15 September 2016

A long and short goodbye to the country of the eternal present

Retrospectives of mega-events are best left for years following their conclusion. Yet the constant drive for summary, judgment, evaluation, and pronouncement following the Games is so pervasive and contradictory that it becomes necessary to remind ourselves that the event is not over – indeed in many senses it has just begun.

What we are witnessing in Rio de Janeiro is the unfolding of a monopolistic, rent-seeking business model that plays on human emotions of desire, belonging, and consumerist distinction as never before. The tightly braided relationships between mega-events rights holders (IOC and FIFA), the “primary stakeholders” of the event (Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Dow Chemical, Samsung, Hyundai, etc.), the civil construction and real estate sectors and the executive branches of government have been exposed. The general revolt of the Brazilian middle class in June of 2013 was an expression of the frustration with the propagation of this model in a country that has not met the basic needs of its citizens.

Yet after the event cycle has closed, it appears that the warnings of academics, journalists, activists, and others have been completely forgotten in the glow of the Olympic flame. The dire conditions of police violence, infrastructure, blown budgets, and suites of elite privilege turned out to be true yet the Games themselves have somehow been exonerated from exacerbating these problems because they happened without fatal incidents for the IOC family. Journalists and editors are rushing to do a retrospective mea culpa about the impending disaster of Rio 2016 because the infrastructure worked, the sport was great, and Rio throws a fantastic party.

As the mega-event monolith rolls on to Russia and East Asia, it seems we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes, just in new forms under shifting conditions, and in new places. There has always been a strong synergy between the workings of global capital, geo-politics and the realization of the Olympics.  As a scholar who has accompanied the transformations in Rio de Janeiro’s urban, social, and sporting landscapes for more than a decade I have seen the unfolding of a deeply flawed urban and social project that has transformed the city in enduring ways. Below I outline some of the principal ways in which this has happened and point to some of the consequences that I foresee in a city that has spent the last 20 years pursuing a mega-event urban agenda.

The consolidation of consumer sovereignty
The Olympics and World Cup have accelerated processes within Brazilian society that privilege consumerism over citizenship. Both events transformed what were public spaces (Maracanã, Zona Portuaria, beaches) into zones of private consumption where one can exercise one’s right to public space and culture in the exact degree to which one can pay for it.

These processes of privatization have long been on the agenda of Rio de Janeiro’s executive branch and unfolded in very similar ways throughout Brazilian cities that hosted the 2014 World Cup. The events create zones of exclusion that are able to be penetrated by those with the proper credentials – a processes of self-selecting access that conforms to the contours of capital accumulation more generally. The corporate sponsors of events have their employees dropped off near the stadia in special buses where they are directed though city streets by youths holding up banners that herald the arrival of the corporation. Ostentatious credentials swing like signboards of entitlement as the global elite are conducted to their front-row seats for the global spectacle.

The consolidation of trends towards what Mike Graham has called passage-point urbanism get an extra push with the hosting of sports mega-events, normalizing spaces, relations, and practices of exclusion/inclusion that become a naturalized part of the urban environment. Within this new regime, one can conquer the right to freely circulate within the city relative to one`s capacity to pay for that right. The term “rights holder” is not accidental or incidental, it is the paradigm that defines the urban condition in the event city. 

The accelerated financialisation of urban territories        
As Raquel Rolink has expertly analyzed in her book Guerra dos Lugares there is a trend towards the financializaion of urban land markets that has resulted in the exponential growth of disappropriation and expulsions around the world. One of the more radical and universal effects of hosting mega-events is the acceleration of the trends that Rolink identifies – except that in places like Rio de Janeiro and Brazil more generally, the pre-existing socio-economic conditions exacerbate the devastation that unfolds.

We know that in the years leading up to the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, more than 77,000 people were evicted, removed, or dislocated from their homes to make way for “socially necessary” infrastructure projects. And while it is true that any major urban intervention will require the removal of houses and communities, there are legal measures in place to guarantee due process, fair compensation, and legal recourse to violations of the right to housing. Yet when the mega-event wrecking ball descends, so too come regimes of exception that carefully sidestep democratic institutions so that “fast track contracting” (known as RDC in Brazil) can accomplish in seven years what would normally take twenty.

The acceleration of a city’s biorhythm for an event driven planning agenda will always most negatively impact those who are least able to defend their rights. In Rio, the urban poor have always been excluded from accessing the suites of rights that have permanent land tenure as their fundament. The historical wave of expulsions and removals that have happened under the mayorship of Eduardo Paes have coincided exactly with the pursuit of sports mega-events as a justification for “doing whatever” , as Paes once bragged.

These processes always take place in the literal geographic sense of the word, and they also demand a dis-placement. For David Harvey, this process fits within a larger paradigm of “accumulation by dispossession” but in Rio we have seen this take multiple forms in different geographic territories. One example, is the port region which was privatized through mayoral decree and public monies employed to guarantee the financial viability of the project. At the same time, the city government invested heavily in a light rail system that will serve to further valorize these newly private territories while ignoring other transportation projects that could have created a more viable network for the metropolitan region as a whole.

The Olympic Village, Olympic Park, and OlympicGolf Course are three more examples of state led gentrification projects that have taken public lands out of circulation, handed their management to private companies, and left no provision for social housing or models of sustainable urbanism. The state-led production of exclusive residential enclaves has again been sustained and justified through the expulsion of the poor (Vila Autódromo and other favelas in Barra da Tijuca), the construction of low grade transportation to return the poor to their former places of employment (BRT Transoeste), and the discourse of legacy.

The restructuring of urban circulations
Without question, the largest, most visible interventions for mega-events are always the transportation projects. Airports, metro lines, highways, tunnels, bus lines, light rail: Brazil’s investments in infrastructure for the World Cup and Olympics were historic in scope and cost. However, not all infrastructure is necessarily good. Witness the destruction of Rio’s perimetral, a very bad idea from the mid 20th century that has been replaced with a pedestrian promenade. In this case, pedestrian circulation has replaced automobile circulation in a rare attempt to return the center of the city to pedestrians.

More generally, however, if we look at the transportation systems developed as part of the “necessities” for the Olympics, we see a few troubling tendencies. The first is to concentrate all of the federal and state investment in the City of Rio de Janeiro to the detriment of the metropolitan region. The already exaggerated distribution of wealth to the City of Rio was aggravated, privileging expensive transportation solutions (metro and VLT) in the center and south zones, while ramming through sub-standard transportation (BRT) in the North and West.

There was a major investment in road building, as each of the 150km of BRT line also opened up more space for automobile traffic. Along the trajectory of the Transcarioca BRT there are narrow sidewalks, and at no point did any of the BRT lines take into consideration non-motorized transport. The re-articulation of all of the city’s bus lines to serve as feeder lines to the BRT system has had significant negative consequences for the residents of the North and West zones (not to mention those who live in the Metropolitan Region). These regions concentrate the majority of Rio’s population and have not benefitted from a more integrated and efficient transportation network, but have seen their mobility choices limited.

This limitation takes the form of transportation funnels that connect Barra da Tijuca to the West and North and South zones. Of the seven major transportation investments made for the Olympics and World Cup in Rio, five connect to Barra da Tijuca   - a neighbourhood that is not built on a human scale, that is zoned for exclusive condominium communities, and within which residents do not use public transportation. While the Linha 4 of the Metro will inevitably benefit the 50,000 residents of Rocinha that commute times to the employment-rich areas of Rio’s Zona Sul and Centro, the opportunity cost of this investment will only unfold over decades. It is also yet to be seen how the metro will function on a daily basis as it is likely to be full at its point of origin in Barra da Tijuca.

While the city government has said that it managed to elevate the percentage of the population that takes public transportation from 18% to 63% within seven years, there is not yet any data that support the claim (frequently and erroneously repeated in major media). We have not seen any administrative decision that seek to change the Brazilian ideology of car ownership as a fundamental right, nor have we seen infrastructure projects that would encourage people to use their cars less frequently or to drive fewer kilometers (such as park and ride, or multi-modal transport stations).

The development of Rio’s mega-event transport systems is directly linked to the financialization of the urban land market. On one hand, the valorization of urban territories through the development of transportation projects facilitates expulsion and removal through eminent domain and gentrification. On the other hand, the city justifies removal through claims that the poor can continue to have access to job markets and environmental amenities because the transportation lines will serve to reduce their commutes. However, this reading is also limited, as the weight of the opportunity costs for not creating new circulatory pathways through the metropolitan region as a whole will eventually cause more traffic congestion, more wasted hours in buses and trains that have not been modernized and will further marginalize those who live in the metropolitan periphery.

The extensive projects that have been forced through Rio`s planning system have given the impression that the city has really made progressive changes to its urban circulations. Yet the lack of urbanization that has accompanied the projects, along with the violent urban ruptures that the BRTs have occasioned along their trajectories have been accompanied with shocking stories of forced removal and displacement that call into question the social utility of using a mega-event as leverage to restructure circulations that are pre-determined by a 16 day party.

The consolidation of elite exception
The two above processes are intimately linked with the planning process for the global spectacle, as well as the ability of vested interests to extract maximum wealth from the host city. While there is evidence to suggest that the investments unlocked by the arrival of the event have the capacity to stimulate the local labour market in the short term, there is scant evidence to prove that long-term benefits accrue to the host city’s economy or to its citizens.

To the contrary, the very structure of sports mega-events consolidates the socio-economic realty of the institutions that are responsible for their realization. Both FIFA and the IOC are based in Switzerland, shrouded in secrecy, and gain enormous profits form their events, while assuming almost none of the financial risk. These institutions depend on local governments to sign onerous hosting contracts that enforce a suite of exceptions and guarantees. Of course, the local collaborators are also searching for rent-seeking opportunities for their political and economic coalitions and in order to accomplish the task of accumulation, install regimes of exception (and temporary, non-governmenal autarchies) that consolidate both the opportunity for wealth making and exclusivity.

These practices range from the granting of special visas to foreigners, tax exemptions for corporations, the closure of city streets, legislation against ambush marketing, the “cleaning” of urban space (billboards and homeless), to differential models of policing for different spaces of the city. This last item is much discussed, as the ostentatious display of firepower during mega-events functions on multiple symbolic and practical levels.

On the geo-political level, hosts use the exhibition of tanks, jet fighters, and NASA like command and control centers to show the rest of the world that they are capable of handling external and internal threats. On the national level, these same weapons are used to control borders, fight organized crime, or to crush social movements. At the local level, military ostentation is meant to ensure the continuity of the event, guarantee the safety and security of teams, delegations, officials, and tourists while making doubly sure that there are no “interruptions” to the maximum circulation of these groups in the city. As one gets closer to the event, the security varies: ostentatious on the outside, invisible on the inside. 

These security dynamics extend to the way in which the city as a whole is imagined, projected, and constructed. The Olympic city is a place to be photographed, where the landscape and the experiential dynamics of place are consumed through selfies, where the police are there to guarantee the exercise of the right to consume and to be consumed. In the non-Olympic city, the official desire is that the cameras will never go there, that tourists will never be tempted “to stray” into the suburbs, into favelas, or off of Pure Island. The tourist routes as described on the Visit.Rio website are almost all in the Centro and Zona Sul (the Feira Nordestina in São Cristóvão is the exception). We saw that the continuing tragedy of violent police incursions into favelas continued apace during the Olympics: the deaths of police and residentes are inevitably excused with phrases such as, “it would have happened anyway, you can’t blame the Olympics for that.”

The shifting of resources combines with the opening of public cofferes to gruarantee the provision of security, health care, emergency services, energy, water, food, transportation, financing, etc. for the Olympic City and Olympic Citizens (Family) before and during the event. This is essentially a transfer of public resources to the wealtheiest sectors of Brazilian and global society. The costs are borne by the public and now that Rio de Janeiro state has declared a calamity, those who have benefitted from this transfer of wealth will continue to benefit disproportionately after the event has passed. There are two reasons for this.

The first reason is the well-documented condition that Brazilians who have enough wealth to privatize their daily lives do so as soon as they are able. Thus, with the rise of the “New C Class” Brazil also experienced a rise in private car ownership, an increase in private schools, and a surge in private health insurance. These represent the privatization of mobility, education, and health care. Brazilians also have privatised secutiry as never before and this sector has seen tremendous growth. The privatization of residental landscapes also comes with private security, as porteiros, guards, and 24 hours cameras demand cheap labor pools that live in the perifery.

With the bankrupcy of the Rio State Government, those who were able to consolidate their sócio-economic position within the last fifteen years will be able to continue to access their constitutional rights to housing, education, security, and health care through market mechanisms. Those who are forced to depend on the public for basic services will find that their rights have been eroded as a consequence of the transfer of wealth demandeded by a decade long series of global parties.

Vacuums of institutional responsibility and accountability
One of the most impressive moments of Thomas Bach’s (IOC president) speech during the closing ceremonies was the finality with which he left the stage. After presiding over the flag transfer ceremony from Eduardo Paes to the mayor Shintaro Ishihara, and waiting through a bungled speech by the Carlos Nuzman of Rio 2016, Bach said, “Thank you Rio, goodbye!” He then turned and walked off the stage.

Goodbye and thanks for all the billions. Bach’s speech did not mention the massive contortions that the city had gone through to host the IOC’s party. Nor did he mention how the IOC would stay involved in the future development of the city, or encourage a team of urbanists to ensure that the so-called legacy projects would be completed. He said goodbye, as in “We’ll never see each other again.” It wasn’t a até a próxima, que seja logo, or even the German auf weider sehen…just the short, curt, English goodbye.

This phrase struck a particular chord with me because it is indicative of how the mega-event business model works to create vacuums of responsibility that permit large institutions, governments, and NGOs to push forward massive projects based on promises to the public that can later be ignored without consequence. For instance, the cleaning of 80% of Guanabara Bay was a proposal included in the Rio 2016 bid book. The bid book was agreed to by the IOC and the City of Rio as the guiding document for the Games, but neither would take any responsibility for the completion of the project. The City always said it was a State responsibility and the IOC said that it was a promise of the bid committee. The bid committee ceased to exist once Rio 2016 was contracted by the IOC and even though may of the same people from the bid worked for Rio 2016, they would not revise their projections or take responsibility for the lack of completion of the promise. Similar lacunas were found throughout the preparations for the World Cup and a the list of incomplete, overpriced projects from that tournament grows, so too does the obvious non-utility of most of the stadiums build for that one month of football.

In Rio, it is unclear if there are any institutional channels through which the population will be able to measure the development and implementation of the so-called legacy projects. It is not at all certain that the handball arena (Arena do Futuro) will be dismantled and reconstructed as public schools, or if these schools will be able to make good use of the very particular architecture. While this could be an interesting architectural intervention, there is as yet no evidence whatsoever that it is going to happen.

And if it doesn’t will there be any agency or individual that can be held responsible? The mayor will be out of office, the governor will have moved on, the organizing committee will no longer exist, and the IOC will be cooling its heels in Switzerland. The party is over, the hangover is coming, and the billions are being stuffed into Swiss bank accounts. Valeu a pena?

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