In the run-up to the Rio Olympics people have been forced from their homes and killed in the streets, while the environment has been permanently damaged.
Photo: violent eviction of the Vila Autódromo communtiy (by Kátia Carvalho).
In August 2016, Rio de Janeiro will host the 31st summer Olympic Games. Preparations have been underway for the past six years. With one year to go, it is time to look at how these preparations are shaping up compared to recent mega-events, which, as a rule, often serve to ensure the continued dominance of neoliberal capitalism.
Evictions in the ‘State of Exception’
The Olympics create a state of exception, similar to Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism, which capitalists are able to exploit. For the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, a state of exception refers to a “threshold of indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism” wherein the conventional process of governance is temporarily circumvented. Importantly, a state of exception can only be declared by the state. As Carl Schmitt put it back in the 1920s: “the exception reveals most clearly the essence of the state’s sovereignty.”
The imminent arrival of the Olympic circus provides a justification for governments to enforce new undemocratic laws and disregard planning legislation. In this state of exception, developers and civic elites systematically mislead governments to their own ends. Essentially, the Olympic Games are not about sport; they are about real estate development. While the overriding goals of the Olympic movement are presented as peace through games, the Olympics ultimately serve the real estate and construction sector in bid cities and constitute a healthy, untaxed profit for the IOC.
At previous mega-events, the state of exception has manifested itself in various ways. At the Brazilian World Cup in 2014, the so-called “Budweiser law” reversed government legislation banning the sale of alcohol in stadiums at the behest of the event sponsor. Perhaps more worryingly, the state of exception also frequently erodes civil liberties.
In Australia, for example, the powers available to police to detain people in Australian sporting arenas was greatly enhanced in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics, and these powers continued to be used after the event. The state of exception in Rio has been used to justify not only the pacification of favelas, but also the wholesale removal of entire communities.
Vila Autódromo has been targeted for removal (and the community has resisted) for over twenty years. Now, with the state of exception induced by the impending mega-event, the removal of Vila Autódromo is being pursued ferociously by the city, given its location next to the Olympic Park.
In recent years, the city has attempted to avoid negative headlines by offering increasing amounts of compensation to residents, resulting in the first ever market-value compensation for favela housing. However, this is still executed in an underhand way, with residents approached individually, unable to know whether they’re being offered more or less than their neighbors. Many residents did not want to leave but felt they had no choice. Nevertheless, the sums of money provided in compensation mark a major achievement for activists in the face of the Olympic machine.
Many residents took these offers and left the community, but a determined few remained. As the opening ceremony draws nearer, however, the authorities seem to have changed their approach to a much more repressive policy of forced evictions. Dubbed “lightning evictions”, this is not confined to Vila Autódromo: forced evictions have also taken place in Morro da Providência, Favela do Metrô, and Santa Marta.
It appears that no warning was given to residents, who were in some cases unable to save some of their belongings, with the military police and municipal guard overseeing evictions. Where resistance was encountered, as in Vila Autódromo, the municipal guard responded with rubber bullets, pepper spray and police batons.
A judicial intervention suspended the evictions in the community and various activists from existing movements and organizations have bolstered the numbers resisting the evictions. Their struggle goes on, but based on evidence from previous Olympic cities, unfortunately, it will likely be in vain.
Repressive pacification of favelas
The Olympics are now characterized by repressive policing strategies and the removal of undesirable populations within the state of exception. Michel Foucault describes surveillance using the metaphor of the panopticon: a prison where each prisoner may be being watched at any time, but they do not know if they are being observed at any given moment.
This individualized surveillance forces people to self-regulate their behavior and can be seen clearly at Olympic events with huge investments in CCTV and in stadia designed so each individual spectator can be easily identified. For many years, particularly since 9/11, the threat of a terrorist attack on the Games has been used to justify spiraling security budgets.
At the first summer Games since the attacks, Athens 2004, the Greek government was pressured by NATO — and particularly by the US government — into spending US$1.5 billion on security. These inflated budgets allow the security industry to invest in the most advanced hardware available, which remains post-Games. The latest developments in security equipment, including military grade technologies, are then used to intimidate activists seeking to make political statements about the Games.
Undoubtedly, some of the security equipment used to quell protests in Athens recently is part of their Olympic legacy. The questions of social control raised by activists are routinely marginalized, with security fears cited incessantly.
Rio’s favelas have for a long time been strongly associated with drug gangs and criminal activity. To have such (perceived) hotbeds of criminality — areas where the safety of spectators could not be assured — so close to the Olympics and World Cup was considered untenable. Hence, the pacification program was launched, a collaboration between federal, state and city government, with the “laudable aim” of permanently removing criminal gangs from Rio’s periphery.
In essence, pacification entails the occupation of favela communities by BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais – Police Special Operations Battalion) followed by the establishment of a UPP (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – Police Pacifying Unit). These units then police the communities, with UPP Social, recently re-branded as Rio+Social due to its woeful reputation, providing services to these communities.
The Brazilian police responsible for administering this program have a well-deserved reputation for brutality dating from the years of military rule (1964-1985). The mentality of the police lumps favela dwellers with the drugs gangs targeted by the UPPs, tarnishing all as the “enemy within”. This is borne out by the statistics: in Rio de Janeiro alone, the state police were responsible for 362 killings in the first half of 2013. Favela’s undergoing pacification are essentially urban warzones, yet families continue to live in these communities through this process, with children as young as ten killed by police.
Investment has not always followed the UPP, and where it has, services have been provided by the market as opposed to state provision, meaning residents are often unable to afford to continue living in the favela. The state is absent from favelas and with the market barely regulated, residents are priced out and forced to leave, with nowhere else for them to go.
As such, the pacification program aims to incorporate land into the city and improve its value, leaving the population excluded and homeless. Therefore, pacification can be seen as part of a deliberate policy of gentrification, removing the poor from Rio de Janeiro and seizing their homes for profit. Similar processes of gentrification have occurred, albeit less violently, in almost all recent Olympic host cities.
Serious about sustainability?
In 1999 the IOC adopted environmental sustainability as the third pillar of the Olympic movement. Alongside this, claims are frequently made about the ability of sport to contribute to social development. These claims serve to ensure the support for the Olympic venture within the host cities, despite warnings about the nature of delivery affecting outcomes.
The potential benefits of sport, while genuine, should be approached critically, as social benefits are dependent on a plethora of factors and should not be taken for granted. It is a regular occurrence that marginalized populations are pushed further towards the periphery of society by Olympic events, as seen, in the case of Rio de Janeiro, in the pacification policy and evictions in Vila Autódromo.
Yet the evidence from previous games seems to suggest organizers of mega-events simply pay lip service to environmental and social issues, dropping their apparent principles the moment they become costly and inconvenient. This contributes to the feel-good, mythical rhetoric of ‘Olympic values’ and allows sponsors to enhance their social and environmental credentials.
No Olympic games has ever been, or will ever be, genuinely positive for the environment. The massive construction projects and the flying of athletes, media and spectators around the globe, among other issues, serve to ensure this. The question for Olympic organizers is never “how can we be good to the environment?”, but is rather “how much environmental damage can we avoid?”. This question then becomes interpreted as how much damage a host city can afford to avoid. This invariably results in commitments made for the environment being dropped when deadlines loom large and budgets spiral out of control.
In Rio de Janeiro, the organizing committee promised to clean up Guanabara Bay, where sailing events are planned to take place during the games. However, the state of the bay has regularly made international headlines due to the disgusting nature of the water, which has been described by sailors as an open sewer. The Mayor of Rio de Janeiro admitted in 2014 that the environmental commitments made during the bidding process would not be reached.
Not only are the promises to make improvements dropped at the first sign of a bill, the Olympics also actively damage the environment. For example, the natural wetlands of Eagleridge Bluffs on the outskirts of Vancouver were destroyed to make way for a new highway to Whistler, where the mountain events would take place.
Environmental destruction in preparation for the Olympics has been increased by the return of golf to the Olympic games for the first time since 1904. The construction of golf courses is intensely environmentally damaging, due to deforestation, large-scale use of chemicals, the destruction of natural habitats and large-scale water usage.
This is particular pertinent in Rio de Janeiro, as Brazil faced its most severe drought for decades in early 2015. While the problems were most keenly felt in São Paulo, steps were taken in Rio to cut down on water usage, but the irrigation of the golf course continued, suggesting that plush greens are prioritized over hydrated citizens.
A different role for the mass media
The role of the mass media is crucial for celebrating capitalism in disseminating the imagery of the spectacle across the nation and wider world. The Olympic Games, according to the IOC, are watched by over 4 billion people, making it one of the world’s largest media events. This global reach provides a platform for the spreading of neoliberal capitalist doctrine, through the spectacular imagery of the Games.
The mass media organizations often act as overt or covert promoters of the bid, providing value in kind donations and censoring critical journalism. Even when journalism critical of mega-events is published, it is then condemned.
In the context of the recent shift to hosting mega-events outside the first world, particularly in the BRICS nations, the Western media has tended to become more critical of event preparations. The majority of criticisms in the lead-up to these events comes from external, Western sources. It has been suggested that this is due to reluctance from Western audiences to cede power and credibility to emerging nations.
A similar trend was observed in media coverage of the 1996 Cricket World Cup in South Asia, suggesting government attempts to present positive images of nations are hampered by existing stereotypes and criticisms. As such, critical journalism will be more likely at the Rio Olympics than at similar events in the Global North, although this coverage will not necessarily criticize the Olympics directly, instead focusing on organizational inefficiencies or poverty in an attempt to maintain the cultural dominance of the West.
The Rio Olympic games will undoubtedly be a spectacular festival of sport. But the production of this spectacle has transformed Rio de Janeiro, turning it into an even more divided city with expanded zones of exclusion in which the poor are no longer welcome. Residents have been physically and economically forced from their homes, they have seen their friends killed in the streets, and their environment has been permanently damaged. In response, residents have protested — and will continue to protest — even though they have had only small and symbolic victories so far.
As the Olympic machine rumbles on, the concerns of Rio’s residents will likely be drowned out by the cheers.
Adam Talbot is a PhD researcher in the School of Sport and Service Management at the University of Brighton. He tweets at @AdamTalbotSport.This article has benefited greatly from reports produced by RioOnWatch.org, a key source for news on the restructuring of the Olympic city.