Summer Olympics Are Upon Us - Brazil Can Expect Excessive Spending of Public Money With No Actual Benefit to the Public

The following is an excerpt from the new book Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics by Jules Boykoff (Verso Books, 2016): 


When Jacques Rogge announced that the IOC had picked Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, the Brazilian contingent, including President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the soccer legend Pelé, leaped joyfully into the air, fists pumping like pistons. Lula threw a Brazilian flag over his shoulders like a superhero cape and exclaimed: “Today is the most emotional day in my life, the most exciting day of my life. I’ve never felt more pride in Brazil. Now, we are going to show the world we can be a great country.” Lula even laid an unsolicited smooch on the forehead of a visibly glum Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC member and son of the former IOC president of the same name, who had been cheerleading for the Madrid bid. Meanwhile, elated residents in Rio— cariocas—flooded onto Copacabana Beach to celebrate.

Rio beat out Chicago, Madrid, and Tokyo in the 2009 voting, despite persistent lobbying from the Spanish and Japanese prime ministers and a direct plea from Barack Obama, who made a special trip to address IOC members in Copenhagen where the vote was staged. Rio’s raucous response broke with the IOC’s stiff-jawed protocol, but Rogge said of Rio’s presentation, “There was absolutely no flaw in the bid.” Brazil was on a roll. A November 2009 issue of The Economist featured on its cover the iconic Cristo Redentor statue blasting off like a rocket from Cape Canaveral. The magazine noted that Brazil used to be “a country with a growth rate as skimpy as its swimsuits,” but that the Olympics marked its “entrance onto the world stage.” This generic media trope, portraying Rio’s Olympic victory as proof that Brazil had finally arrived on the global stage, was a meaningless confection that helped justify profligate Olympic bidding. For some—especially the ridiculously anthropomorphized “market”—Rio’s winning bid helped shed the perception that Brazil was a geopolitical welterweight, marking the rise of the BRIC nations as Olympic titans. Rio was to be a coming-out party.

Brazilians had good reason to be a bit defensive. In 1982 US president Ronald Reagan traveled to Brazil and toasted President João Baptista Figueiredo and “the people of Bolivia.” By winning the right to host both the World Cup and the Olympics, Lula and his supporters hoped to bury those memories of the “great communicator” deep in the historical dirt. Lula’s hands-on involvement was symbolic of the comprehensive sandpapering of his radical political edge. The former head of a steelworkers’ union, he helped found the Workers Party (or PT, Partido dos Trabalhadores) in 1980, cobbling together a coalition of trade union members, environmentalists, liberation theologists, and socialists. In sweeping into office Lula demanded a rupture from capitalism, but once ensconced in power he offered market-friendly assurances and reforms that would slake the political thirst of any pro-capitalist.

On one hand, Lula established federal programs like the Bolsa Família (Family Purse), which transferred cash directly to the neediest Brazilians, and Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My Home, My Life), a housing program that extended low interest rates to low-income people. These programs unequivocally assisted the poorest of the poor. But on the other hand, Lula did not challenge Brazil’s entrenched oligarchy. He helped fashion Brazil into what Dave Zirin dubs “the neoliberal darling of international capital and its media organs.” Lula actually accelerated neoliberal financialization and export-stoked growth. As the president embarked on his second term, Francisco de Oliveira wrote in New Left Review that “Lula seems to have entirely lost his way,” promoting “the constant bombardment of neoliberal privatization, deregulation and attacks on rights.” Traditional corruption flourished during his presidency, as evidenced by the mensalão vote-buying scandal and the enormous Petrobras kickback scheme— known as Lava Jato (Car Wash)—that undercut the Workers Party’s legitimacy. With his full embrace of the Olympics, Lula once again talked transformation but walked neoliberal.

Rio’s Olympic bid book promised not only the Cidade Maravilhosa’s breathtaking natural beauty and its ability to “excite and inspire television audiences, young and old”; it also noted that putting the first South American Olympics in the city would give the IOC a gateway for “brand enhancing initiatives” to reach burgeoning audiences on an under-tapped continent. The bid vowed to stage “Games that will open new markets and encourage other countries to share the [Olympic] dream.” The bid also claimed that the Games would “help continue the ongoing growth of the Brazilian economy.” And it outlined an array of infrastructural upgrades: improved water quality, shiny sports venues, a thorough revamp of the port area, and transportation improvements like the Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT).

Rio’s bid touted its experience staging the 2007 Pan American Games as a template for the 2016 Olympics. Bidders promised to make thrifty use of existing venues from the Pan Ams. But Rio’s Pan American Games were a curious model to tout. Initially slated to cost $250 million, the event’s price tag skyrocketed to $2 billion, making it the most expensive Pan American Games in history (a mark eventually eclipsed by Toronto in 2015). The Estádio Olímpico João Havelange cost $192 million alone, six times the initial estimate. The stadium was forced to close only six years later because of dangerous structural weaknesses, leaving Rio without a working stadium while the historic Maracanã was being revamped for the World Cup.

The 2007 Pan Am Games brought a host of broken promises. Under the pressure of tight deadlines, ambitious assurances about public transport upgrades and boosts for social programs went out the window. Instead, Pan Am organizers bolstered security and created militarized enclaves where the sports competitions took place. The Brazilian geographer Gilmar Mascarenhas and his colleagues concluded:

For the 2007 Pan American Games, a First World “city” was built parallel to the “normal” Rio de Janeiro. People who had enough money could pass through the walls guarded by National Force patrols and x-rays to enter a completely different world. These people had access to a clean and colorful entertainment district. They were treated to highly organized services and information. Those without enough money had to follow it on TV. When, outside of the Games, people go to watch a soccer match they will not get access to the walled services, but suffer the repression of local military police.

Many cariocas suspected that Rio 2016 would provide a supersized version of the disastrous Pan Ams, where sport barons converted public money into privatized pleasure, rammed plans down the public’s gullet, and used deadlines to renege on grand promises that had justified hosting the spectacle in the first place. As the Brazilian journalist Juca Kfouri put it: “What worries me is that the Olympics are in the hands of those who committed the debacle that was the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. I have no reason to believe that it will be different. And we should remember that we spent almost 10 times more public money than it was anticipated.” He noted that despite the steep hike in costs, “the Bay of Guanabara was not depolluted, as had been promised, the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon was not depolluted, the metro linking the Pan American Village to the Galeão Airport was not built.” These locations would be in the spotlight once again when Rio 2016 rolled around. 

Rio 2016 Olympic bidders pegged overall costs at $11 billion, although the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins put the bill at $15 billion, the urban geographer Christopher Gaffney projected it to reach $16.5 billion, and the economist Andrew Zimbalist estimates the final tally will vault closer to $20 billion. But Brazil was on a hot streak, having just landed the 2014 soccer World Cup, a huge psychological boost for Lula and for the entire country. Even the critic Kfouri said, “It is absolutely right for Brazil to organize a World Soccer Cup, by all Brazil means to world soccer.” While Brazil has struggled to consistently win Olympic medals—its best showing was in 2012, when it won seventeen (three gold, five silver, and nine bronze)—soccer, or futebol, has long been king. In popular culture, soccer holds a special place alongside music and religion, a vital component of Brazilian national identity. Yet Mascarenhas points out that soccer was also a key element in “a process of territorial conquest ... of colonization.” With Swiss-based FIFA at the helm, the World Cup resurrected the colonial specter.

With the World Cup (Copa do Mundo) on the docket, anything seemed possible. However, a year before the Copa do Mundo began, the political winds shifted. On June 6, 2013, less than two weeks before the Confederations Cup—a tune-up tournament for World Cup hosts that occurs about a year before the big event—protesters from the Movimento Passe Livre (Movement for Free Passes) organized demonstrations in São Paulo over the imminent rise in public transport fares. A mixture of Global Justice Movement activists, anarchists, and Workers Party veterans, the group struck a social nerve. When the Military Police responded with indiscriminant viciousness, their attacks attracted sympathetic attention from a wider swath of the population. Thousands of protesters multiplied into hundreds of thousands across more than 350 cities and towns, expanding the scope of critique far beyond transportation costs.

Juliana Barbassa describes the protests as “the growing pains of a middle-income country with a middle class that had awakened to the reality that they paid taxes, they voted, and they wanted what was their due: decent services and elected officials who represented their interests.” Add to this a “precariat” of mostly younger workers who had entered the formal workforce during Lula’s reign (2003–11), but who labored under unstable conditions where pay was meager and job security close to nil, and you get what André Singer called “a crossover of classes.” The 2013 Confederations Cup became a political petri dish for dissent.

Many protests focused on FIFA as the plutocratic puppetmaster pulling the World Cup strings. Demonstrators demanded FIFA-quality schools and hospitals on par with the FIFA-standard stadiums. FIFA played the perfect villain, after a series of damning revelations exposing the world governing body for soccer as inhabiting a land of caviar and stretch limousines, the 1 percent of the global 1 percent, the apple of Thomas Piketty’s ire. For a nonprofit organization, FIFA sure was a profitable one: the Zurich-based group would rake in $4.5 billion from the Brazil World Cup alone. As protests rippled across Brazil, Romário, the soccer phenom turned congressman, said that FIFA was “the real president of Brazil” and that the group was “taking the piss with our money, with the public’s money, it’s a lack of respect, a lack of scruples.”

The Brazil World Cup was an archetypal case study in celebration capitalism. Thanks to a sport-induced state of exception, World Cup host cities were exempted from Brazil’s Law of Fiscal Responsibility, which sought to corral reckless deficit spending. Although FIFA only required eight stadiums, Brazil built twelve, spreading the patronage while increasing the cost. Since many of the stadiums were built in cities without teams that could fill the stands in the wake of the mega-event, a herd of white elephants was born. Protesters found it especially galling that vast sums of public money—$15 billion to $20 billion—were being shunted toward luxury soccer stadiums that would become privatized enclaves they’d never be able to access. As Gaffney put it, “these new stadiums have consolidated the privileges of the elite at the expense of everyone else.” He added, “The 2014 World Cup became a smokescreen for Brazil’s violent dystopia even as it exacerbated the stark economic and social inequalities that define this country of 200 million.” In considering whether the 2014 Brazil World Cup was worth it, Jorge Castañeda wrote: “For the rest of the world, it was a great big party on someone else’s dime. Brazilian taxpayers footed the exorbitant bill.” Every time Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, appeared on screen during the Cup, she was roundly booed. So was Sepp Blatter, the tone-deaf president of FIFA who would soon find himself embroiled in a vast racketeering scandal being prosecuted by law enforcement agencies in the United States and Switzerland.

The World Cup and Olympics signaled wider changes, together forming what Orlando Santos Junior, urban planning professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, called a “privileged moment” for imposing a happy-faced version of creative destruction on Brazil. “These two sports mega-events constitute expressions of urban projects that restructure the host cities, and the dissemination and adoption of a new pattern of neoliberal governance,” he wrote. While not neoliberal phenomena in themselves, the sports galas functioned as a two-headed battering ram for neoliberalism. They relied heavily on a law passed in 2004 that baked public–private partnerships into the country’s financial future. The law codified two types of public–private partnerships: the “sponsored concession” (concessão patrocinada), linked to managing public services, and the “administrative concession” (concessão administrativa), or contracts to provide services to the government. In short, celebration capitalism scythed the path for normalizing neoliberalism in Brazil. 

In many ways, the World Cup was a foretaste of what was to come with the Olympics. The Brazil squad marched toward the World Cup final until its gruesome 7–1 semifinal loss to a merciless German team that ultimately claimed the Jules Rimet trophy as world champion. For Brazil, o jogo bonito— the beautiful game—was all of a sudden not so bonito. Neither was Rio 2016 organizers’ progress on the Olympics. While the country wallowed in the seleção’s drubbing, construction projects for the Rio Games lagged behind schedule, as Brazil’s Ministry for Labor halted construction work at two Olympic venues over health and safety concerns. Experienced IOC officials slid into freak-out mode. IOC vice president John Coates announced that preparations in Rio were “the worst that I’ve experienced,” causing the IOC to “become very concerned. They are not ready in many, many ways.” But by spring 2015, the IOC was sounding much more relaxed, with the Brazilian federal auditor reporting that construction only lagged behind by a month.

To be sure, the Olympics are a much more complicated endeavor than the World Cup. Rio 2016 features more than 10,000 athletes from 205 countries, whereas the Brazil World Cup involved 736 soccer players from thirty-two nations. Given the difference in those figures, we shouldn’t be surprised at Andrew Zimbalist’s assertion that “whatever deficiencies cropped up in hosting the 2014 World Cup, they appear to be magnified severalfold for the 2016 Summer Games.” In fact, Eduardo Paes, the blue-jeans-wearing, English-speaking, beer-quaffing mayor of Rio, agreed. “The World Cup compared to the Olympics is kind of easy; the Olympics is very complicated,” he said. “I’ve been spending much more time on Olympics than the World Cup.” A year before the Games, Paes confessed, “Of course I am worried.” The mayor has a lot to worry about. He has hinted at pursuing higher political office, and his political fate may well be tied to the Games. 

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