Brazil’s Olympic-sized problems

The organisation of global events are often alleged to be mired in illegal proposals and shady dealings.

Brazil recently witnessed huge protests against government waste and corruption in sporting organisations [AFP]

The International Olympic Committee recently convened in Buenos Aires, where it chose Tokyo to host the 2020 Summer Games, restored wrestling to the Olympic programme, and elected German fencing champion Thomas Bach as its new president. Amid the frenzy and spectacle, it would be easy to forget that the prior week, the IOC quietly concluded a pre-Games inspection of Rio de Janeiro, host of the 2016 Olympics.

The IOC’s Coordination Commission rehearsed the predictable pabulum about Rio’s “strong, solid progress” towards delivering on legacy projects. It soft-pedalled its criticism, urging Rio “to focus on its top priorities”, such as venue building and infrastructure construction. But below the shiny surface of the IOC’s official imprimatur, serious trouble lurks as the country prepares to host both the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 football World Cup finals.

Brazil is being simultaneously steamrolled by both the IOC and FIFA, the Swiss-based non-governmental organisations that dominate global sport. Last month, in advance of the IOC’s inspection, Marcio Fortes, the head of the Rio 2016 Olympic Public Authority, resigned in high-profile fashion. Fortes complained that his group, which was responsible for coordinating the efforts of government and Olympic officials, lacked influence in the running of the Games’ preparations.

The behind-the-scenes struggle to control the Olympic purse strings has generated bitter internal conflicts, delayed projects, and prevented the release of a budget – with less than three years before the Games’ opening ceremony.

Escalating costs

Despite the absence of a budget, the costs of hosting the Games have escalated sharply. The Rio organising committee recently announced that the Olympic operating budget would require a $700m injection of public funding, bringing the total cost of running the Games to approximately $4bn. And this does not include infrastructure costs, which the original bid slated at $11.6bn, a number that the chief operating officer of the Rio Games said was likely underestimated by 35 percent. The 2016 Olympics will cost more than $15bn, with the price tag sure to spiral even higher. On top of this, Brazil is plowing another $13.3bn into hosting the 2014 World Cup finals.

FIFA fears rise for Brazilian World Cup

Honest economists will tell you that sports mega-events are essentially upbeat shakedowns. As economist Jeffrey Owen put it: “To date there has not been a study of an Olympics or other large-scale sporting event that has found empirical evidence of significant economic impacts… [and] it is unlikely that anyone ever will.” When the IOC and FIFA rev up their platinum cavalcades and whiz onwards to their next destination, Brazil will be left with crippling public debt and a trophy case full of white-elephant projects. 

The World Cup and Olympics are glitzy conveyor belts for private accumulation. The deployment of public money to facilitate opportunities for private profit sits at the crux of this business model. In Rio, this has crystallised in the case of Maracana Stadium. The Rio de Janeiro state government spent $560m to revamp the hallowed stadium before bequeathing it to private entities at cut-rate prices. Along the way, they violently expelled an indigenous settlement, closed one of Rio’s only Olympic-standard athletics facilities, and aggressively repressed protests that demanded the public stadium not be privatised. 

During the destruction and reconstruction of the Maracana, people living around the stadium were expelled from their homes. Such displacement is commonplace when the IOC and FIFA come to town. In the nearby Favela do Metro, the city government denied residents the possibility of collective negotiation. When the city reached an agreement with a family, they paid in cash, quickly bulldozed the house and left the rubble behind. The community became a haven for crack cocaine users and was gradually destroyed.

On the site of the Olympic Park, the Vila Autodromo, a lakeside community of 4,000 people, was threatened by a nefarious blend of legal and illegal methods. The head of Rio 2016, the mayor, the governor, and Rio’s major newspaper clamoured to have the community turned to rubble. However, through strong organised resistance spearheaded by residents, social movements, urban planners, architects, and academics, the mayor recently guaranteed the permanence of the Vila Autodromo – a major activist victory. 

Military security

The government is using drone technology to monitor favelas, stadiums, and public spaces.

Militarisation is part and parcel of the mega-event spectacle. Not only does the spending on new armaments bolster the international arms trade, but it simultaneously protects the spectacle while bolstering it. Unlike London 2012, surface-to-air missiles haven’t yet been ratcheted onto Rio’s rooftops, but the Military Police have been occupying strategic areas of the city for the past four years. In local parlance, these are “pacification units”. The security budget for the World Cup is around $1bn.

The government is using drone technology to monitor favelas, stadiums, and public spaces. Large men with large guns ostentatiously patrol the tourist areas, while the city’s non-Olympic zones are forgotten. The brutal actions of Brazil’s Military Police during the protests that occurred during the Confederations Cup received FIFA’s stamp of approval. Mega-events are about showing the world that a country is safe for business and tourism. This often comes at the expense of human and civil rights.

At the meetings in Buenos Aires, IOC members finally began to publicly criticise Rio 2016 – if in a superficial way – for running behind schedule on venue and transport construction. In a recent moment of unexpected frankness, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes lamented the fact his country was hosting the Games. With a cynical eye on the public mood, he argued that the fact Brazilian sports honchos enjoyed lifetime appointments was a “scandal” and said that FIFA “only cares about stadiums”. Activists in Brazil have also connected the dots, taking aim at both the IOC and FIFA. FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke recently asserted “it would be stupid” to say there would not be protests at the 2014 World Cup. As last weekend’s cross-country protests demonstrated, it would be even more stupid to assume that Brazilian activists have forgotten the power and potential of their June 2013 demonstrations.  

Gregory Michener is Assistant Professor of political science and administration at the Fundaçao Getulio Vargas (EBAPE) in Rio de Janeiro.

Chris Gaffney hosts the blog “Hunting White Elephants” and is a Professor at UFF (Universidade Federal Fluminense), a Federal University in Rio de Janeiro.