Speaking at a press conference prior to the opening of the Olympics, Mayor Eduardo Paes promised the Rio 2016 Olympics would be “legacy” games, leaving a lasting impact on Rio. The city will be better for having hosted the Olympics. Once the Olympics are underway, “the people will understand the grandeur of the games,” he claimed.
Rio 2016 organizers spent R$200,000 painting Olympic imagery on a partition between the northern favelas in Maré and the Linha Vermelha, a highway that connects the Galeão international airport to the southern zones of Rio. Residents of the favela believe the façade is meant to disguise them from tourists, while organizers claim it is merely decorative – a striking metaphor for the different perceptions of the preparations for the Rio Olympic Games.
While Paes and other officials praise the new Olympic constructions, local activists say their communities have been demolished to make way for Olympic infrastructure. One of the most vocal favelas to speak out against the Olympics has been Vila Autódromo in Zona Oeste. Residents say they were forced out of their homes, which were then demolished in order to make way for the Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca. Among those residents was Heloisa Helena Costa Berto, an activist for the rights of Afro-Brazilians. She is also a Candomblé priestess, and says the government has prevented her from practicing her religion.
But according to Mônica Cunha, who advocates for Brazilian youths and is the founder of Movimento Moleque, the Olympics didn’t have to be this way. Speaking at a Front Line Defenders conference, she said they saw the games as an opportunity, one that would bridge communities together and introduce young people to sports. “This could have been a wonderful moment for our young people. Instead it’s a time of terror, of more incarceration and more death,” she says.
So what are the positive effects of the Games that officials tout? Many point to Rio’s improved transportation system as a one of the city’s biggest improvements thanks to the Olympics. Rio Metro’s Linha 4 and the BRT are already underway and improving transportation from Rio’s center and Zona Sul to Zona Oeste. The Porto Maravilha project has also revitalized the city’s port area with the construction of permanent projects like the elaborate Museu do Amanhã on the Pier Mauá and temporary works like the Boulevard Olímpico.
And then there’s Guanabara Bay. The promise to clean up the polluted water was a major part of Rio’s Olympic bid, and yet despite the fact that Brazil received hundreds of millions of dollars to clear out years of sewage, the games have started with only 50 percent of the bay cleaned up by official estimates. In a disturbing twist to the story, Priscila Pereira, an employee of the PSAM agency in charge of cleaning up the bay, was found murdered in her car last October. An investigation into her death is still underway.
There’s no doubt Rio is aware of its poor image at the moment – Brazil’s current head of state, Michel Temer, only briefly appeared at the Olympics Opening Ceremony to open the games. Crowds booed Temer rather than cheer him on (though it should be remembered that crowds booed Dilma when she opened the 2014 World Cup as well). Before the start of the ceremony, protestors congregated outside the Maracanã Stadium and in Copacabana to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the state of the games. Police descended on the scene to disperse the crowds with teargas and forcibly removed protestors wearing “Fora Temer” shirts. Inside, the ceremony started on schedule and was considered to be a success.
And yet, Olympics have benefitted at least a select few of the favela’s residents. Most notably Rafaela Silva won Brazil’s first gold medal of the Games in the women’s lightweight judo finals. Much has been made of the fact that Silva grew up in Cidade de Deus, one of Rio’s most notorious favelas. The Olympics are no doubt a chance for her to represent some of Brazil’s underrepresented people. Will her win actually have any lasting impact on her community and others in Rio? That remains to be seen.
Naturally current coverage of the Olympics has turned to medal counts and world record breakers – Olympic coverage always does once the competition actually gets underway. But no matter who walks away with the most gold medals in the end, residents of Rio de Janeiro and beyond will be feeling the effects of the Olympics for years to come. For better or for worse.