The Rio 2016 games will be a disaster for Brazil, and so was the World Cup

Despite majorf43342b886d89f64b6d92581c183775c concerns heading into the tournament, most observers concluded that, apart from the 7-1 semifinal disaster against Germany, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil proved to be a success. At least in the sense that the games all started on time, and the visitors and media were able to make it all the games without incident. Nevertheless, much like the Brazilian national team’s by the skin of their teeth journey to the semifinals of that tournament, the relative success of the World Cup and the fact that, in the end, Brazil will likely pull of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games smoothly, has masked serious problems with the way Brazil had prepared for the two mega-events. And even if it doesn’t end with a spectacular collapse like defeat to Germany, even if the games come off well for those that compete and attend them, they, like the World Cup, will be a disaster on par with the 7-1 loss.

The important starting point when judging mega-events like the World Cup or Olympics is that they are always a massive waste of money. The general economic consensus indicates that whatever benefit a city or country gets from the event is massively outweighed by the costs of preparing for it. This is particularly acute with the Olympics, where it’s necessary to have venues available for sports that might not even be popular in the country hosting the games (i.e. baseball stadiums in Greece). The one argument in favor of hosting a World Cup or Olympics in spite of this fact is that, while the event is not worth the money in strict monetary terms, hosting a prestige event that will draw in lots of foreigners can help cities overcome bottlenecks to push through necessary infrastructure projects that might otherwise get bogged down. Accordingly, while it might be a waste to build that giant new soccer stadium, at least you’ll finally be able to overcome the NIMBYs and get that new public transit line built.

To a certain degree, this is what happened
with the 2012 London Olympics. It served as a catalyst to redevelop an underdeveloped part of east London more quickly than would have happened otherwise. It’s still unclear how beneficial this actually was compared to the baseline, but it’s not a ridiculous idea on its face. With its diffuse geographic nature, the benefits of the World Cup were never going to be easy to parse, but in a soccer-mad country like Brazil, having a handful of new or renovated stadiums around the country didn’t seem like totally ridiculous waste of money, especially since whatever money the Brazilian government spent was supposed to be spent on infrastructure improvements and not on the stadiums themselves. The Rio games, on the other hand, were billed as a catalyst for a massive improvement opportunity for the city.

Juliana Barbassa’s fantastic new book, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink casts into relief Rio’s failure, and Brazil’s failure in general, to achieve even this modicum of success. Written in the first person and full of personal reflections about her relationship with the city of her childhood upon moving back as an adult, Dancing with the Devil’s reporting focuses on the changes occurring in Rio beginning around the time Brazil won both the World Cup and Olympic Games. Throughout the book, Barbassa draws the reader back to the failures in governance that force huge portions of the population to live in the crossfire of gang and police violence, often at risk of losing their homes, while raw sewage runs through the streets of their neighborhoods.

Much of the early part of the book focuses on Rio’s sprawling favelas, within which live SOME percent of the city’s 12 million residents. The most affecting part of the book deals with the invasion of Vila Cruzeiro, a favela in the northern part of the city which served, along with the neighboring Compleixo do Alemão, as a locus for the most violent criminal gangs in Rio. The gangs inside the favela were so well fortified and so well armed, that the Brazilian Navy had to be brought in to provide support to the police. Barbassa details the harrowing military operation that eventually brought both Vila Cruzeiro and the Compleixo do Alemão under police control under the mandate of the Pacifying Police Units (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora, UPP). This was treated as a major triumph by the police and government in Rio, but, in Barbassa’s words, it was reminiscent of “George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech in 2003, when he made an action figure landing aboard an aircraft carrier and declared” victory.

While the reduction in violence, in and of itself, represented a dramatic improvement in the quality of life for the favela dwellers, the improvement of government services was halting and uneven. While the Compleixo do Alemão was supposed to be administered by the specially-trained UPP officers, a lack of trained officers meant that the military remained for several years instead. The same issues of police violence and drug trafficking, with it associated criminal violence remained, although diminished and changed. Recently, it bubbled back to the surface as a national issue when Rio police were caught on video committing what were, in effect, executions. In early October, Mac Margolis wrote about how the extra-official slayings threaten the real gains achieved in the pacified zones. He cited the fact that there are not enough trained UPP officers to work all of the necessary posts, leaving them to other officers more accustomed to the Brazilian police forces’ “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality summed up so well in the common Brazilian phrase bandido bon é bandido morto (a good criminal is a dead criminal). In fact, despite the high expectations generated by the UPPs, the murder rate in Brazil has actually risen in recent years, focused heavily on the country’s poorest urban residents.

Later on, Barbassa travels to find the source of the Rio Carioca, whose name gives the residents of Rio their demonym. Until the 20th Century, the river was the main water source for the city, but as Barbassa describes, is now more easily identified with one’s nose than one’s eyes. The section running through the heart of the city is mostly paved over, and where it’s exposed, has concrete banks. As such, Cariocas “could be forgiven for assuming that his gray, dead discharge is part of the wastewater treatment system, and not the stream born less than three miles away at the feet of Cristo, among granite boulders and lush forests.” Of course, upon arriving at its source, where there “was something that looked and smelled like a mountain creek,” Barbassa hardly has to look more than a few hundred feet to see “PVC tubing snaked down the hillsides, each contributing one home’s worth of waste to the stream.”

However, it is not not just the poor, lacking any other option, who end up just dumping their waste into whatever waterway will take it away from their homes. In the rapidly developing western part of the city, where much of the Olympic infrastructure is under construction, newly built apartment complexes catering to upper middle and upper class Cariocas, often dispatch their wastewater directly into the marshes nearby. Unlike favela dwellers, these apartments don’t dispatch their wastewater wherever they can because they lack other options. Rather, it is easier and cheaper for developers to build pipes that dump into nearby waterways than to get them linked into the sewage system. And since no one stops them or punishes them if they don’t, there is little downside relative to the cost savings. In a telling anecdote, while accompanying researchers studying the caimans that inhabit that region, Barbassa learns from one of the researchers that they face more danger from sewage-borne diseases in the water than from the caimans themselves.

When Rio won the games in 2010, two important tenets of the preparations were going to be integrating the favelas into the urban fabric of the city, and cleaning up the polluted waterways in and around the city. Integration included linking the favelas to public services like the power grid, water and sewage systems, but also helping link favela dwellers to jobs through improvements to the public transportation system. Virtually none of this has happened. The choice to put the main venues where they did, away from the city center in the suburban frontier, meant that the infrastructure improvements were geared toward the residents middle and upper class residents of that part of the city, meaning highways. Transportation within the city center has barely improved–the World Cup was supposed to contribute to this as well–and new highways do little to link the urban poor to the new growth center miles away. There were some plans drafted to integrate the favelas into Rio’s public service network, many of which were praised by urban design experts for their forward thinking. However, Barbassa details how most of these were quietly tabled, and in a disturbing number of cases, residents were instead informed that their communities would be destroyed.

In the end, little was done to integrate the favelas into the rest of the urban fabric. The omnipresent smell of human feces Barbassa describes in her visits to those communities remains. So does the threat that in bad weather, whatever makeshift sewage system does exist will be overwhelmed and people will find their homes flooded with sewage. The upshot of this is that the water pollution in Rio remains as bad as ever. A report by the AP in July, based on a study they commissioned, showed that the water in the areas of the city designated for various outdoor water events, such as long distance swimming and sailing, was so polluted with fecal coliforms and other bacteria that it poses a serious health risk to the athletes, including in the water just off Rio’s famous Copacabana Beach. Despite this, just a couple of weeks ago, the organizers of Rio 2016 announced that there will not be any testing of the waters at the Games. A breathtaking decision to simply ignore the problem.

The Olympics, even with the extra attention from the World Cup, was never going to be enough impetus to fix all the problems affecting urban Brazil. However, from the beginning, Brazilian politicians talked about the positive legacy the events would have for the country. The World Cup came off despite the concerns in no small part because of Brazilians’ ability to improvise and make due with adverse situations (a skill called jetiinho in Brazil), and it’s not ridiculous to imagine a similar thing occurring next summer with the Olympics. However, simply pulling off the events without embarrassing the country cannot be the point. When Brazil won both events in quick succession at the end of the last decade, President Lula declared that, “All those people who thought we had no ability to govern this country will now learn that we can host the Olympics.”

The World Cup and Olympics were supposed to leave a legacy long after the athletes went home and the cameras were turned off. And yet, sixteen months after the end of the World Cup, and ten months out from the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and it’s difficult to see how that legacy will be a positive one. Crime may have been contained such that tourists in the country for a few weeks wouldn’t perceive it as an issue. Yet, just miles away, police and drug traffickers wage open war in the favelas, with police summarily killing “criminals” and the traffickers committing heinous acts of retribution. Brazil’s government may be capable of ensuring that all the venues are completed on time, but at the cost of spending money meant for public works projects like infrastructure improvements, such cleaning up the filthy waters around Rio de Janeiro. Brazil will remain a country without adequate infrastructure, with one of the highest murder rates in the world, where a significant portion of the residents of its richest cities have raw sewage running through their neighborhoods and whose children are constantly at risk of being struck by a stray bullet.

Brazil may succeed in pulling off the Olympics as well as it did the World Cup; sufficient so that everyone could get to the games on time and without incident. But Brazil’s Olympics will still be a disaster, just like the World Cup was. Because if you can’t point to anything useful the games helped facilitate, it becomes impossible to even justify them as a means to an end; breaking down obstacles impeding necessary improvements. Instead, Brazil is left having spent billions of dollars building stadiums–despite pledges not to spend public money on them–while millions of people living in its biggest, richest cities still live without access to basic services and the rich and poor alike flush their toilets straight into the water they live along. Brazil’s World Cup and Olympics didn’t just cost the money they spent building the venues, it also cost all the money that could have been spent improving the lives of Brazilians instead.

No matter how nice the games look on TV, they have been an unmitigated disaster.

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