HUNTING WHITE ELEPHANTS / CAÇANDO ELEFANTES BRANCOS

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29 September 2009

Countdown to Summer Olympics 2016

On Friday October 2 the International Olympic Committee votes on the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics, do you know where your president or prime minister is? If you are Brazilian, Spanish, Japanese or USAmerican, your democratically eleced leader is in Copenhagen, Denmark lobbying to install an authoritarian Olympic regime in Rio, Madrid, Tokyo or Chicago.

One of the most interesting aspects of Olympic Games is that they offer tidy space-time bundles that allow us to understand larger trends in the world. For instance, the 1984 Games in Los Angeles are generally considered to have stimulated the role of private capital in determining the form and function of mega-events, and the retreat of the public sector reflected the Reaganite wave of privatizing public services. Since 1984 the games have been increasingly commercialized and utilized as much for city marketing and the insertion of urban regions into the global economy as they have been for civic pride or attaining pragmatic political ends (Germany 1936, Moscow 1980). The 1994 World Cup in the USA also marked a transition to a more fully capitalistic / corporatist model for FIFA, which has since consolidated its hegemony over global soccer. Nothing against the USAmericans here, but those two events marked major transitions in the ways that mega-events are conceptualized, produced and consumed.

Nick Paumgarten, writing in the New Yorker in 2009, commented that the insanely spectacular, hyper-organized, and "we're here, look out" message of the Beijing opening and closing ceremonies can also be understood as the symbolic and functional money shot of an era characterized by unbridled consumption of cheap Chinese labor by the USA and Europe. The show de bola (as the Brazilians say) of the Chinese also marked the symphonic end of that era, as it wasn't long after the lights in the Bird's Nest went out that the global economy flew the coop.

It also wasn't long after the closing ceremonies in 2008 that the organizers of the London Games, doing their best Hugh Grant impersonation, started to limit expectations of their performance. With the global economy in free fall, spending tens of billions of pounds on sports infrastructure no longer seemed like such a great idea. Enter the competition for the 2016 Games.

After finishing in fifth place amongst seven candidates, Brazil somehow leaped over Doha to enter the final round of candidature. Since then, the Rio Organizing Committee (RJOGOC) has embarked on a 50 million dollar campaign to market its bid around the world. The effort has been remarkably successful, propelling Rio to the role of favorites according to gamesbids.com and aroundtherings.com

Rio's primary arguments for hosting the games are emotional (see video below), based in a woefully idealized vision of a very small segment of the city. In his tireless promotion of the Rio bid, President da Silva has been stomping his feet in adolescent fury, saying that it's simply "not fair" that other countries have hosted the games and that it's Rio's turn. The question of "fairness" here is misplaced, given that if Rio wins the bid it will heavily subsidize the construction of dozens of 3 and 4 star hotels while more than 1.3 million people live in 950+ favelas scattered throughout the city. The video does gnaw at the heartstrings, however, and presents Rio as a sensual combination of cultural and natural treasures.



This is not to say that Rio isn't all of those things, but rather that this encapsulation doesn't actually say anything. There is no question that Rio has natural beauty and a vibrant popular and sporting culture but it is also beyond doubt that it is dangerous and dysfunctional. In the past few weeks there have been several incidents of bandidos robbing cars stopped in tunnels, kidnapping and robbing entire apartment blocks, buses falling off overpasses, and assaults in restaurants (in addition to the daily mortal combat between police and drug traffickers). The bay is polluted, traffic is constantly snarled, and only 15-20% of public schools have recreation areas. The RJOGOC has repeatedly said that "Rio needs this, the others don't" - meaning that if Rio doesn't get the games, the situation in the city will continue along its merry way? Or, as Lula suggested the other day, hosting the Games will be good for Brazilian self-esteem. It's increasingly difficult to take the man seriously.

The serious part of Rio's bid is the budget and the ways in which the RJOCOG envisions transforming the city. The federal, state and city governments have combined to guarantee a budget of R$ 28 billion. As Rodrigo Zeitan, an economist at Rio's Unigranrio university told me a couple of weeks ago, "There's no such thing as coming in at budget. It simply can't happen. To say that a budget went over the proscribed amount is to say nothing at all." This was certainly true in the case of the 2007 Pan American Games, when the city and state governments of Rio were 10 times (1000%) over budget, eventually spending about R$ 3.5 billion. The building process was fraught with corruption scandals, incomplete projects, and the eventual privatization of all but a few venues (and those are not currently being used). If Rio wins, we can expect to see public spending in the range of R$ 40-50 billion along with similar post-games privatization schemes. Rio's bid is larger than all of the other bids combined, which, when one considers that many of the venues are already built begs more questions than an army of street children.

The consensus in Rio is that the Games are going to transform the city but no one really knows how. The model for urban and social transformation is Barcelona 1992, an Olympics that undoubtedly had a major impact on that city. However, Barcelona is a city of only 1.6 million in a relatively compact area and close to major tourist centers (Spain is the second most popular tourist destination in the world, just behind neighboring France, Brazil ranks 41st, between Australia and India, drawing just one million more visits than the Dominican Republic). Therefore, Barcelona's makeover for the Olympics was one element in a much larger process of development and economic restructuring, not a one off infusion intended to launch the city into the global spotlight. Rio's problems did not emerge overnight and they will not disappear in the six years leading up to the Olympics. The US$ 293,599,000 outlay for security leading up to the Games (RCOGOC Bid Book, Theme 13, p. 29)is evidence that the RJOCOG is well aware that not everyone might want to be "socially transformed" by the Olympics.

Rio's candidature is based in the idea that spending lavishly on sporting, tourist, and transportation infrastructure will somehow transform the growing gap between the rich and poor. Yet the very places in which the majority of the "transformation" will take place are already wealthy. By limiting the vision of the city to the municipality of Rio (6.1 million) and not including the greater metropolitan area (12.3 million), the RJOGOC has signaled its intent to concentrate development in the regions that need it the least. Additionally, the planned changes to the port area, and added investments in suburban regions such as Jacarepagua and Barra de Tijuca will inevitably benefit the real estate sector, displacing lower income residents and ushering in landscapes of consumption.





The greater Rio metro area vs. the Olympic City. There is not one proposed transportationn line that would link the northern suburbs (Baixada Fluminese) to the Olympic landscape. The proposed transport lines include one new subway line and the remainder will be RBT (Rapid Bus Transit) lines. The dependence on 19th century transportation technology characterizes Rio's bid and will likely serve to exacerbate prodigious traffic problems in the city.

Three levels of government have already passed legislation to construct the Public Olympic Authority (APO), which will have the power to manage the budget, acquire land through eminent domain, and will coordinate security services for a period of ten years. This is nothing short of the installation of an authoritarian regime that is empowered and funded by the government to reshape the social and physical landscapes of the city according to plans that were drawn without public input (for instance, IPPUR, the main regional planning center at the Federal University of Rio was not consulted). The IOC demands centralized control over the production of its Games. It also demands gauaranteed financing from multiple levels of government, something that until recently had stalled the Chicago bid. Wherever the 2016 games land on Friday, there will be an authoritarian regime directing the form and function of that city for at least the next 6 years.




The above video is impressive in its rendering of the city, but even as I sit here in my 9th floor apartment overlooking Guanabara Bay, the wind is bringing the stink of pollution. The installations for the sailing competition in the Marina da Gloria will be difficult to complete (due to its legal status as a protected area), as will the proposed events in Copacabana and Lagoa, as these are two of the most densely populated areas in the hemisphere. Additionally, the majority of the facitities are planned for Barra / Jacareapagua which is a swampy wetland with unstable subsoil. The Pan American village has suffered terrible structural and engineering problems in the two years since its construction. There is no reason to expect that the Olympic constructions will be any different.

In any Olympics (save LA 1984), the massive public investment can be considered a partial disinvestment in other social and urban priorities. In the case of Rio de Janeiro, the scale of planned investment is such that the social and spatial "transformations" will likely exacerbate existing inequalities for the next generation.

It's easy to be cynical of the Olympic Movement and the ways in which Brazilian politicians have been posturing on the national and international stage to bring the Games to Rio. The Olympics have become a cash hungry monster, permanently transforming the cities in which they land. The Chinese even incorporated the Bird's Nest and Water Cube into the celestial order of old Beijing. In their blind desire to attract international events in order to put Rio de Janeiro and Brazil in the international shop window (with the goal of attracting global capital and tourists), the Brazilian Olympic Committee and all three levels of government in Brazil have consistently neglected to take the larger city into account. The result, in 2007, was the re-enforcement of spatial and social inequalities, the propagation of a good ol' boys network of contractors and politicians that made off with billions, and a general lack of transparency, accountability, and democracy.

In reading through the hundreds of pages of plans for the city, there is no mention of cultural preservation / investment, no indication of stimulating public participation in sport, no investment in education (English for taxi drivers, for instance), no honest assessment of what it is in Rio that is in such desperate need of transformation. The bid books present a whitewashed reality that disguises what very well might be the larger economic and political ends of the games: transform Rio de Janeiro into a "spectacular" global city that is marked by a docile, cheap, and immobile labor force, iconographic landscapes and cultural facilities for international tourists, the locus of multi-national corporations (along with their haute bourgeois workforce) and increasingly, a city to be experienced and consumed, not lived and created. This has been the trajectory of the political economy of the city since the mid-1990s and the Olympics might represent the culmination of this re-imagining and socio-spatial restructuring of the city.

The difficult work is finding ways to turn the opportunity of the Olympics into something that really will benefit the city. Barcelona was successful and is the paradigmatic best case scenario to date, but there were major problems as well. In Rio, this task will be even more difficult because of the lack of transparency and democratic process (hallmarks of Olympic regimes), the nearly complete hegemony of the OGlobo media network, the absence of organized social movements vis a vis electronic and social networks, and the powerful discourses of sport and the Olympic movement that turn opposition voices into categories of "non-patriotic", "anti-progressive", or "radical fringe".

If Rio does win the bid on Friday, it will be a long and trying struggle to keep the decade long process of constructing, hosting, and delivering the legacy of the Olympics in the light of day, avoiding the pitfalls and pratfalls of the 2007 Pan American Games. The existing social movements must articulate very clearly how they plan to insert themselves into the process of building the Olympic City in order to bring the benefits of this historic level of investment to the city at large.

Rio de Janeiro
29 September 2009


p.s. Below is the first video produced by Rio 2016. Note the difference in emotional tone and slickness of presentation between this video and the final version above.

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