21 July 2016

Cidade complicada, cheia de troços mil

After nearly three weeks back in Rio, much appears to have changed, but the extremely complicated and contradictory reality remains the same. I have been charmed, yet again, by the exuberant natural setting, the easy socialbility of Cariocas, and the infinitude of problems that scream out for direct action. I continue to be amazed by the breadth, depth, and expense of the mega-events in a city that has not managed to provide the basics for the majority of its citizens. The news cycle when read from abroad is more depressing than the lived experience of the city, principally because there is none of the context of daily interactions, a bowl of açaí, or random outbursts of evangelical sabma on the streets of Copacabana.

This last sentence, of course, applies to those who can afford to construct their life-bubbles in places like Jardim Botanico, Urca, and Ipanema. For the majority of Rio’s population that live in favelas, the Baixada Fluminense and the Zona Oeste, the daily reality of crushing urbanism, banal violence, toxic food supplies, crumbling schools and hospitals, and mind-numbing traffic does away with the romanticized geoporn that is the core of the city`s well-oiled marketing machine.

In a recent trip to the Zona Oeste on the SuperVia train (run by Odebrecht), I was surprised that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Of course, this was off-peak, on a stretch of track that has to look good for the Games. The train system as a whole carries far fewer people than it did 40 years ago and received over the last ten years only about double the investment for its 270km of track that was put into the 23km VLT in the center of the city. This kind of disproportional investment has exacerbated uneven development and defines Rio’s urban planning regime for the Olympics. It also speaks to the reality of low expectations – why shouldn’t Rio have a decent train with all of the money that flowed into the city and state in the ten years preceding the World Cup and Olympics? The perverse priorities of entrenched elites joined forces with the Olympic shibboleth to torque urban planning agendas in a summarily retrograde way.

This is not so different from other Olympics and forms a core element of a global business model that uses cities as platforms to extract monopoly rents. The development of elite sporting facilities is by nature exclusionary and the suite of privileges that the IOC and FIFA demand of their hosts reinforce this outcome. There is never a Zone of Inclusion around venues, only Exclusion.  The launching of a series of talks and activities called Rio 2016: The Exclusion Games will express the real politick of the Games from the perspective of those who have been most negatively impacted by their implementation in a radically unequal city whose elites have pursued a decade of sports mega-events to consolidate the status quo ante.

Of course, now that the public calamity has been declared, the expectations for post-Games Rio will be lower than ever. Without the cloying narratives of hosting the global spectacle to drive urban investment and development, the difficult task will be to make the Olympic-related infrastructure serve the needs of Cariocas (and those who don’t live in Rio proper). This will be an increasingly difficult task as finances dry up and maintenance costs for hi-tech flights of Calatravan fancy spiral upwards.

The mayor has called the Olympics a missed opportunity, the same thing that everyone said about the World Cup and the Pan American Games. Most people agree with that assessment, but who is responsible for the failure?

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