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.