Read Morro Asfalto Mar

The time has come! We’ve been sitting on physical copies of the book for the whole summer, distributing them to friends, family, and relatives. This project means so much to us and the people who helped us make it happen, and we’re happy to finally share a free PDF that anyone can read online.

You can find a link to the digital copy of our book below. We spent the summer of 2016 researching and preparing for our trip to Rio, and then from September 2016 to June 2017, we worked on transcribing interviews, editing photos, and creating the final product. You can read the book digitally in PDF, or reach out to us to purchase a physical copy in square-back form, on 76 glossy, full color pages.

Reflection on the past two weeks


Graffiti in the Penha Circular neighborhood of the North Zone

Although our project is far from over, I thought it would be beneficial to personally reflect on the 11 days I spent in Rio de Janeiro. It is a city unlike any other: an impossible urban sprawl grouped among hills of unparalleled beauty. But our goal was not to become caught up in Olympic fever, or to join the “movement” – it was measure the contribution the IOC and the Olympic institution made to Brazil’s marvelous city, and to report on this as objectively as we were able. With this in mind, the story behind the “façade,” as so many participants in our project referred to it, using many different metaphors, leaves a bitter taste which will permanently affect my perception of this festival of sport.

The name of our project, Morro, Asfalto, Mar, alludes to a commonly known division that exists in Rio. The morro is the “hill.” This is where the favelas are – neglected neighborhoods and communities that hardly deserve the titles given them in the media. They are not shanty towns, nor are they slums. They are communities constructed by the residents without any assistance from the municipal government. In some instances this means that drug traffickers become the central authority of the community. Armed teenagers wearing Calvin Klein and knockoff Gucci buzz each other on walkie-talkies. They are the law enforcement. Sometimes residents must enter and exit through bocas where drugs are packaged and weapons are displayed and cleaned openly. The city’s solution to this power vacuum is to impose police “pacification” units, which have been engaging in violent clashes with the ruling traffickers since 2008. Every day residents are killed by stray bullets from these clashes. The police are undertrained, unfamiliar with the areas they patrol, and ultimately indiscriminate in their distribution of “justice.”

Favela residents see the police as antagonistic. They are quick to indicate that they do not reject institutional order – rather, they see themselves as unwilling participants in a guerrilla war between the drug runners, some of whom are former friends and family, and foreign bodies of heavily armed civil servants. The pacification itself is theatrical, and has done little to stymy the actions of the traffickers. The method is not intelligent, and ultimately, innocent lives are lost.

The asfalto – literally “asphalt” – is the opposite of the coin. The neighborhoods of the South and West zone and developed and safe for the most part. The beach is all that Rio is willing to offer to tourists – aside from Lapa, it is the entirety of the city a far as guide books and Visit Rio magazine are concerned. Here, the vast majority of tourists can hang out in a bubble, seperated from any perceivable negative impact the Olympic movement might have had by physical barriers, in the form of startling, beautiful geography. Carefully erected invisible barriers exist as well, directing foreigners and locals alike around areas of ill-repute, as if they were cardboard towns and castles on a miniature golf course. With the hill, the earth, and the mar, the sea, we bring together the divided city under the diverse terrain of the many events that went on throughout the city during our trip.

Monday after the closing ceremony: a national holiday so tourists could make their hasty exit. Tuesday after the closing ceremony, and the dregs of beach-goers are hardly anywhere to be seen on Copacabana beach. The downtown is once again an unappreciated heat sink. The metro is full of commuters and nowhere are the Olympic cups, hats, necklaces, and foreign accents that peppered the cars and stations. There is no line to take a picture in front of the Olympic Rings.

The circus, it would seem, has packed up and left. What is its legacy? Senseless expenditures: A BMX circuit in Alemão on which the government spent billions of reais was rejected in favor of another one near Deodoro. The same goes for the Olympic golf course. Stadiums were erected which will slowly be dismantled. An environmentally protected site was re-listed as a “municipal park” so that it could be mined to build stadiums and parking lots, with a gaping hole 70m deep and visible from Google Earth left over to fill with rain water. I have seen it, destitute, and the scar is indeed deep. Hospitals will see their funding cut. Schools days have been cancelled as teachers fail to receive regular pay. Police are in the same position, and have protested vocally.

A Brazilian economist joked that Rio’s current infrastructure would normally not be able to handle the influx of visitors to the games, but the number of Cariocas who would flee to other places in order to avoid the madness would balance this number out. This is the conceit of the entire fortnight: Cariocas have priorities, and Rio 2016 is by and large not a priority. Lives must resume. Struggles must resume. The Olympics is a sideshow, an aperitif, a commercial in between episodes of a decade-long novela. It was consumed by tens of millions. They cheered with national pride as they won gold for the first time ever; cheered individual heroes who faced their trials in spite of their home country; cheered by “fans” who Google the rules to beach volleyball and gymnastics while tuning in from the couch. The city spent money that it did not have. The tax payers will shoulder the burden in the years to come.


Protestors outside of Centro station.

In every interview we held, this was the most sobering, and frightening of realizations: when the election comes in October, it is very possible that Brazil will face crippling austerity, the kind that shackles a hardworking, faceless population as punishment for the actions of the corrupt few who will never get their comeuppance. No one we spoke to saw a silver lining, just a change in regime, a new face to the corruption and cronyism that has plagued them, and left little faith in their representative democracy. The poorest residents — those who live in the favelas that are ignored and stripped of their humanity — fear for their livelihood. The countless activists who struggle to help fear they will be powerless. The more fortunate turn inwards, to wring their hands in safety. Nobody cares, “as long as they can go out and get a drink and attend the samba parties on the weekend,” as one man put it.

And that is my take. Rio 2016 was a party for the richest, most privileged members of global society, one which was broadcasted live in thousands of hours of colorful HD to give the world a fleeting semblance of participation, and funded by a country in the bowels of one of the worst recessions in the history of mankind, who rented the rights to the Olympic name and logo from an oligarchic organization that is a disgrace to the ethics it claims to uphold. We should not be ashamed for engaging, unifying, and celebrating like we have, but we should be ashamed that we allow such events to be conducted the way they have been. We should be ashamed that it will all happen again  in four years. Maybe 80,000 Japanese will not be kicked out of their homes, but the show is contractually obligated to go on.

I include myself in this class of privileged observer, despite my intention, despite the assistance I received from my University, despite the effort I made to familiarize myself with all backgrounds, all races, all groups that make up Rio’s colorful fabric. We can enjoy the spectacle as individuals, and report on our findings as “Morro, Asfalto, Mar,” but we were swindled just like everyone else, including you, reading this, thinking about what a great time I must have had in the thick of it, and all the astounding, stupefying sights I must have seen at the expense of others. The most corrupt organizations in the country scrape off their profits, and the bill is unceremoniously dropped at the feet of millions of Cariocas who watch as the world returns to its business. Two of the greatest athletes ever announce their retirement. A few go home national heroes. Most leave with nothing but memories, in economy class, just like myself, turning my back on the grace and hospitality of a nation with an uncertain future.


Arvore Seca –Early Education on the Salt of The Earth


“Não facilite os crimes.”

These were the instructions we were given by an older man checking glucose levels outside the Engenho Novo rail station. His service operated on a card table and clapboard sign. Nearby men shuffled and grunted at a café, watching highlights from the previous days Olympic events spliced in between images of a bus workers’ strike, crouching police, and arguing celebrities. Our contact and translator, Annabel, was late (she later admitted to falling headfirst into the relaxed, elastic scheduling of “carioca time”), and we were looking up the church she intended to take us to on Google Maps. Much of our trip would come to be defined by planning a meeting over messenger or facebook, then narrowly missing the person we intended to see.


In our experience, Brazilians have been extremely wary of foreigners’ expensive possessions. The roadside physician told us the best way to avoid getting robbed was to avoid attracting attention to yourself. It was 08:00, people were on their way to work. We saw little likelihood of getting robbed, a group of three in broad daylight.


When we arrived at Paróquia São Tiago Apóstolo church, in Lins de Vasconcelos, we were greeted by Maria, the leader of the Sal da Terra crèche. She led us around the compound, which contained a church, a large pavilion, and a smaller office building with a back garden. A drainage ditch ran past the office, filled with sewage. Everything else was spotless. This became a recurring theme: residents do their best to maintain clean, healthy spaces, but the exteriors give way to vagrancy and lack of attention from the municipal government. Around the awning in the yard behind the office, children’s paintings of their homes in the favelas, Christ the Redeemer, and other iconic images of Rio lined the wall. We were waiting for two French Olympic swimmers, who were visiting with Graines de Joie, a humanitarian group active in Romania, Brazil, and Burkina Faso. The group provided the crèche with supplementary money, as did Air France.


While we waited, Maria, the crèche leader, explained to us Sal da Terra’s complicated financial circumstances. Although the crèche had been active for 31 years, it was forced to integrate with the Rio de Janeiro ministry of education (based in Brasilia) in 2003. Overnight, Sal da Terra and many other favela crèches were expected to have fully trained staff in a variety of positions. Volunteers were no longer adequate, and many places which could not meet the new standards were immediately shut down. Every year, more crèches suffer a similar fate, as they are unable to meet the city’s standards, despite receiving little to no increase in funding or assistance. The municipal government also funds its own daycares, and if Sal da Terra were to shut down, the children would be absorbed into whatever municipal crèche is closest. Almost all of them are at or over capacity, so this would be impossible, and the mothers of the children would be forced to quit their jobs, or make concessions.


Only 25% of the children in Brazil in need of a daycare have access to one. A national organization called FUNDEB distributes funding for organizations supporting basic education. This is less than 50% of the crèche’s operating cost. In São Paulo, the city government provides the remaining support. São Paulo invests over 600 reais per child, per month. Minas Gerais invests a similar amount. Rio de Janeiro only receives about 220 reais. To exacerbate matters, the city often “poaches” employees from the favela crèches, offering them a more stable job and higher pay.

Two of the priests we spoke with, and more volunteers who donated time to caring for the children, were currently undergoing training courses in order to meet the Ministry of Education’s standards. They said despite the difficulty and time commitment required for the adjustment, there have actually been many positive benefits. The crèche was now becoming a center for early childhood education. Many people take for granted the social and communication skills taught in pre-kindergarten daycares and schools – growing up without the ability to sit still, respect authority figures, and interact with classmates can negatively affect the growth of a child. When one grows up in an area similar to a war zone, the stability of school can sometimes be the only outlet. Favela communities are well-documented for the violence and instability which can be prevalent. It is easy to imagine these areas as lawless, sprawling slums, but many have progressed beyond this simplified image over the course of decades, evolving into viable neighborhoods which provide for themselves whatever the city cannot, and improvising the rest. They said in Brazil, it’s common for people to buy private healthcare and private schooling if they can afford to, as the state-provided equivalent is generally inadequate.


We interviewed various people from the crèche for a few hours, and then the swimmers arrived. After a short, trilingual meet-and-greet, we went outside to prepare to visit the crèche itself. Two athletes from the Rio games were representing the charity – Frederick Bousquet, who was at his final games (he was 35) and holds the world record for 50m freestyle, and Lorys Bourelly, who competed in the 200m freestyle in his second Olympics. Sal da Terra is in a favela called Árvore Seca (dry tree), consisting of a single street that winds up the hill. The favela was one of 12 communities formally recorded in the neighborhood, on a hill that runs up the slope of the Tijuca National Park. It hosts a baile funk, a funk party, every year, and is a hub of Afro-Brazilian culture as part of the Complexo de Vas network of favelas on the hill.


We piled into 5 cars with the swimmers, two reps from the charity, two priests, two cooks, a volunteer French/Portuguese translator, and various volunteers at the crèche. As opposed to Copacabana, which is very modern and clean, this area lacked public sanitation and looked more like a developing country. Graffiti covered every other building. Some people had barbed wire around the gates to their house, others didn’t. In the neighborhood below the favela there were shops, cafes, car repair places, but the favelas was strictly residential, with no organized or institutional services, except for one building which advertised Maui Thai on Thursdays. In the morning, around 11:00, nobody was around, but when we left in the afternoon many kids and people were hanging about and talking, riding bikes, and conducting errands.

IMG_9583.jpgYou know you have entered the favela because at one point, the road is blocked off by a DIY checkpoint, where you have to slowly weave through barrels while the UPP (Police Pacification Unit) watches from behind a wall. The police never enter the favela, and there is normally only one street entrance and exit. According to Annabel, the entrance to the favela her boyfriend lives in is quite different – you have to walk through a building where a large group of men bag drugs and clean guns. They’re non-confrontational but they “cannot know if you carry a camera.” On the way up the hill in our cars we saw a shirtless teenager walking by casually holding a pistol with a banana clip in it. He had two more clips poking out the waistband pocket of his camo trackies. We wound up the street and people were out working on the their houses, washing their cars, and kids were playing with dogs. Most of the houses in the favela had unfinished top levels, with rebar sticking out and piles of brick off to the side in case the residents want to add another floor. Some of the houses had massive satellite dishes, and everyone had electricity. It was peaceful, but from the numerous stories we had heard, the quiet engendered a tense atmosphere.


The crèche was built in the 80s by C&A. The building was bright yellow and decorated with the Olympic mascot. From the inside, it looked like a typical daycare. It was in a walled yard and had three stories, with a refectory and office on the ground floor and a little play area outside. The second floor had classrooms, and the terrace wound around to the back of the building where there were showers, picnic tables, and a play area. There were maybe 30 kids there in matching blue t-shirts, all around 2-3 years old. The focus of the visit was Bousquet, who was delivering gifts to the children and letting them crawl all over him. We ate lunch and listened to some speeches by the older leaders, and took a break to sing a samba tune.


On the balcony, we discussed the main division residents of favelas like Arvore Seca saw in the Rio 2016 games. While the Olympic pillars of inclusiveness, participation, and celebration of sport were appreciated and loved by all, the implementation of the games were poorly managed, and many communities in the North Zone felt left out. The south has already received so much development and investment, so why would it need any more? Very little of the Olympics touched the north. Very little of the corruption which is virulent in the planning and construction of Olympic venues has touched the north either. The crèche volunteers cared little about this – they had their own issues to deal with. Underfunding is a source of constant frustration, one which has and will exist long after the closing ceremony. The crèche leaders did not think that the Olympics themselves siphoned away their precious funding – this had always been an issue, one which was too expensive and complicated to directly protest in Brasilia


To learn more about the crèche we visited, you can go to the Graines de Joie website.

Day One – The Divided City


In Leme, the city never sleeps

The route from the airport bears signs of development as well as rampant population growth, and like any modern metropolis, Rio de Janeiro is in constant battle to contain these two forces. The BRT and new Zona Sul shuttle buses ferry Olympic spectators to their hotels in the south zone, towering above a sea of traffic that clog the dustier boulevards on the northeast side. Everywhere people have left their mark. Lazy graffiti tags smirk at you above dilapidated storefronts. Elsewhere, beautiful, provocative murals cover almost all available flat concrete throughout the city; bivouacs underneath the overpass and against less-desirable waterfront mark the territory of the homeless. Trash is noticeably a larger issue in the north of the city. On some corners it is strewn about as if an airplane flew overhead dropping loose articles of clothing and immortal plastic detritus. This lack of public sanitation, along with other issues, will come to define the struggle certain areas of the city face against an indifferent municipal government.


The contrast between the North and South Zones of Rio de Janeiro is stark. The South Zone, encompassing famous beaches like Copacabana, Ipanema, and Barra di Tijuca, is organized and vertical. Leme sits in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain, one of the striking peaks on the Rio skyline. The temporary beach volleyball stadium has been constructed on the main street, and at night it throws spotlights against the high rise buildings behind it. Copacabana and Leme retain Rio’s picturesque charm and diverse, optimistic spirit underneath banks of shady, exotic trees with broad leaves. SUVs and German cars are as common as motorbikes, and the doormen for the expensive hotels and luxury condos wear dapper uniforms. Fleets of official Rio 2016 Nissans line the beach front, designed by Roberto Burle Marx, one of Brazil’s most famous architects. Modernity breathes from every street corner, and public space is abundant and tended too. The flow of taxis is nonstop, ferrying merrymakers to the many “hospitality houses” in the South Zone, where you can drink, eat, partake in virtual reality skiing, and learn about the many cultures represented at the Olympics. The large shopping mall in Botafogo caters to Rio’s middle and upper class citizens, as well as a slew of tourists in flip flops and cornrows attempting to buy SIM cards from local carriers.

Copacabana, Barra di Tijuca, and the West Zone of Rio aim to be emblems of the “Olympic Effect,” often touted by the IOC as the primary positive to hosting the games. The consensus among economists, though, regarding the “Olympic effect,” is much more sceptical. Rose and Spiegel (2009) found that there indeed was a positive net trade benefit for successful bid cities. Intriguingly enough, they also found a net trade benefit for unsuccessful bid cities, which might mean consumers internalize the signal to liberalize in and of itself more than they internalize the promotion of the chosen host. Consumers have certainly internalized the colorful Olympic logo, which adorns posters, cups, tambourines, beach towels, and other frivolities in the shop.


The Rio Olympics have been described as an “opportunity missed” and the “exclusion games” – a name which aims to draw attention to the lack of social services provided to cariocas inhabiting favelas and poorer neighborhoods throughout the city. One could argue the city used the games as an excuse to shoehorn new developments, such as light rail, improved tunnel infrastructure, and luxury condos on the west end. Some improvements, such as the hockey fields in Deodoro, will be a boon to poor residents. Most will not – the vast majority of Olympic funds has been spent in areas that arguably don’t need it. These neighborhoods already attract the most tourists and generate the most revenue, to the point where most foreigners cannot conceptualize a Rio outside of Copacabana and Sugarloaf Mountain.


Flyvbjerg and Stewart (2012), in anticipation of the London 2012 games, produced a sobering statistic: The Olympics overrun their costs 100% of the time. Cost overrun is on average 179%. Overdrawn mega projects are well-documented in the media, both to question the fantastic scale and infrastructural gymnastics required for many modern building works, and to draw attention to the fantastic mismanagement with which these projects are often handled. But this does not mean every skyscrapers, rail tunnels, metro station, dam, or bridge is a financial catastrophe. Brazil is no exception, most of its largest In any case, many of these projects will make back the money over time, or at least garner sufficient use for people to stop caring so much. To take on the Olympics, though, is to “take on one of the most financially risk type of megaproject that exists.” Our translator and team member Annabel pointed out an interesting difference between London and Rio as well: while London 2012 rallied much of the city and was arguably a success (despite similar issues of housing displacement), citizens of the marvelous city have largely shunned the Olympics as an institution, preferring to support their athletes and express national pride in a singular way that does not include the IOC.


Despite controversy surrounding the “exclusion games,” Brazil’s antagonism towards the Olympic machine has more to do with the before and after, than with the spirit of sport and athleticism in itself. Brazil as a nation loves sport – they cheer, jump, jeer, and sing, the stadium breathes electric yellow and verdant green – but cariocas remain aware of the inequalities that exist. We attended a beach volleyball match between the United States and Brazil, and experienced firsthand the thunderous support Brazil has for its athletes. Every time an acrobatic dig saved the Brazilians a point, the stadium erupted, right defneder Bruno Schmidt and the announcers encouraged them to get loud, and flags waved in the wind. This packed house was starkly contrasted with the second quarter final game, played by two dutch teams. As the wind picked up and the sun disappeared behind clouds, locals began to gradually lose interest in the foreign spectacle, and soon the stadium was barely at a third of its capacity. In this way, the Olympics fulfills its role as a great unifier, bringing together people of all backgrounds (who can afford tickets – the best those who sleep on the streets can do is watch the games at a roadside café.) to enjoy each others’ company. As we have found, corruption will hamper any long term benefits the games seeks to provide, but to many, this is an afterthought. Far away, in the north of the city, there are more pressing issues to attend to, issues which have been present for decades, and cannot wait.


A History of The IOC: The Soft Power Machine


Now firmly planted in an era of postmodern distrust for large, faceless institutions, so too we become wary of putting a city on the “world stage.” Individual heroes and heroines can be crowned, and sometimes even small individual protests can make their voices heard over the cacophony of spectacle. But nations states have always favored the Olympics for the political statements they can make.

In the 1930s, Hitler promoted the Games as an example of the Aryan race’s purity. And although Jesse Owens was lauded as a national hero for his subversion of the Fuhrer’s clout, he still returned to a country where he wasn’t allowed to use the same bathroom as his countrymen. Owens was a convenient trump card for serving the political ambitions of the United States at that time. Facing an imperial power abroad, an ideological menace that threatened the world balance of power, was more pressing than facing domestic bigotry. Nazi Germany was a contemptuous force, but it was – and still is – framed as a German problem that was cured with outside intervention. Seeds of bigotry can be sewn in any nation, and today we realize how little the United States has done for its minority groups in terms of addressing racism, especially for people of color who see echoes of intolerance and white, Christian hegemony in the populist tone of the current presidential race.

Athletes rarely assume political positions – this could endanger their livelihood – nor should they be expected to. But there are instances throughout history where an athlete’s action chided with their nation’s agenda. In Mexico 1968, two Americans stood silent on the medal podium in protest of racial inequality. They were stripped of their medals and sent home. Their protest was reduced to an act of insolence, a betrayal to their home. George Foreman, on the other hand, was rewarded for his display of patriotism when he donned an American flag as a cape at the same Games. Commenting on a country’s flaws on the international stage is discouraged, but selflessly including the country that nurtured you, instilled you with their morals and ethics? A gesture from an American Hero™.


Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium after winning Gold and Bronze in the 200m. Australian Steve Norman also wore a badge in solidarity with them.

To the Soviets, the soft power display of their gymnasts was invaluable during the Cold War. The IOC has always had a complicated relationship with doping – meaning they ignored it until it was glaringly obvious. During the Cold War, state-sponsored doping was rampant in the Soviet Bloc and East Germany, and most likely in Western nations as well until the World anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was formed in 1999. Even then, the bans and charges against athletes accused of doping has been subject to scrutiny, especially in Rio 2016. The discovery of state-sponsored doping led many to cry for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes, and ultimately 118 athletes were barred from competing. Even those who were allowed to compete have faced scrutiny and criticism from other athletes, which forces us to ask whether they are being unfairly victimized by their nation’s agenda.

Doping is not the only scandal mishandled by the IOC. The Olympics is singular in its perceived freedom from ideological and capitalist interests. The Beijing Olympics, although largely regarded as a success, brought intense speculation to the human rights aspect of the games. Sochi was seen as the tipping point. $8 billion spent, and yet Russia could not hide the fact that their mountain was practically devoid of snow, and facilities were painfully (sometimes hilariously) underdeveloped for how much money was supposedly spent. Rio wisely toned down their projected final budget to a conservative $2 billion, and flaunted their frugality during the austere opening ceremony, but nonetheless, building contracts have been handed out to cronies. The companies behind all of the new venues are currently under investigation. The Olympic village, much to the dismay of local residents displaced in its wake, is destined to become luxury housing. Facilities for Rio were shoddily built. Those who could afford to avoid them did so in style – the US men’s basketball is staying on a cruise ship. Others managed how they could, with a volleyball team reportedly staying in one of Rio’s famous favela hostels.

The only way the IOC can justify the extraordinary cost of the games to the masses is by playing up the purity of the “experience.” Despite the fact that being an amateur athlete is no longer a requirement (and is now rather scarce in the developed world), the IOC continues to sell its athletes’ love of sport as its own. As we will see, this is an enormous farce, one punters are more than happy to disregard. Marvel at how the TV crews descend on Copacabana beach to relay the athletic drama. Suddenly, cries of ill-prepared venues and human rights abuses vanish. This is when you know the Olympics has begun, and the IOC is immortal.

flooding in the Olympic village, as documented by Czech cyclist Zdenek Stybar

Just like any profit-driven organization that isn’t held accountable for its actions, the IOC pursues nothing except for a monopolization of its respective industry and a perpetual stream of profits immune to all shocks. Although the IOC is a governing body, and its role has been described as the “writers of the screenplay,” they do little to address the incompetence of some host nations. At the extreme end, athletes have been kidnapped and killed. Already in Rio, multiple have been mugged, no doubt because their inflated status leads opportunists to assume they are wealthy. To a lesser extent, their comfort and safety is at the mercy of corrupt construction firms who fail to properly accommodate participants, as was well documented in Sochi.

Just as oil companies can cause spills, infrastructure businesses can accept bribes and inflate contract costs, investments banks can make questionable investments, and food manufacturers can beef out food with artificial sweeteners, antibiotics, “bonding agents,” and other chemicals to enhance shelf life, so the IOC can abuse the goodwill of their base. The question economists often ask is: “Do the ends justify the means?” When profit is the ends, masquerading as the Olympic spirit of universal participation, things begin to resemble a pyramid scheme, with the IOC at the top, followed by labyrinthine layers of beneficiaries and consumers.

Many countries still farm athletes at elite academies using quasi-militaristic methods, and many Western athletes still rely heavily on family wealth in order to gain an edge in training. But every year new firsts are realized. Athletes are increasingly given positions at the IOC as well, reflecting a transition away from the organizations elite roots.

Fortunately, today’s games could be considered far more equal in terms of “universal participation.” We are approaching 50% gender participation in the games. The Olympics has actually served to encourage gender participation, although this has been a long, rocky road. Women’s involvement in sports has always been politicized, be it their physicality, performance, or outfits. In 2010, the only countries that did not field female athletes were Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei, which had only participated in three previous games, fielding a single athlete each time. By London 2012, every country was represented by both genders. Today the main argument is one of objectification. To some, an Egyptian volleyball player in a “burkini” facing off against a bikini-clad Germans is a triumph for acceptance. Ultimately, this is secondary to Nada Meawad and Doaa Elghobashy’s true triumph: being the first of their country to participate in this sport.


At 18 and 19 years old, the Egyptian volleyball team was the youngest at the Olympics (photo:ASP)

Finally, It is important to remember that each individual athlete trains for the Olympics with a passion few could ever comprehend. They explore the limits of the human body, and should be celebrated for this, but after the performance is over, they will be exploited to multiple ends. To sell sugary cereal, credit cards, insurance, and occasionally something sports related, and to stand as living testament to a nation’s superiority. The athletes are tools of the state, expendable resources of the IOC

With this in mind, I propose three important questions to conclude our history of the IOC. These will not be answered by Rio 2016, but they should resonate in our minds throughout the games, and we will carry these issues with us as we participate in one of the largest events of all time.

  1. Do the games continue to uphold a standard of athletic excellence and global camaraderie? Is this the responsibility of the IOC, or of the individual athlete?
  2. The IOC claims many benefits to being a host city. This is the crux of the “Olympic Legacy.” Who will benefit in the immediate term from the Rio Olympics?
  3. What variables are necessary to monitor the long-term benefits?Do the interests of the IOC impede the rights of Rio’s citizens, and is the IOC putting its own agenda ahead of its utilitarian image?

Olympic City: The State of Exception, Social Exclusion, and Deepening Power Structures of Inequality

Christened the “state of exception”, Rio de Janeiro is another powerful reminder of how developing an Olympic city can entrench power structures that enable the consolidation of state control and the economic profit of private and foreign stakeholders at the expense of the local population. This dynamic is doubly conspicuous in Rio de Janeiro, a city already beset by socio-economic inequality, and in which existing power structures are manifested geographically, through the favelas. The word “favela” has a special history in Rio: it is a tree of the spurge family, native to the hills of Bahia. These hills are where the government army of the ‘Guerra de Canudos’ (1895-1896) were ambushed by Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel, The Counselor, when they were sent to scrub clean his civil rebellion in Canudos. When the soldiers returned, the land grants the government promised them never materialized, and they set up camp on the hills above Rio – the morro favela.

Academics have long recognized the relationship between urban planning and state power structures: in Rio, the ‘illegibility’ and perceived ‘ungovernable’ nature of these areas has contributed to the growing marginalization of residents. They have also acknowledged the benefits of illegibility: as pervasive and intrusive state policies harm locals, protection from the ‘predatory’ state and harmful policies associated with Olympic infrastructure has become a pressing concern for Rio’s population.


A protestor anticipates the arrival of the Olympics. Photo: Rio On Watch

The radical changes taking place across Brazilian society, justified by ‘Olympic legacy’ rhetoric, have forced undesirable transformations on Rio’s citizens, and especially on marginalized communities. Although expected to create a more inclusive and equal society by increasing state control in public spaces and favelas, the measures taken ahead of the World Cup and the Olympics have actually aggravated conditions for lower socio-economic classes. Barriers along the highway block the favelas from view, and bus routes to the beach have been altered to prevent poorer residents from mingling with international tourists. The expansion of state intervention, rather than positively impacting social welfare and fostering inclusion, has further marginalized Rio’s most vulnerable, deepening the socio-economic, racial and gender power structures that previously existed in Rio de Janeiro.

A short documentary by Vox illuminated Rio’s neglected communities

Over the past decade, research on the effect of mega sporting events in Brazil has intensified, and specialists have begun to identify practices of increased state control imposed on these ‘illegible’ or informal areas— measures made largely possible by the accelerated development carried out in the race to finish Olympic or World Cup preparations.

The expedited transformation of the social space in Rio, which has often been for the benefit of the private sector and the state and to the detriment of the local population, has been facilitated by preparations for the games. These accelerated measures are popularly portrayed and perceived as tied to public interest, but private and state agents have strategically harnessed the Olympic discourse to bring their own political and economic agendas into fruition.

Aside from the well-documented phenomenon of forced displacement and related social cleansing policies that have taken place ahead of the games, it has been noted that increasingly, public spaces are being appropriated and privatized— a less documented and discussed aspect of the social exclusion associated with MSEs (mega sporting events). Under the pretext of developing infrastructure for the long-term benefit of the population after sporting events, notably stadiums, the state has been furtively expanding structures of government control in previously ‘public spaces’, through police presence, security by way of CCTV cameras, and a tendency to over-charge for entrance in these areas allegedly designated for popular benefit— a practice tantamount to gentrification.


Residents of the Vila Autódromo favela have fought hard against their displacement. photo:

The bureaucratization of these areas selected for Olympic infrastructures, which were previously unsupervised and publicly available without charge, points to a worrying trend of social exclusion and creeping enforcement of state power over the population. When public spaces are appropriated and commoditized for private, international and state interests, the individuals and organizations already in power capitalize off these policies, deepening their influence and potential for socio-economic control. Meanwhile locals, especially those already vulnerable to socio-economic difficulties, are left behind, often waking up after closing ceremonies more trapped than ever in cycles of social exclusion and injustice.

A History of the IOC: Aristocratic Origins

With the proliferation of the Internet, it seems every day a new veil falls away from society, tarnished. Another institution with supposedly pure values is shamed. FIFA, Greenpeace, Volkswagen, to name a few. At first, we are shocked. Then, we are disappointed. Now, the inevitable fall from grace in a blaze of scandal is part of the narrative of the 21st Century “establishment” organization. We readily accept this complex reality, and now even acknowledge the transition from righteousness to corruption in our myths and fables. At the same time, society also begins to grapple with the realization that many institutions never acted in the interest of the public in the first place. Or, at least, the public good was secondary to selfish pursuits.

Although few are probably aware of the origin of the modern Olympics, it should come as no surprise that the organization’s success can be attributed to nepotism, monopolistic behavior, and capitalist rent seeking. This is the 21st Century after all – there are no more humble origin stories, only echoes of a self-serving, classicist society that continues to assert its dominance today, in Rio de Janeiro. This is not to say that the Olympics themselves serve nefarious purposes – in the abstract it still retains its utopian vision. The question is, who suffers in defense of this vision?

The era of “amateurism”


Although women could not compete, they adorned advertisements for the games

Recently, a former teacher of mine remarked that it is senseless to make other countries suffer in the name of the games, and it should “just be taken back to Athens,” where it began. Without considering a nuanced history, this story makes sense – The Olympics is Greek, right? It is important to overcome our historic blind spot and backtrack a century: the Olympics in its current form are a modern invention that bears little resemblance to its Greek parent. The first games were held in 1896.

At this period in time, some countries were fervently industrializing, colonizing, “nation building,” and simultaneously using political ideology and geography to create national “identities.” The late 19th century was a time where your origins determined almost everything about what you believed, your skin color determined your worth in society, and rampant capitalism was conceptualized as a great freedom, eventually becoming the natural adversary to another utopian vision, communism.

In this era, military might and brutish masculinity were prized qualities for a country’s stock. Powerful nations had empires to maintain, and this required a tough, physical presence through stock of healthy young men, deeply instilled with the values of their respective homelands. International exchanges and displays of all sorts were beginning to become fashionable. People wanted to socialize across borders, and The World Fair, museums, traveling art collections, zoos, and other large-scale performances provided this opportunity. Anything that could show off the beauty, strength, and intellectual superiority of a given was a source of “soft power.” Europe was particularly effective at wielding soft power to extend their influence within and beyond the continent.

According to research by Wamsley (2002) in The Global Sports Monopoly, the International Olympic Committee was formed largely around the vision of one aristocratic man, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. From the outset, the organization was insular – the committee was hand-selected, host nations were European imperial powers, and athletes were males who met arbitrary participation requirements.

Coubertin was inspired by the British, whose “public” schools mandated physical education (to this day a misnomer, as they remain the most exclusive, expensive, and elite schools). Amateur athletics was another complicated ritual that allowed the bourgeoisie to retain their status and distinction from the masses. Referred to as “amateurism,” the pursuit of athletic excellence without support from professional coaches or sponsorship was a gentile activity, exclusive in its institutional framework – you had to be a member of the “club” – and in its time dedication. Working folk certainly didn’t have the energy and leisure to dedicate to sport for its own sake. Woman also had no involvement in Coubertin’s Olympics – athletics was a celebration of “male achievements.”


This drawing depicts Eton students playing rugby

Many groups formed games as a response to the exclusionary nature of the modern Olympics. Women were barred from competing in Antwerp in 1920, so they formed their own organization, the Women’s Olympics. The IOC subsequently dismantled this when they partnered with the International Association of Athletics Federation. Taking control of women’s athletic participation, they were granted five track and field events in Amsterdam, 1928. Another effort, dubbed the “Workers’ Olympics,” tried to broaden the participation to more groups, including unionized workers. This effort was short-lived, stifled by anti-communist sentiment.

Like many transnational organizations, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is almost completely absolved of responsibility for its exploitation of world resources in its own interest. To be blunt, the IOC runs the Olympics to serve its members and support their lifestyle. By “serve,” we mean, specifically, endow them with absurd amounts of money. In economics this is an example of “moral hazard” in a principal-agent relationship: the principal is a shareholder, or in this case, a citizen of the Olympic host city. The agents are the decision-making bodies that conduct the Olympics on the principal’s behalf (with the principal’s investment, by the way). Moral Hazard – the disinclination to serve the interests of the principal when it is possible to serve your own interests without impediment – occurs when the IOC promote their megaevent as an experience that benefits the entire world. In reality, the IOC benefits every single time, the athletes benefit almost every single time, the host cities benefit on a rare occasion, and individual consumers of the Olympics can be expected to benefit based on where they fall on the poverty scale.

To the IOC, the necessity of the Olympics has never come into question. The games must go on. The interest on the part of the host cities, on the other hand, has been in constant flux. For the majority of the 20th Century, revenue came from television, or from the wealth a host city already possessed. The committee went through many members, but kept its vision and incestuous admission process. Juan Antonio Samaranch brought about the largest shift in the structure of the IOC, ushering in the era of the Olympics we know today – the hyper-consumerist games. Suddenly, with the advent of The Olympic Program (TOP) sponsorships in the 80s, the Olympic logo was everywhere, as long as you purchased bottled soda with a credit card. Or ate fast food.


The original International Olympic Committee

Retrospectively, the 80s have been characterized as the climax of gross consumerism, so it’s only fitting that this is the decade the Olympics “sold out” (or sold up). Bid budgets, which are put forward by prospective host cities, landed around $50 million – over $146 million in todays terms. These budgets contained less in common with reality than the average 80s sc-fi film, and often comprised completely nebulous figures which were quickly disregarded and revised. The final budget of the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, the lowest of the decade, was $55.4m. The operating cost was only double this figure. Since the 80s, costs have increased by over 10,500%. The transition to sponsorship was entirely necessary, as cities were beginning to realize hosting was a financial headache. What governor wants to mitigate a failed Olympics to their angry taxpayers?

American television companies were first to capitalize on exclusive rights, which caused controversy due to claims from foreign nations that this influenced the scheduling of events in order to favor US athletes, as well as claims from Americans that this limited the coverage of events to only those which featured potential American medalists or athletes with underdog stories. This practice continues to this day, with US media selected narratives to follow and endorse, perpetuating the Olympic Athlete as a national treasure and example of a nation’s virtues.


By all accounts, the LA Games were a huge success

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was, in many ways, a huge success. The city had a decidedly pragmatic approach to preparation for the games, most likely because the previous Olympics, held in Montreal, was an organizational disaster. 1984 represented a unique turning point for the Games and the IOC. Los Angeles and New York City were the only cities that expressed interest in the games, and with the aforementioned TOP sponsorships and political concessions negotiated by the city, it was the first Olympics since the 1930s that didn’t bury the host in debt. Although today it’s known for being a The $224m profit made the games a very viable vehicle for city development, versus solely an expensive source of international prestige. By compromising the Olympics’ purity (not to mention the irony of Coca-Cola actively endorsing a sports competition), Samaranch ensured the IOC’s continued success.

Now we can categorize the history of modern Olympics into three distinct periods: an early era of European exhibitionism for the aristocracy, a long middle age characterized by international expansion, and a period of corporatization which had led us to the problems faced by the most recent games. Namely, unsustainably high costs, human rights concerns, and the questioning of the purpose of the organization itself.

Additional source:

Peter Donnelly, ‘Prolympism: sport monoculture as crisis and opportunity,’ Quest 48 (February 1996).