The summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro ended with 65 groundbreaking Olympic records and 19 world records from some of the world’s most elite athletes. However, the glory of the Olympic torch can be a seductive illusion for many nations, as Brazil came to realise.
Preparations for the Rio Olympics had been faced with ongoing controversies, which raised doubts regarding the legitimacy of the games and the safety of athletes attending. Just to mention a few: the Zika epidemic, infested waters of the swimming pools, political and economic crises, and a distinct rate of crime levels. To make things worse, tensions with Russia accelerated as the doping test scandal unfolded. Evidently, the power of cultural creativity could not mask the contradictory nature of Rio for much longer. Unbearable levels of poverty accompany the sensational beauty of the City, whilst the entertaining spirit of the Rio Carnival fails to conceal the city’s current and past bloodshed.
Looking back at Brazil’s history, Rio De Janeiro’s legacy is far from the glamorous perception that the games aimed to transcend – Rio hosted one of the biggest slave ports in the world. Despite internationally notable efforts at eradicating inequality over the years, Brazil’s dark legacy is woven into the fabric of the country itself. Brazil is known to be the last country in the western hemisphere to outlaw slavery, with approximately 5.5 million slaves weighing down its attempts at glorification. Even so, the country has been plagued with inequality long before the slave trade began, but the extensive efforts at sailing slaves from Africa into the ports of Rio during the 16th and 19th Century, continue to stain the City’s reputation.
Countless exquisite buildings have framed the city’s appearance over the past decade, which only parallels the infrastructure that has been accelerating over the course of the City’s preparation for the Olympic games. In 2009, when Rio won the bid to host the 2016 Olympic games, the country was alive with excitement, as they were the first South American country to host the Games. Money has been invested across the board, from transport innovations, to creating a new business district, yet many of these investments have only perpetuated existing class divisions. Ironically, much of that money contributed to renovations including a $32million project for a cable car, whilst many basic services were still lacking. The investments that embellished Rio’s infrastructures in the run up for the Olympics had failed at even attempting to dilute the tremendous levels of poverty in the City. According to the World Bank organization, Brazil’s poverty levels are sitting at a striking 21.4% of the population, whilst 4.9% of citizens are below the “extreme” poverty line. Yet, the City’s Mayor seems to prioritise a cloaked reputation, over basic human rights.
Welcome to Hell
The world may be in awe of the jaw dropping facilities built within the Stadium, however the locals may doubt regional Mayor, Eduardo Paes, who has done everything in his power to prevent a parliamentary inquiry being opened that would investigate Olympic spending. The government’s priorities have been distorted by attempts to portray Rio as an advanced metropolitan city, whilst over 500,000 public servants are receiving late salaries. Moreover, a lack of transparency has raised national concern about the costs of the Olympic games, as the initial budget of $13bn was exceeded long before the games began. This trend has appeared to seep through to the Paralympics, as confirmed by Mario Andrada, a committee spokesperson for the organisng of the Rio Olympics: “We had to make cuts in the Olympic Games to balance the budget and we need to produce similar cuts to make sure the Paralympics also balances.”
During the course of Rio’s renovations, the City’s participation in the Slave trade was quickly revealed. The skyscrapers that are scattered across the city have fallen short of disguising the persistence of modern slavery that emerges through Rio’s constructed prestige. Just two years after the country declared itself a republic; in 1891, the government authorized the destruction of any evidence that would link back to records of slavery, with the aim of giving the country a blank slate. Yet, 127 years later, forced labor, and the unequal treatment of workers continues to loom through a façade of improvement. The renovation of Rio’s historic port area had uncovered the darkest side of the country’s history, as the Valongo Wharf made an unexpected appearance. The wharf is where enslaved Africans disembarked; making its rediscovery a stark reminder of what Rio’s history really consists of. The area now stands as an archaeological site representing the city’s heritage.
A heavy emphasis was placed on Rio’s lack of security during the run-up to the Olympics. This was with good reason with 58,000 violent deaths in October 2015, a figure 5% up on previous years. Furthermore, five military police officers were arrested after a phone video had recorded them executing a 17-year-old teenager in 2015, after proceeding to place a gun in his hand in order to conceal the murder as self-defense. However, the teenager is only one of 2,600 people who have been killed by Rio’s military police since 2009. According to Amnesty International, the Police killed at least 307 people in 2015. An alarming continuation of the fear that radiates through the city was seen at Rio De Janeiro’s airport, when athlete’s were welcomed by a threatening sign that was held by the police. It read “Welcome to Hell. Police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio De Janeiro will not be safe.”
Another reminder of Brazil’s lingering inequality was reported by the Santa Teresa neighborhood that overlooks the port. An area that had been neglected for decades and was once used for colonial homes of the rich has been revived into a luxurious five star boutique-style hotel. Fittingly, the prestigious hotel does not simply parallel the privileged status of the area’s past residences, but the treatment of workers in the process of building the hotel reflects previous acts of slavery. It has been allegedly reported that the owner of the newly built property has subjected six workers to inexcusable working conditions. This includes an 18 hour transport journey without access to food, before being placed in unhygienic accommodation. The exploitation of workers is made even worse, considering the surplus that the owner would have profited off, when considering that the minimum cost of a room is approximately $350 per night. The hotel Santa Teresa is a typical example of Brazil’s modern fight against slavery, however the case is still pending at Brail’s superior court of Justice. Supporting facts that favour the case above are seen through the Government’s inspection raids that have rescued over 45,000 workers from such conditions, since 2003. The country’s chief labor prosecutor gave his opinion on the matter: “Brazil abolished slavery more than a century ago but did no change its worker- exploitation model.” This gives us insight into how heavily entrenched slavery is in the minds and action of the citizens. Hence, the illegalization of a practice does not necessarily result in its termination.
the government can no longer afford to recklessly spend money
In spite of Rio’s dark past and its worrying democratic legitimacy, when the hype finally gives way to the sports themselves, crowds of fans were swept away by the levels of joy and excitement that the athletes bring about. When the games were over though, many couldn’t help but wonder if the Olympic Stadium would be put to good use or whether it would remain as an island of improvement, amongst a run down city that had failed to prioritise government spending. The Olympic games have a longstanding legacy of creating glamorous buildings that rack up extortionate amounts of maintenance fees in the long run. Beijing’s Birds nest stadium sits empty at a cost of $11 million a year and the 2004 Olympic games in Athens still act as a constant reminder of how the government could have spent that money on preventing Greece’s devastating economic crisis.
According to the Rio Olympics’ official website, the games are determined to leave behind a more educational and sustainable legacy than previous venues. The government is planning in transforming the Olympic handball venue into four state-owned primary schools, with the capacity of approximately 500 students each. On a similar note, the aquatic centres will turn into two community owned public pools and the Olympic park itself will be divided into a public park and a private development hub. In order to go execute the optimistic plans above, the venues have been constructed through ‘temporary architecture,’ in order to convenience their future transformation. However, the cost of such developments also remains an unanswered question, as the government can no longer afford to recklessly spend their money at constructions. The most recent example of a mass protest was on the 5th September 2016, where over 50,000 people marched the streets of Sao Paolo in opposition to the government. Have the Rio Olympics then come about at the risk of further public instability, for the sake of enhancing a false reputation?