Olympics in the Marvelous City

Olympics in the Marvelous City

For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the international news, Brazil — and its Olympic city of Rio de Janeiro — are in crisis. The senate recently voted to open impeachment proceedings against its president Dilma Rousseff. The former president and populist leader Lula da Silva will face trial for obstruction charges in the large corruption scandal involving the state-run oil company. The state of Rio de Janeiro is in a situation of fiscal emergency. The city of Rio de Janeiro is experiencing an uptick in violence.

Recent media coverage has focused on the negative news in the lead-up to the Games. Athletes and Olympic delegations are being mugged. It will take athletes too long to get from the Olympic village to the sporting venues because of traffic. The accomodations at the Olympic Village were given over to delegations with plumbing problems and faulty wiring. A recent fire forced the Australian delegation to evacuate the Village. When they got back, team shirts and a laptop had been stolen.

In response, Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes gave an interview to The Guardian in which he expressed anger about how the international media portrays the city: “It makes me mad. If you read the international media, it seems like everything here is Zika and people shooting one another.”

And despite these problems, the IOC says Rio is ready to host the Olympics. The sporting complexes are completed. The airports are upgraded and clean. But most of the other promises Rio included in its successful 2009 bid to the IOC remain a distant dream.

Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio De Janeiro. (Artyominc/Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0)
Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio De Janeiro. (Artyominc/Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0)

For those who know me, I hold no love for the “cidade maravilhosa” (marvelous city) of Rio de Janeiro. My partner was murdered here in late April 2015. With this bias in mind, here are ten things I think everyone should know before August 5.

1. 63 Police Officers Are Dead in 2016

We’re only halfway through the year, but 63 police officers have been killed since January in this city of 12 million. At the recent funeral of 26-year-old police officer Victor Erick Braga Faria, one woman told reporters: “Inside a uniform are human beings. Who are fathers. Who are sons. Who have mothers … we are tired of coming here [the cemetery] … and burying our children.”

2. Police Aren’t Getting Paid, So They Go On Strike

If you arrived at Rio’s international airport in early July, you would have been met by a group of police officers holding a sign saying “Welcome to Hell: Police and Firefighters Don’t Get Paid, Whoever Comes to Rio de Janeiro Will Not Be Safe.” Police precincts lack the basics to operate on a daily basis — paper, printer ink, and even toilet paper. The head of the civil police, Fernando Veloso, recently told O Globo, “We’re at the limit of our operational capacity, and I can’t discard the possibility of a collapse.”

Police officers at Rio's international airport protesting severe lack of funding and resources. (airstrike/imgur)
Police officers at Rio’s international airport protesting severe lack of funding and resources. (airstrike/imgur)

3. For Extra Security, the City Brought in the National Guard. But They Might Go on Strike Too

The Força Nacional, which is made up of police officers from various Brazilian states, have been brought in for extra security during the Games. On July 12, the Force staged a protest, threatening to go on strike. They objected to three main problems. One, they had not been receiving their paychecks. (In response, government officials stated that due to “bureaucratic issues,” daily payments were delayed.) Two, the living conditions were abysmal. The Force is staying in a new government housing condominium in the city’s eastern region. Yet when they arrived, they found empty apartments. They had to buy their own mattresses, install faucets and showerheads, and pay for internet connections. Third, the apartment complex is located in an area controlled by milícias — or mafia-style groups that extort residents of the city’s eastern zone in exchange for “vigilante justice.” In mid-July, the specialized police unit that combats organized crime performed a raid in the apartment complex where the National Forces are staying to arrest milicianos. The Guard was stuck in the middle. Members have told reporters they feel “surrounded.”

4. Stray Bullets Continue to Kill

During one week in July, eight people were hit by stray bullets (balas perdidas), four of whom died. Actual numbers of how many people have been hit and killed by stray bullets are hard to come by, however. The state’s Secretary of Security stopped counting casualties in 2013. Perhaps they thought that if they didn’t record the deaths, no one would pay attention.

5. Super Bacteria

The antibiotic-resistant bacteria Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) has been found in several of the city’s main beaches, including Flamengo and Botafogo, the locations of the Olympic sailing events. Leblon and Ipanema — some of the most popular beaches for tourists and locals — were also identified as hotspots for the bacteria. Brazilian scientists have said that the bacteria has come from untreated hospital sewage that flows freely into the Guanabara Bay that borders the city’s beaches. Rio’s 2009 Olympic bid included programs to clean up the Bay’s polluted waters and treat 80% of the city’s sewage. At the time of the bid, only 11% of the city’s sewage was treated. While the government has made impressive strides — 51% of sewage is now treated — the number remains far below the bid’s promises.

An eco-barrier spanning the Meriti river, part of the effort to keep trash out of Rio's Guanabara Bay. (Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil)
An eco-barrier spanning the Meriti river, part of the effort to keep trash out of Rio’s Guanabara Bay. (Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil)

6. Air Pollution is Deadlier Than Ever

According to scientists, Rio’s air pollution is two to three times higher than the WHO’s recommended levels. Beijing 2008 comes in at the most polluted of all Olympic cities since air quality began to be monitored in 1980. But Rio de Janeiro is second. As São Paulo pathologist Paulo Saldiva states, “A lot of attention has been paid to Rio’s water pollution, but far more people die because of air pollution than the water. … You are not obligated to drink water from Guanabara Bay but you must breathe Rio’s air.”

7. Public Transportation Lines Remain Under Construction

Expanded public transportation was to be one of the Olympics’ greatest legacies in this sprawling mega-city: four Bus Rapid Transit lines (BRT) through some of the poorer suburbs, an expanded metro line, and a light rail system (VLT) in the city center. But the VLT is still under construction (and has experienced various mechanical problems) and the metro expansion (Line 4) has faced various delays. At the end of June, the state government was waiting to see if a final loan would be approved to finish the project. Federal Police are investigating the contracts due to possible bribery, and residents will only be able to use the line in 2018.

8. Works That Are Completed Have Problems

The TransOlímpica, a major toll freeway with a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that provides much-needed public transportation to the city’s eastern zone, was inaugurated on July 9. The next day, however, it was closed because one of the freeway’s overpasses had cracked, with cement blocks misaligned, loose, and even broken. The soil under the overpass was sinking into the ground. Problems with the TransOlímpica follow similar issues with the Joá Tunnel (Elevado de Joá), which provides access to Barra da Tijuca, the neighborhood where the majority of the Olympic events will be held. Inaugurated at the end of May, the roadway already presented large holes by early June. As quickly as the government repaves the road, new holes appear. The Ministério Público (State’s Attorney) is investigating the state agency that oversaw the construction as well as the private company that completed the roadway, Odebrecht. Let’s not forget that company’s former head, Marcelo Odebrecht, was just found guilty of 11 charges of bribery and 40 counts of money laundering in the national “Carwash” investigation. Sérgio Mora, the federal judge who ruled on the case, stated that “This was not an isolated act, but part of the corporate policy of the Odebrecht Group.”

9. Improvements to Quality of Life Have Come Crashing Down

On April 21, a large wave hit the newly-inaugurated bicycle path connecting the South Zone neighborhoods of São Conrado and Ipanema. The path came crashing down, killing two people — Eduardo Marinho Albuquerque and Ronaldo Severino da Silva. The State’s Attorney has charged 14 people in relation to the accident. Experts say that the engineers who designed the path only accounted for the force of waves bearing down on the path and not coming up from below.

10. Forced Evictions

The government has forcefully removed 4,120 families from favela (informal housing) settlements to make way for construction projects directly related to the Games. Another 17,939 have been removed in other government-related efforts. Residents of the Vila Autódromo — which borders the Olympic park — made international headlines in their efforts to resist forced removals. Yet by March of this year, most residents had been forced to leave to make way for Olympic developments.

As reporters have said, the Games will go on. In a city marked by inequality, the government will make sure that the few have access to what they need at the expense of millions. The real question is what will happen next. Whether this Olympics will leave a “legacy” that will improve the lives of millions of Rio’s residents seems to be more of a cruel joke than a reality.

Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.