A few lines on Rio and the Olympics

Sérgio Buarque de Holanda wrote in Raízes do Brasil that south of the equator, there is no such thing as sin. When one thinks of Rio de Janeiro, it is this unboundedness that comes to mind: the spontaneous coming together of bodies, whether in pleasure or in pain, a visceral sensuality and brutality, everything in glorious excess: sex, violence, heat and rhythm; excitement and danger; glamourous wealth and spectacular poverty. Whereas the international Rio of the 1950s was a suave tropical paradise, a playground for the rich, today’s updated image of Rio also acknowledges and, up to a point, celebrates the danger in the form of the stylised violence of Cidade de Deus, and the vicarious, pornographic horrors of baile funk.

Less popular outside Brazil but exponentially more popular inside the country was the film Tropa da elite (eleven million people had reportedly see the film even before it was officially released), which shows the city up somewhat in a much more brutal and far less picturesque manner than Cidade de Deus, making it resemble a tropical Baghdad or Baltimore. The film shows and, according to some, exalts in the violence unleashed by a special police force (the notorious BOPE) in the attempt to clean up the favelas in preparation for the visit of the Pope in 1997.

More upheaval was to come ten years later with the hosting of the Panamerican games, with the then governor of Rio reportedly embarking on a campaign to ‘retake the favelas‘. The games brought new stadiums and a great deal of investment to some of the wealthier parts of the city, but, in the words of a community activist in one of the favelas, delivered ‘nada para os moradores‘ – nothing for the people who actually live in the poorer parts of the city.

Now Rio is to host not just the World Cup in 2016, but also play a major part in the hosting of the Olympic Games two years later. No surprises then at the reaction to the shooting down of a helicopter in one of the favelas late last week. This attack took place despite, or possibly because of the fact that ‘has spent the past year expelling drug gangs and vigilantes from four slums and setting up “pacification” projects by which the slums are permanently occupied by police.’ in response to the attack, the authorities have renewed their promise/threat to clean up the favelas before the VIPs arrive. Comments on Brazilian websites have suggested that the BOPE will have their work cut out over the next seven years.

Megaevents such as the World Cup and the Olympics are now widely understood to involve a very high degree of often very brutal social control. The city must be made safe, negotiable and above all mediatic. Undesirable and unpredictable elements must be airbrushed out of the picture in the bid to produce wholesome and marketable images. But the effects of this process are more than merely cosmetic. The ritual process of evictions, displacements and general corruption that accompanies these events is widely documented elsewhere on this site.

Mega-events transform the city into spectacle, and the airbrushing that gets rid of the evidence – but never the reality – of poverty and inequality is an act of great violence. The brutal forced removals of shanty-town dwellers in South Africa – another society with breathtaking inequalities, largely organised along racial lines – give the lie to the idea that the games in either South Africa or Brazil will be a meaningful celebration of multicultural diversity, one huge party to which everyone is invited.

Rio is a city in which, to paraphrase Andy Merrifield, people would rather stay and be poor than go and live somewhere else. Not that the people of the favelas want to be poor: they would like to have accessible and affordable health and sanitation facilities, proper public transport, investment in education. The same things that the poor would benefit from in any other city, in fact. But the neoliberal city is not about providing these things. It is about getting rid of the poor and appropriating urban space in order to develop an exclusive, private infrastructure: world-class facilities for world-class people.

Sporting megaevents (along with international expos, cities of culture and so on) have a particular role to play in neoliberal urban development. They are an increasingly powerful tool with which cities are remade according to an agenda of transforming the urban environment from a place of spontaneity, unpredictability and the encounter with difference into a much more controlled, homogenous, sanitised space, a theme park and a site of privileged consumption which benefits, primarily, a tiny elite of property developers and large corporate interests (and, one might add, their political servants). Throughout the world the places that poor people are permitted to live are, in a series of orchestrated seismic shocks, shifted away from the centre of the city (and, we might mention, the beach). In the process, that spontaneity, that unboundedness, that constitutes the identity of a city like Rio is destroyed, replaced with a calculable, controlled and entirely dead environment of luxury apartments, shopping malls, private entertainment complexes, and, of course, the ubiquitous empty stadiums, places built by the people who can no longer afford to live in the city, and who could never in their wildest dreams afford to go and see a game. The World Cup and the Olympics, wherever they take place, are not about three weeks of media spectacle. They are about violently taking control of and remaking the city in the interests of the global elite.