After the Olympics

Kathleen McCaul Moura

Athletes are now arriving in Rio for the start of the Paralympic Games next week. The predictions of unfinished stadiums, Zika outbreaks and rampaging crime at the Olympics last month proved largely unfounded. Brazil won more medals than ever before, with some powerful symbolic victories for its ordinary citizens. The men's football team avenged their 7-0 World Cup defeat against Germany. Brazil's first gold of the games (for judo) was won by Rafaela Silva, a black lesbian from the City of God favela. Maicon de Andrade Siqueiro, who got a bronze medal in the taekwondo, trained around his work as a builder and a waiter. El País described him as a fighter not only in the stadium but, ‘like so many Brazilians’, in life.

Yet there have been many more losers. Christopher Gaffney, who teaches geography at the University of Zurich, estimates that more than 77,000 people lost their homes because of the Olympics, the largest forced displacement of Rio’s urban population in decades. In Planet of Slums, Mike Davis traces the history of Olympic slum clearances since the Nazis purged Berlin for the 1936 event. Mexico City, Athens and Barcelona all prepared for the games with evictions and urban renewal programmes. In 1988, Seoul removed 720,000 people from their homes. 'In no way did the London Games buck the trend,’ Gaffney says. ‘The definition of social housing in the Olympic Park is 80 per cent of market value. Stratford is undergoing rabid gentrification and new residential units in the Olympic Park will be built and released only in accordance with effective demand for higher income renters.’

The Brazilian architect Raquel Rolnik was the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing between 2008 and 2014. She says that the effect of events such as the Olympics is even more pronounced in Rio and other cities in the global South, large parts of which are made up of self-built neighbourhoods, which can be removed at little political or economic cost. The residents of the Vila Autódromo favela were all forced from their homes to make way for the Olympic Park. The settlement was founded by fishermen on the shore of the Jacarepaguá lagoon decades ago. According to Places Journal, Vila Autódromo had a residents’ association, a legal lease on the land till 2093 and a sign proclaiming, in three languages, that it had been a peaceful and orderly community since 1967.

The people evicted are moved to government housing programmes, which may look neater than their old homes, but they are generally further away from the centre, with weak public transport links and little in the way of community infrastructure. ‘Adequate housing is not four walls and a roof,’ Rolnik says:

Housing is a sort of portal by which other human rights can be reached and met: to education, to health, to work and jobs etc … The problem with these programmes is the recent obsession with two ideas: one, that the one and only possible model for housing is homeownership accessed through credit schemes; and two, that the best use of a particular place in the city is the most profitable … This paradigm, which is prevalent not only in Rio but also in the UK, helps to explain the contemporary housing crisis. London for instance became the playground for financial capital invested in real estate and the result is less and less people being able to live in the city.

Brazil's government is embroiled in a massive corruption scandal involving construction companies, many of which had Olympic contracts. Rio has a history of razing central favelas and moving whole communities out to the suburbs. The City of God favela began as a government housing project.

Will even the sporting success of athletes such as da Silva and Siqueiro filter down to young working-class Brazilians? Not if London 2012 is anything to go by. The British government invested heavily in medal-winning over the four years building up to Rio 2016. According to one estimate, each medal won in Rio cost an average of £5.5 million. But Gaffney says that general participation in sport in the UK has decreased since London hosted the games. ‘Heavy investment in elite sport does not trickle down to the population any more than the profits from the games,’ he says, ‘and this is especially true in Rio, where the chronic lack of sport and leisure infrastructure in the city has not been addressed by the hosting of Olympics.’


  • 1 September 2016 at 1:27pm
    Greencoat says:
    Nothing is a bigger or more desperately dishonest joke than the modern Olympic Games.

  • 2 September 2016 at 12:03pm
    Eric Auerbach says:
    "In 1998, Seoul removed 720,000 people from their homes."

    Is this right? 1998 was Nagano. The Seoul Olympics were in 1988.