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Who's paying for the Rio Olympics?


Even if you don’t normally follow sports, you have probably watched the Olympics or plan to this year. There’s something about the Olympics that sucks us in and turns everyone into a sports fanatic of some kind. But while we’re busy “oohing” and “aahing” over the opening ceremony, we often forget how the world got to this moment.

The spectacle and excitement surrounding  the Olympics can make it easy to forget about the many lives impacted by events of this nature. Large-scale, international sporting events tend to exacerbate social, political, and economic divides. The Winter Olympics in Russia played a part in aggressive crackdowns on LGBT rights. Hundreds have died building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Some 170,000 people were displaced when Brazil built stadiums and expanded infrastructure in advance of the last FIFA World Cup.

Sadly, the preparations for the upcoming Rio Olympics show no signs of breaking from this disruptive pattern.

What’s Been Happening?

Something is rotten in the state of… well, in this case, Brazil. The country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, is facing impeachment - possibly as part of an effort to prevent a corruption investigation that might find fault with many of Brazil’s politicians - and its economy is in its longest recession in several decades. And Brazil is in the middle of a public health crisis because it lacks the capacity to meet the demand for public health care - not to mention the Zika virus.

brazilheader.jpgImage: Flickr: Sam valadi

Meanwhile, Brazil is pouring 12.4 billion USD into preparations for the Summer Olympics in the hopes that the games will cause a boom in tourism helping to revive its shrinking economy. Though, if the 2014 FIFA World Cup was any indication, this is unlikely to be of help in the short or long term.

The true cost of the Olympics is a human cost. It’s the cost placed on the people who can least afford it - the people who live and work in Brazil’s urban slum neighborhoods, called favelas.

The Short End of the Stick

Shortly after Brazil won the right to host the games, its government released a list of 119 favelas, home to hundreds of thousands of people, to be cleared to make way for new roads, stadiums, and buildings.

An estimated 22,000 families have been forced out of their homes in the last 7 years to make room for infrastructure projects - sometimes being forcibly removed by the police. The “lucky” ones who were relocated, not just left without a home, have mostly been moved to the outskirts of Rio --  far from their old homes and often their livelihoods.

To those who have remained in their homes, the government has promised upgrades. But residents of the favelas report no changes, or changes for the worse. Favela residents initially hoped hosting the Olympics would have a positive effect on their lives. This has not been the case. Many broken promises have left them disillusioned and made them distrustful of any government incentives to leave their homes. Some refuse to leave, and are turning down government compensation for their land.

They’re not trying to buy my house...They’re trying to buy my dignity.” Children like Yasmin da Cruz hoped that the improvements might mean sports facilities for the community, but are disappointed to see little positive change taking place.

Why are the favelas being cleared?

The people who live in the favelas are not being relocated solely to make way for roads, stadiums, and buildings, but to clear the way for the glamor of the Olympics to parade through. The government hopes that the area near the Olympic Park will become a lasting tourist hub. To that end, they are trying to craft an image of luxury and commerce. In order to do so, they need to move all signs of poverty away from the area. As a result, favela residents experience intimidation and violence intended to chase them from their homes.

Despite all this, the excitement over the games has given some of Brazil’s poorest a platform to raise awareness and compete like Olympians.

A Platform for Good

Last year Brazil held the world’s first “Indigenous Olympics” (officially called the World Indigenous Games), an effort to celebrate the cultures of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples from around the world gathered in Palmas, Brazil to play both indigenous traditional games and more typical Olympic sports like soccer. Though Brazil’s indigenous peoples have been involved in recent land disputes with the government, athletes from many Brazilian tribes competed.

Earlier this year, the country also hosted the Street Child Games. The goal of these Olympics-inspired games was to raise awareness around the challenges street children face, as well as provide the children with an opportunity to compete using sports as a positive tool for change. Given that Brazil has between 200,000 to 8 million street children, and has been instructing police to “sweep” these children off the street, this is particularly poignant.

There is bound to be change, with any massive event. The Olympics are certainly bringing about a lot of change in Brazil - some negative and some positive. So when you’re cheering for underdog Olympians (like the refugee team), remember to cheer for the underdogs of Brazil whose lives have been permanently altered by the world’s favorite sporting event.