Day One – The Divided City

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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