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: Childrenwin.org

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.

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