economic issues surrounding the Olympics for his previous books on the Vancouver and London Games. His new book looks at the political history of the supposedly apolitical Olympic movement, from the original vision of Baron Pierre de Coubertin to the 2016 Rio Summer Games – and beyond. In this excerpt, he shares his findings from months of field research in Rio last year, showing how residents of the Marvelous City are getting transformation, but not the kind that was promised.
Momentary pangs of doubt aside, Mayor Eduardo Paes has been an enthusiastic ambassador for Rio 2016. He often refers to them as the “transformation Games,” and has even argued they’ll make a larger positive impact on the city than the 1992 Games did for Barcelona, becoming the “benchmark” for the Olympic legacy. “I want to do better than Barcelona did,” he said, “and I think the city is moving that way because of the Olympics.” He claimed that Olympic organizers had actually delivered more infrastructure projects than pledged in the bid.
Perhaps “transformation” was the title of an Olympic memo of the day with the instructions “just add a dash of hyperbole and stir.” Carlos Nuzman, president of the Rio Organizing Committee and a participant in volleyball at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, said Rio would bring the “greatest transformation” in the history of the Games. Nawal El Moutawakel, the IOC member leading the coordination commission in Rio, proclaimed, “I think Rio and Brazil will experience a full transformation of the city.” However, in a poll of O Dia readers taken a year before the Olympics opened, 69 percent believed the Games would not leave a legacy for everyday cariocas. Mayor Paes inadvertently encouraged such skepticism when he said that despite promises to clean up Rio’s polluted waterways, the environmental goal was not likely to be met. “It is indeed a wasted opportunity,” he noted. “As a Rio resident, I think it’s a shame.” Overall, though, Rio boosters raised sky-high expectations, claims that boomeranged back to bedevil them.
Staging a so-called “transformation Games” would, of course, require money. Thanks to recent high-priced Games in Beijing and Sochi, The Economist could write without irony that “compared with other recent Olympic games, Rio’s look cheap. Brazil reckons it will cost 37.7 billion reais ($12.5 billion).” Notwithstanding the fact that $12.5 billion was a low-end estimate, optimism for a “low-cost” Games was soured by a capitalist downturn that sent Brazil plunging toward its worst recession in a quarter century. In September 2015, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Brazil’s debt to “junk” status. Still, boosters pointed to articles trumpeting the idea that taxpayer money comprised only 43 percent of overall Games costs.
The idea that the public was on the fiscal hook for less than half of overall Games costs is extremely misleading. It fails to tally tax exemptions, financing with markedly reduced interest rates, and the brazen transfer of real estate assets, sometimes through violent displacement. One study by Brazilian tax officials found that tax exemptions for the Olympics would be around four times higher than the World Cup, where tax breaks amounted to about $250 million. Rio 2016 organizers and their allies in government enticed the participation of private developers with sweetheart deals backed by government funds. Once again, when it came to Olympic funding, the state was a fiscal backstop, assuming risk while teeing up windfalls for private players. Orlando Santos Junior summed up the fiscal sleight of hand as an “alchemy” concocted by the mayor’s office that is “distorted because of the absence of key information.”
Beyond this, the Rio Olympics rely on an army of volunteer labor. The 70,000 unpaid volunteers at the Games will save some $100 million, and that’s if volunteers were merely paid minimum wage. Moreover, volunteers get free meals and transportation only on days they work. They must pay their own way to Rio and find their own accommodations in the Cidade Maravilhosa, which is also marvelously expensive. When pressed about the issue, Christophe Dubi, the Olympic Games executive director, replied, “It is about the spirit of volunteerism.”
This sort of fiscal hoodwinkery has led Gaffney to argue, “The flaccid Olympic mantras, superstar pedestal climbers, stadiums, and legacy promises are mere distractions from the realpolitik of urban development.” The Olympics are all about real estate. As Stephen Wade of the Associated Press asked: “Why would anyone spend billions if the Games were simply a sports event? In Rio, why would Mayor Eduardo Paes be so intimately involved—be seen by the IOC as the most important person on the ground in Brazil—if this is only a sports championship?”
Rio’s brand of fiscal chicanery crystallized in the construction of the Olympic Village, a brazen transfer of public wealth into private pockets. At the center of the heist sat Carlos Carvalho, the Brazilian real estate baron whose firm Carvalho Hosken took responsibility for building the Olympic Village, alongside Odebrecht, the scandal-wracked contractor embroiled in the Petrobras bribery imbroglio. Rio’s Olympic bid innocuously posits: “Carvalho Hosken, acting as land owner and developer, will assume responsibility for the construction of the Olympic and Paralympic Village. Carvalho Hosken has already entered into a cooperative and collaborative development relationship with Rio 2016.” The plan was to have Rio 2016 rent the Olympic Village—thirty-one high-rise buildings—from Carvalho at a capped cost of around $19 million.
But the bid fails to note that Carvalho stands to make astronomical profits from the Games by converting the Olympic Village into more than 3,600 unapologetically high-priced condos called Ilha Pura (Pure Island). All this was done on the back of a 2.3 billion real loan from the Brazilian bank Caixa. Meanwhile, Carvalho and another developer in Barra da Tijuca donated more than a million reais to Eduardo Paes’s election campaign. Geophysically speaking, Ilha Pura isn’t even an actual island. Rather, it’s a social island where class is the password. Sounding like Montgomery Burns of Simpsons fame, Carvalho claimed he wanted to create “a city of the elite, of good taste … For this reason, it needed to be noble housing, not housing for the poor.” But in a way, “the poor” had a role to play. A year before the Games, Brazilian news media revealed that construction workers at the Olympic Village were laboring under slave-like conditions, inhabiting living quarters teeming with rats and cockroaches. Carvalho’s role in building the Olympic Village and Olympic Stadium helped make him the thirteenth richest person in Brazil, with a net worth of $4.2 billion.
Riffing off the proverb “God is Brazilian,” the Rio-based writer Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza notes of the Cidade Maravilhosa, “If the world had been created by God, he had used his best material and all his inspiration to create that landscape.” Television broadcasters salivated over Rio’s idyllic landscapes, with beaches as backdrop and the iconic Cristo Redentor hovering above. Plus, Rio sits only one time zone ahead of the US East Coast, bestowing on NBC the first live, prime-time Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games. “Prime time is still the mothership for us,” an executive producer of NBC’s Olympics coverage said. He described the Rio Games as “an embarrassment of riches” for the network. Another NBC sports exec said, “We expect the games in Rio to be the biggest ever.” Much was at stake for NBC. After forking over $4.4 billion to cover the 2014 through the 2020 Olympics, the network paid a whopping $7.65 billion for the Games stretching from 2022 through 2032. A select group of IOC and NBC bigwigs christened the deal at an exclusive dinner with veal, wild mushrooms, and self-congratulatory backslapping at the Lausanne Palace luxury hotel.
Not everyone in Brazil was feeling quite so giddy. At antigovernment protests across the country in August 2015, some right-wing demonstrators connected corruption under President Dilma Rousseff, the onetime revolutionary and daughter of a Bulgarian communist, to misspending on the Olympics. One demonstrator said: “I am against the Olympic Games. We must take [care] of ourselves, the economy, and everyday life. Everything is wrong with this government.” Protests were igniting on all sides of the political spectrum. The United Movement of Street Vendors rallied against the repression of camelôs, or street vendors, who were being cleared from the streets by the Municipal Guard. Bearing banners with the slogan Olimpíadas Para Quem? (Olympics for Whom?), they protested to challenge the suppression of the informal sector, an unmistakable trend in mega-event hosting.
Groups that were active in the 2013 Confederations Cup protests were also girding for an anti-Olympics fight. The Comitê Popular da Copa e das Olimpíadas (Popular Committee of the World Cup and Olympics) organized chapters in the twelve cities hosting World Cup soccer matches. In a way, the Comitê branch in Rio de Janeiro was political progeny of the Comitê Social do Pan, a group that rose up to challenge the injustices magnified by the 2007 Pan American Games. The Comitê in Rio brought together political organizers with academics, neighborhood associations with NGOs. They engaged in consensus-based organizing around the negative effects of sports mega-events, writing research-driven dossiers, hosting public debates, and taking to the streets. The Comitês Populares were instrumental in stoking protest around the World Cup and recalibrated their sights on the Rio Olympics.
In late September 2015 I attended the Comitê’s launch of a dossier documenting the harmful impacts of Rio 2016 within a larger social-justice framework around the right to the city. The event took place at the Union of Professional Journalists in front of a packed house. After watching a few short, snappy videos on a range of issues—from the displacement of local fishermen to the struggle of local activist groups to fend off aggressive privatization—we heard a range of speakers, including activists, community leaders, and academics. Solange Chagas, a leader from the Maracanã neighborhood, site of the Games’ opening ceremony, described the ironic demolition of a local athletic arena—the Estádio de Atletismo Célio de Barros—to make way for sports mega-events. The destruction of the facility left the community bereft of a place to exercise. “Rio will host the Olympics and we have no place to train,” she said. “For me, the Olympics was the worst thing that has happened. We are punished.” After the presentations, numerous attendees took to the microphone to deliver passionate testimonies against all the money being spent on a lavish party for the rich while many residents of Rio lacked basic services.
Demian Castro, a longtime member of the Comitê, was another speaker at the launch. When I asked him a few days before the event why he opposed the Olympics, he offered a nuanced critique reminiscent of other activists from previous host cities. “I am not opposed directly to the Olympic Games, because I love sports,” he said. “The criticism of the Games is their commercial logic and especially how they strengthen neoliberal urbanism in the host city.” In Rio, he said, “the Olympics strengthens a business model favoring mainly property developers, landowners, and construction. The result is a more exclusive city, marked by violent removal processes and evictions, increased segregation, displacement of the poorest people to outlying areas, and an exponential spike in the cost of living.” At the dossier launch he added, “The social legacy of the Olympics could be a social apartheid.”
From Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, copyright 2016 by Jules Boykoff. Used with permission of Verso Books.
Jules Boykoff is chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Pacific University. He is author of the books Activism and the Olympics: Dissent at the Games in Vancouver and London and Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games, and he has published essays on sport, politics, and economics in The Guardian and The New York Times. Jules tweets from @JulesBoykoff.