Have the Olympics been good for Rio?
No, yes, and maybe
I keep getting asked the question in the title and although I’ve certainly addressed it before (feel free to rummage around RioRealblog, using keywords), the time is ripe for a quick summing-up.
The Olympics crown a series of mega-events hosted here since 2012, meant to put Rio on the map. The events challenged decades-old passivity, a sense that not much could be done to improve the metropolis, assailed as it was by poverty, violence and old-fashioned fiefdom politics. Expectations rose. This is the yes part.
I’ve made the argument before that such “branding” by way of mega-events wasn’t necessary for this unusual metropolis. It would have been more useful to look inward — straight at our problems — rather than look outward, at Rio’s relationship with the rest of the world.
The transportation legacy sidestepped the inequality at the heart of Rio’s problems. Yes, there is improvement, commutes have shortened. But the legacy focused on the West Zone, where the Olympic Park is located, contributing to costly urban sprawl, favoring upscale real estate developers and construction companies. It left the working-class North Zone still transportation-needy, while low-income West Zone residents must still travel long distances to jobs.
It also allowed the city to back-burner a promise to upgrade all informal favela housing by 2025 — which, even partly completed by now, would have been an impressive feat. The city also failed to include housing in the port revitalization plan, which would have eased transportation demand and lent lasting vibrancy to the area.
Inequality led to, and is perpetuated by, a two-tier system here, where better-off Brazilians drive cars, use private healthcare, send their children to private schools and hire security guards — while less well-off Brazilians take public transportation, depend on public healthcare and schools, and risk their lives as police and drug traffickers shoot at each other (for example) in the dead-end War on Drugs.
The system is so entrenched that locals tend to be blind to it. Mayor Eduardo Paes has blithely said he’s lucky his children don’t have to attend public school. Look at the placement of the BRT (dedicated articulated bus lane) station close to the Olympic Village, which is meant to become an upscale residential development after the Games, and you’ll see it’s for the maids, guards and other service personnel, not residents. For these, there’s parking.
Inequality is by no means a uniquely Brazilian problem, and it’s just as tricky and dangerous here as in Venezuela, the UK or the United States. But it is what the Olympics dropped down into, and it explains why part of my answer is no. Try to effect mega-event-engendered urban transformation in the midst of a skewed democracy and what you end up doing is removing favela residents to “clean up” the neighborhood — when Rio’s mix of classes, races and cultures is a central facet of its attraction to begin with.