The Olympics: a sporting event where astonishing feats of athleticism are performed inside stunning venues, boasting some of the finest architecture, this year residing in a picturesque city, which is awash with bombastic international pageantry and a litany of corporate branding. Quite literally the festival of sport, the Olympic Games are simultaneously a marvellous occasion and terrifying omen, forewarning of financial ruin, infrastructural nightmares, fantastic spectacles, and moving moments.
For every record set or medal won, there will be collateral damage to the people who live in the host city, and white elephant stadia manifesting themselves as the proverbial strings attached to the prestige. Consider the run up to the 2016 Olympiad. The question isn’t even, is Rio ready; but rather, how will the people of Rio de Janeiro manage to cope with the Games on top of what’s already happening?
There’s no straightforward answer to that question. Since the 2014 World Cup – which left a detrimental effect on the country – the political and social crisis rocking Brazil has been unrelenting. Brazil’s once-burgeoning economy has sharply declined, and is in the midst of its worst recession in more than thirty years, due in part to changes in price for soya, oil, and iron ore – three of Brazil’s major exports.
Unemployment reached 9% last year and is expected to reach double figures; inflation rose to 10.7% (the highest in 12 years); and economists expect Brazil’s GDP to continue contracting at another 3.4% in this year (on top of the 3.8% drop from the year previous), making 2015 Brazil’s worst annual economic performance since 1981.
The now (at least, temporarily) impeached President, Dilma Rousseff bore the brunt of the Brazilian public’s wrath, having gone from winning a narrow election in October 2014, to having 63% of respondents to a Datafolha poll opine that her regime was “bad or terrible”.
From what I could gather from Brazilians that defended Rousseff on Twitter, the impeachment proceedings felt more like a coup, as the corruption didn’t stop or start with Rousseff or her administration. Corruption is rampant in Brazil’s governmental bodies. 37 of the 65 impeachment commission members face criminal charges of corruption or other serious infractions. 303 of the 513 members of the lower house in Brazil’s congress are being investigated for serious criminality; and 49 of 81 Brazilian senators are also being investigated.
The crimes vary from slavery to homicide, and considering that many citizens supported Rousseff’s impeachment for different reasons than the ones she was eventually charged with, you can see why Rousseff’s defenders found the impeachment disingenuous from the outset.
This doesn’t even include the Petrobras affair, Brazil’s biggest ever corruption scandal, where Petrobras suits (read: administrators) created a cartel behind closed doors to control bids on the company’s own contracts and purposely overinflate prices, leaving a cash surplus to the tune of $5.3bn to hand out to corrupt workers and politicians participating in the racket. It’s worth noting that Petrobras is state-owned, which is why politicians implicated, like House Speaker Eduardo Cunha – the guy who lead the campaign to impeach Rousseff – are looking at lengthy prison sentences if found guilty. Cunha himself has already been indicted and could be sentenced to a maximum of 184 years in prison if convicted.
All this is the tip of the iceberg. As part of the preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the Rio Olympics, Brazil’s legislators seemingly used their state of exception status to commit brutal human rights violations. 77,000 people have been forcibly removed from their homes and taken to public complexes outside of the city – many of whom were moved against their will.
Police brutality is endemic. According to a 2015 Amnesty International report, 16% of all homicides on record were committed by on-duty police officers in the last five years in Rio and cases are seldom investigated. In Rio, 645 people were slain by police officers in 2015, up from 416 in 2013. Human Rights Watch released a report showing that police killings are at a rate of 3.9 per 100,000 people.
As a consequence of these state-sanctioned evictions, continued disenfranchisement of the poor, and Brazil’s ongoing “war on drugs”, the majority of victims from 2010 to 2013 are young black men as old as 29 and as young as 15. In 2015, 10-year-old Eduardo de Jesus Ferreira was shot dead by military police right on the doorstep of his home in the Complexo do Alemao favela. When his mother confronted the officers, one of them aimed their rifle at her head and said “Just as I killed your son, I might as well kill you because I killed a bandit’s son.”
Even Brazilian police officers and firefighters have been protesting, due to a lack of federal funding, putting their respective departments under increasing strain. However, Brazil’s legislators have remained unmoved, approving a federal bailout amounting to $850m in order to deliver crucial services for the Games.
As it stands, the rail line connecting the venues and the city-centre remains unfinished, the polluted water in Guanabara Bay – the site of the sailing events – remains a major concern (an AP investigation concluded three tablespoons of water from the bay translates to a 99% likelihood that you will get an infection): what with human waste; oil (thanks Petrobras); bodies of dead people and animals; and the beaches surrounding it, teeming with drug-resistant super bacteria.
Just like the 2014 World Cup, the people of Rio – and Brazil in general – are once again being swept under the rug and hidden from plain sight to give the rest of the world the impression that everything is fine. For all of the allure and fame the Games can bring to an area, one wonders whether it’s truly worth the cost incurred and the damage wrought.
Brazil’s lawmakers have gone to robust lengths to keep their own citizens away from the areas tourists and Olympic supporters will be frequenting, exacerbating already existing problems in the region, particularly along racial and class-based lines. The concerns I’ve detailed aren’t ones for tourists to worry about – only for the people who live there.
Robert Muggah, head of research at the Igarapé Institute, told International Business Times; “If you are young, unemployed, male and black; and if you come from a low-income area or a favela, the Olympics are very bad news for you. If you are white, middle class or wealthy, and you’re a foreigner, you’re probably going to be as safe as you are in a Northeastern city in the United States.
Theresa Williamson – director and city planner of Catalytic Communities, expressed similar sentiments; “ Unfortunately, the focus on a lot of these issues that the international press has come up with — ‘is it safe for tourists/visitors? — is moot. We should be taking the visibility that’s being generated and turning it around and pressuring the authorities to make the city safe and healthy for its residents.”
Brazilians – disproportionately, the poorer and darker-skinned – are suffering and most of the coverage has been geared towards handwringing over the well-being of visitors, rather than striking up support for new and existing humanitarian efforts to assist Brazil’s marginalised. All of which is not surprising considering how we in the West usually centre ourselves and our concerns just so we can have a good time in someone else’s home without sparing a thought for the people hosting the party.
Even the sensationalist talk of the Zika virus overlooks that far more people contract dengue fever when it comes to mosquito-borne diseases, yet there has been no aggressive response by health officials or lawmakers to kerb the spread, despite the fact 288 people in Brazil have died due to dengue fever this year alone.
I can’t help but wonder how people are living in the places that my favourite events are being hosted in. I want to see Usain Bolt light up the track, but I also want to see an end to Brazil’s police brutality. I want to see Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles slay in the gymnastics, but I also want to see Guanabara Bay cleaned up so that fisherman can work in peace and environmental activist lives aren’t targeted for trying to help them.
We can’t let anyone – politician or mainstream media – suppress the Brazilian plight just so we might get moments of sporting grandeur to escape the issues we’ve got in our own borders.
Otherwise, the Olympics might as well be The Hunger Games, dependent solely on who you are and where you’re from.
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Joseph Guthrie is a Media Diversified columnist, UK based musician, and writer. Originally from south London, most of his education was set in central Florida (United States). His nomadic life has seen him return to the UK in 2010 and when he’s not tending to the IT infrastructure of a major printing company, he’s the lead vocalist for the band Ships Down and is Nothing Ain’t Nice recording artist. He also contributes to music blog Sampleface.
There’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.