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An Inside Look At How Rio Fell So Far, So Fast


This is a part of ThinkProgress’s #Rio2016 coverage. To read other articles about the 2016 Games, click here.

With the Summer Olympics a mere week away, people across the world are turning their attention to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where over 10,000 athletes will compete in 28 sports after the torch is lit on August 5.

But there’s a lot more going on in Rio than just a mega-sporting event. Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in May and has her presidential powers suspended until her Senate trial is complete. Acting Governor Francisco Dornelles declared a “state of emergency” so that they could open up emergency funds and pay the policemen who were greeting tourists with “Welcome to Hell” signs at the airport.

The New York Times says that Rio’s waterways are “much more contaminated” than previously reported, which is alarming considering it was previously reported that the water was “up to 1.7 million times more hazardous than waters on a Southern California beach.”

When you add in the 135 percent increase in the number of people killed by police officers this year, the Zika virus, the massive healthcare shortage, and the thousands of people who have lost their homes due to Olympic-related construction, well, it’s a lot to take in.

Dave Zirin, the sports columnist at The Nation and the author of Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Struggle for Democracy, has been covering the turmoil in Rio ever since 2011. He was drawn to the country because of the “frightening” prospect of the country hosting the Olympics and the World Cup back-to-back in 2014 and 2016.

As he wrote in his book, “It is critical that those of us who watch the Olympics be conscious of the social cost; conscious of the debt, displacement, and militarization of public space; conscious that the Olympics in Rio are being staged on people’s backs.”

He spoke with ThinkProgress about Rio’s Olympic journey, which he says is the “same story of debt, displacement, and hyper militarization” that he has seen in countless other Games. Zirin doesn’t mince words as he talks about the toll that hosting these mega events has had on the city of Rio, and the hundreds of broken promises from corrupt politicians along the way.

In the past few years, Rio has made so many promises about how much hosting the Olympics would improve the lives of the citizens of Rio. Were you drawn to this story because of all the many warning signs indicating that was, at best, an exaggeration of the truth?
Well, to be honest, in the beginning the story was more about how Brazil was undertaking these stratospheric growth rates and was the favorite country of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the favorite country of The Economist. The way they were pushing the World Cup and particularly the Olympics was this idea that Brazil would somehow enter this first tier of nations and become this global superpower and that this would enhance all of that.
You’ve only gotten the rhetoric that this would improve the lives of people in Rio in recent years as the economy has slowed down. Because they’ve had to change the narrative. Because people are asking the question, “How are we spending billions on the Olympics when we don’t have enough money for basic education and healthcare services?” So the response has to change, because who gives a shit about entering the first tier of nations at that point?
Instead you’re hearing this new propaganda around — and I couldn’t believe this story — how all these fancy restaurants and whatnot that are catering to the Olympics, they have this plan, they’re giving leftovers to the poor in Rio. I was like, are you kidding me?
Right, I saw that!
When I was there last, which was in May, I had a tour of an Olympic Park, and they went out of their way to show me that several of the Olympic sites are made of with, imagine like massive Lego or Duplo style, so that it comes apart really easily. They said, “We’re gonna take the sites apart piece by piece and it’s going to become a school or a hospital in these poor neighborhoods.” You would really have to see it, it’s really such a bizarre way of going about it.
First of all, if you recognize you need more schools and hospitals, then maybe that’s what you need to be doing. But it also spoke to a need to have an almost humanitarian face on this, which is a very different narrative from how this started. It was much more about Brazil beating its chest, given its economic situation, but it’s now failed. All it took was the falling price of oil internationally and the whole thing’s gone out.
Did you witness the narrative changing in real time while doing your reporting?
I did, and it was really interesting because when I first started going there [in 2011] I started talking to people who said this is not going to end well. And I said, “Wow that’s a pretty bold statement considering how great everything has been going.”
And that’s where the line from the book came from, the guy who said, “Statistics are like a bikini: they show so much, but they hide the most important parts.” He said that after I quoted him all these statistics about how great Brazil is at doing things like tackling inequality and growth rates. He was arguing that this was all built on sand, and he was proven correct.
I think that Brazil is going to pull off the party just fine, which is easy to do when you have 85,000 troops on the ground.
The thing that I knew going in, which was scary about the Olympics and the International Olympic Committee, is that you get these Games almost a decade before they’re staged, and you’re doing it on the basis of your current economic projections. If the economy dips, the IOC is not going to say, “‘You’re not going to have to build as many stadiums anymore.” So you’re still locked in to the IOC’s demands, even when that’s untenable for the country. That’s how you get a situation where you have this Zika crisis and they’re actually cutting health services.
I know that the health care system in Brazil is in complete shambles, and they’ve shut down over half of their hospitals. Do you think that’s going to have a direct impact on the Games, or will it just impact the citizens ?
It’s so interesting because I’ve certainly been accused of being a “Chicken Little” for all these Games over the last decade, saying, “The sky is falling!” each time, but this is actually a situation where people think that there’s gonna be some sort of collapse of the Olympics.
I think that Brazil is going to pull off the party just fine, which is easy to do when you have 85,000 troops on the ground. They’ll pull it off. What’s going to be much tougher is the after effect, the hangover, what it’s going to mean for people in terms of these very basic infrastructure items that have had to be not just neglected, but starved, to pay for the Olympics.
What are the biggest infrastructure problems you’ve noticed? The sanitation, the transportation? Is it just all of them?
I think it would be hard to choose between education and healthcare.

People gather around the bodies of two people who were recovered by rescue workers after a bike lane collapsed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The bike path was heralded as a top legacy project of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.CREDIT: FELIPE DANA, AP
People gather around the bodies of two people who were recovered by rescue workers after a bike lane collapsed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The bike path was heralded as a top legacy project of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.CREDIT: FELIPE DANA, AP

When you first went there, was there anything that stuck out to you, that was unexpected?
Yeah, what stuck out to me was the way in which they tried to integrate the favelas into the city by doing things like having guided tours — which were basically poverty tours — in these neighborhoods. The favelas, many of them are in the hills and you have people who are in the foot of the hills who are passing out guides, offering to be paid for a walkthrough. And it’s interesting because I don’t want to be overly dismissive of this, because part of is it is that the favelas are remarkable communities and the people who live in them are very proud of them and they’re very sensitive when they’re described interchangeably as slums.
First of all if you recognize you need more schools and hospitals, then maybe that’s what you need to be doing.
I get that people feel a sense of pride that hey, there are tourists who want to see where we live. But there’s a flip side where you’re extolling the virtues of poverty, you’re glamorizing poverty for a tourist audience and you’re showing a very superficial view of the struggles that people have in these communities. So that surprised me.
And now, because of the economic crisis, you have the degradation of that. The degradation is happening because the anti-crime pacifying programs in the favelas are in shambles, and now the death tolls are horrific. And now nobody is visiting places where there’s gonna be police shootouts.
I listened to your podcast where you sat down with Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes and asked him about all of the problems happening in Rio, then had an activist on later to fact check all of his responses. The cognitive dissonance was incredible. How do you think he’s handled the Zika virus in particular?
That’s an area where he’s terrible, where he could have actually made a difference but has refused to do so, and now we’re paying the price with Zika. I spoke with the scientists there and they said from the beginning that we can get rid of Dengue, Zika, all that stuff. All we need is decent sewage and a commitment to go after the mosquitos. And the response, that’s not what’s he’s been promoting. It’s been instead this hyper investment — which I‘m sure is corrupt to the gills — of trying to get a vaccine created. And the thing about vaccine searches is that these diseases are shapeshifters and there’s many different kinds of them. And so the doctors are like, creating the vaccine, it mutates away from them. We have to go to the root cause.
I read in your book that they were trying to go after the mosquitoes with military-like force.
This is just one of those things that makes me nervous because our human record of fucking with human nature is not a good one — the latest plan is to try to create a new avenger mosquito that mates with the current mosquito and the babies that they have then kill the parents and then die.
That doesn’t sound like the most straightforward way to solve this.
I know, you hear that and you’re like — this won’t end badly. I know, eventually our babies will kill us.

Anti-government demonstrators celebrate the result of the impeachment process outside Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, May 12, 2016.CREDIT: FELIPE DANA, AP
Anti-government demonstrators celebrate the result of the impeachment process outside Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, May 12, 2016.CREDIT: FELIPE DANA, AP

I think some people think the current political situation in Rio and the fact that they’re hosting the Olympics, that it’s just bad timing. But your book makes it clear that these things are related.
These things are related because of debt. I do talk a lot of about displacement and militarization, but the debt piece of it can’t be overlooked because when this debt is created — I saw this in South Africa with the World Cup — it has to be balanced somehow. And we’ve seen this with Greece in a particularly brutal way. Where the debts accrued and the Olympics are a part that, and it then deals to this shock doctrine, this radical restructuring of the economy and the elimination of any sort of safety social net.
Debt is used, understandably, to justify those kind of cuts. But the Olympics, the World Cup, the Mega events, they exacerbate these problems which then opens the door for the kind of right-wing backlash that’s expected.
Where do you think we go from here? What happens to the Olympic Games after Rio?
What happens in Rio will make a difference, and the kind of coverage Rio gets makes a difference. My biggest worry is that everything in Rio will be fine during the games, the IOC will slink off and then there will be a hell of a hangover for the people of Rio and it’ll just be blamed on government dysfunction. That they’ll say what Eduardo Paes says, “Oh we’re in a developing country,” as if Brazil isn’t one of the five richest nations on the planet.
I’ve had people say that to me too, “You don’t think a developing country should host the Olympics?” But it has nothing to do with development, because these things will happen when the Games are hosted in Los Angeles as well.

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