In redeveloping Rio, the Games aren’t always Olympian

Rio Lead
The countdown is on to the 2016 Olympics but while the organisers have some honourable ideas, ultimately the speculators and not the citizens of a tough town will profit, writes Ewan MacKenna.

A forty-minute crawl through viscous traffic, the bus station rather than the beach is where it’s best to understand Rio de Janeiro. There are no cameras and crews jostling for obvious backdrops for their Olympic stories, no poodles in replica Jimmy Choos or stereotypical girls strutting Dolce & Gabbana bikinis either. But there is a sense of what makes the city tick while losing several minutes a day on many modern values. Constructed as a temporary solution in the middle of the last century and never replaced, it’s barren, surrounded by motorways and a desolate piece of port. Crucially, however, it provides a trip into the occasionally forgotten and more often ignored side of life here.

Rio may in parts have the most expensive land in the southern hemisphere and tourists are sold the dream of the few, but it’s also home to more than 600 favelas that shelter around 1.3 million people in tin huts amidst sewage and sorrow. That’s around 22 per cent of the total population that live with a murder rate of 40 per 100,000 compared to five in the gun-toting United States. Indeed with the American Overseas Advisory Council once suggesting “murder, rape, kidnapping, car-jacking and armed assault are part of everyday life”, then in an era where legacy is belched out as justification for the cost of the Games, this is the reality such promises should be measured against.

Inside the hectic station you find a restaurant and with your bag at your side, you glance away at a television as the commentator erupts because Fred has netted for local side Fluminense. ‘Fred – even when he does good, he does bad,’ you think when realising a turn of the head was enough for the guy across from you to swipe all your belongings. The tourist police can now laugh at another sucker.

“There’s a security camera,” you tell the uniformed man tucked tightly behind his desk.
“It happens every day, he’s long gone and your stuff is already sold in the favela.”
“I bet, but if you see his face and stop him robbing another person another day…”
“That’s not going to happen,” he replies, leaning back further in his chair as if to prove his concern.

Upstairs, you decide to try and investigate yourself and ask the restaurant manager for the phone number. “We’ve no phone,” she insists until it rings aloud beside her. “I don’t know the number I mean.” Finally, when you pry it from another member of staff, she tuts aloud across the counter.

You aren’t sure who to blame or whether to blame anyone at all. But standing there you consider the thief and what poverty drives him to steal so brazenly. You consider the policeman and what crime levels drive him to disinterest. You consider the manager and waitress and what existence drives them into thinking decency is above their pay grade. And you consider the Olympics you’re here to look at, for this scenario represents what they’ll take place amongst. It’s a chunk of life that will be hidden away come August 2016 but, after the billions spent, it’s also a chunk that must be helped if these Games are to be considered a success long after the sport gets up and goes home.

*   *   *

“Welcome to the marvellous city,” says Joaquim Monteiro de Carvalho, President of the Municipal Olympic Committee. At 34, he has a CV longer and more impressive than his years should allow and, with the glistening glow of a man life has been good to, he tells you about the kite surfing, sailing, sunrises on mountain tops and the other dreamy activities his hometown allows him to partake in. Then there’s his day job that sees him head up what will unfold here come the tail end of next year. “The investment for the Games will be more concentrated than the World Cup so you can feel the legacy. These events, they’ve given us the excuse to invest and it’s not just a plan; people can see it.

“Only R$6bn [€1.75bn] is exclusively for the Games. But R$24bn [€7bn] is for the legacy plan, all the projects that have a low connection with the Games like the regeneration of the port, a new transport network, a pool to collect water from the strong rains to avoid floods and so on. Let me tell you one more figure. Back in 2008 when we won the bid, less than 20 per cent of the population used the mass transit system. At the end of 2016 when we have all the mobility plans running, more than 60 per cent will use mass transport. I’m going to sell my car. So the city is changing.”

Rio Wins Bid

You’d love to come back and check to see if he’s still driving, you think to yourself, but De Carvalho does talk some sense. It may be the default setting to criticise and attack major sporting events, and more often than not such stances are easily justified, but the map on the boardroom wall behind him shows how things are being done differently as venues are laid out in four hubs across the city.

“So this is a very smart way to benefit as many people as possible,” he enthuses. “Just to give you a figure, with these four zones, we’ll directly benefit 2.5 million people in terms of infrastructure, mobility and investment. You see in our concept there are only two models. The first is when the city serves the Games, gives all the benefits to the Games, and is probably bankrupt. The second model is when the Games serve and benefit the city. That’s the model we are following and the Games will therefore give a lot of gifts to the citizens. You see you have to ask yourself, why did we win the bid?

“We ran against first-world cities. They are prepared, have infrastructure, people are polite. But Rio faces challenges and that’s the story we wanted to tell the world, that it’s possible to change the city using the Games. With us, there are no five-star venues, just simple arenas in accordance with our reality. We are underdeveloped so it makes sense. Also we save public money through public-private partnership. Sixty per cent of the budget comes from the private sector. All of the Olympic Village is funded by the private sector, the Olympic Park, the golf course, the Sambadrome too. It’s unique.”

It sounds good when taken in isolation; however this is a society where governance struggles to differentiate between public and private funds, rich and poor beneficiaries, cheap promises and actual delivery. It’s that confusion that sees the nation gripped in a huge public-private scandal over kickbacks that reach billions, and it’s why the World Cup left behind a pile of bills after the taxpayer had been promised they’d just have to take care of the tip. In fact it’s why there’s no point even talking about mass protests this far out because even the Olympics have to get in line for ire.

For sure there are nice stories about the Maracanã and other existing arenas taking care of some events and about the Olympic handball arena being built in such a way that, when over, it’ll be dismantled to create four public schools. But at around €11bn – about €2.5bn more than predicted in the bid – you’d want to have a lot more to show at the end of all this. Or given Brazil, you should have a lot more to show. Plus, while that’s De Carvalho’s number, it’s hard to be exact as figures have been shunted about. Some costs have been put down to the World Cup; the Joao Havelange Stadium that will host athletics had been chalked off to the 2007 Pan-American Games after costing €111m – 533 per cent of the initial estimate – before the roof was found to be unsafe.

You ask De Carvalho about such bloated costs and he says the former was an estimate and other sports were later added by the IOC. On the latter he talks about how it’s great to be using a stadium already in place and when you force the issue of ridiculous overspent, he responds: “This is the smallest Olympic Stadium since Barcelona. So it is in accordance with our reality.” Meanwhile mentioning the rent football club Botofogo will pay there means it’ll take about 800 years to recoup the cost, he adds: “I don’t know how much they pay but in terms of legacy, I guarantee it’s the surrounds of the stadium. We are refurbishing streets, there’s a training square with new leisure, all the drainage is done and it’s taking advantage of the Games to benefit the population. That’s the legacy but I have to stress that stadium wasn’t for the Olympics, it’s refurbished for the Olympics.”

Brazil Rio Olympics Up Next

So what is for the Olympics? You take out a dossier and on top are notes about Guanabara Bay. It’s where the sailing will be held and where the test event had athletes talk of filthy water infested with dead animals and had five-time Brazilian sailing medallist Torben Grael stress his worry that podium places will be decided by debris. A gathering place of raw sewage, Rio State governor Luiz Pezao had promised 80 per cent would be treated but that’s now likely to be closer to 50.

“We had the test event and it was a success,” continues De Carvalho. “Of course it’s a challenge but it’s not a point of concern for us. But we aren’t doing all the investment there just for the Olympics, the state is doing the investment for the city’s legacy. Torban Grael sailed there. They are all sailing there, the Olympic sailors, and they are having fun. But we are using the Games to accelerate that project. Can you image the boats with the background of the Sugar Loaf [mountain]. Again, why did we win the Games? Because we’ve a challenge. But we don’t want to be the best Olympics in its history, we want to be the best Games for Rio, to give a lasting legacy. That’s our mission.”

Flipping pages amidst the rhetoric, you get to the golf course, a mess that perhaps best encapsulates how in Brazil square pegs are forced even when there’s no hole. A sport about as popular as Anglo-Irish is back home, it’s been the source of much controversy and here’s why. The private money funding it comes from billionaire property magnate Pasquale Mauro. His ownership of the land is disputed but in return for building the facility, the developer he works in partnership with has been given permission to build 23 condominiums at 22 stories each, where before the limit was six.

Similar condominiums he’s built in the area have starting prices of around €2.5m, thus he’s expected to pull in another billion to his collection and all this was done without an environmental assessment because Mayor Eduardo Paes gave direct permission. Oh, and it just so happens Mauro’s developing partners donated 75 per cent of the money to the last mayoral electoral campaign.

On top of that, a 2008 case found now 84-year old Mauro had 70 workers in “slave-like conditions” on one of his estates. Meanwhile the handful protesting all this have claimed they’ve been subjected to intimidation with one video showing a chained up demonstrator being punched in the face by police. All in all, it brings new meaning to the Olympic creed that the important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight, and the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.

Rio Violence

“I can say the golf course is one of our good stories,” retorts De Carvahlo. “It used to be empty terrain without any use. Now it’s all green and all the animals and plants are back. Also, we had all the permission to build the golf course. It’s an Olympic investment, not a private investment. We have all the rights and permission and I don’t know why people keep pointing to this. With the investment surrounding it, we will have good hotels there. We have more than 20 million golfers around the world, now can you image even one per cent coming to Rio to play and how many residents will start to play golf? The next Tiger Woods could be Brazilian.”

“That’s hardly addressing the issue,” you say, bringing Pasquale Mauro back into the conversation.
“I don’t know this guy’s background, but while it’s private investment, it’s not a charity either.”
“Shouldn’t you know given his background and the fact he’s getting richer off your Olympics?”
“I can tell you about the golf course we are building, I don’t know him, I don’t know these stories. It’s the first time I heard this. Slaves? Strange. Otherwise he would be in the jail.”
“There are ongoing investigations too, the Rio de Janeiro Assembly even suggested he’s corrupt.”
“People like to have a lot of creativity. Sometimes people don’t understand. But we have good stories so we are very proud because we are using the Games to transform the city. How can someone be against this? It doesn’t work in my mind… We are Brazilian, our culture is different.”

*   *   *

The sign outside of the Olympic Village proclaims it to be the work of Odebrecht, the construction giant currently involved in the kickback scandal, but involved in so much else too. They were behind large tracts of the needless and expensive concrete thrown up for the World Cup and one recent story came from Recife where the Arena Pernambuco has largely gone unused. Buried in the forest of paperwork it emerged that the same public-private partnership being championed by the Games means Odebrecht are due another €250m for future games even if there are none. And with local clubs choosing to keep their money and use their own grounds, the taxpayer will pay this too. Brazilian bureaucracy is a hangover from the dictatorship but it also helps hide such details.

And that’s the problem Joaquim Monteiro de Carvalho and others creating these Olympics have. We’ve been here before. All their promises aren’t new, and once bitten… While the World Cup was considered a success around the globe, here it was a comet, fading into darkness. During it, Brazil went into recession; few of the legacy projects ever happened; and stadia have since been desperately used for everything from gospel concerts to mass marriages but they all share a commonality in loss making.

Olympic Site

No claims can suggest an Olympics will be any different for research by the University of California and the Federal Reserve showed the economies of countries that just bid for the Games grow by as much as the economy of the winning nation. Meanwhile as with all mega sporting events, the rich get richer while the poor look on so why should this change everything we already know? A rising tide may lift all boats, but some are still dinghies while others remain yachts.

Back at the Village and with hard hat on, it’s true the place is coming to life, just like the Olympic Park down the road so you can stop the worrying over this being ready on time. If the Games are a representation of their hosts, then it’ll be last minute but it’ll be done. But that shouldn’t be the worry, you realise, as you’re shown the shells of the 31 blocks, each 17-stories high, where the athletes will stay and are told by Mauricio Cruz Lopes, the chief executive of the site, that these 3,600 apartments will be sold on after the Games. What he doesn’t tell you is that the tastelessly named “Pure Island” development will see apartments start at around €670,000 a pop in a city with an average monthly household income of around €600, and that this and 50 per cent of the Games will take place in this largely affluent Barra da Tijuca region.

It brings to mind the words of former Brazilian IOC member Alberto Murray. “Everything that is being built in Rio is being used as an excuse for real estate development,” he said. “Many feel the Olympic Games are being held not for the good of sport and of the citizens but for the interest of real estate speculation.” That’s the feeling you are left with in a part of town that doesn’t co-exist with those at the bus station and the rest of the real Rio de Janeiro.

De Carvahlo argues otherwise and comes across as genuinely excited by the change. But Brazilian history suggests the more people in positions like his talk of change, the more things stay the same.

Irish Examiner
3 April, 2015

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