IRPfellows — Feb 16, 2017

Rio’s Olympic legacy

“You don’t like the beach much, do you?” the doorman mused as I walked into my apartment building in Copacabana, drenched in sweat after a day out in the field. I nodded in solemn admission that the view while zipping around favelas on the back of moto-taxis wasn’t exactly the picturesque coastline most visitors came to see. I’d spent the past week interviewing residents whose lives had been upended to accommodate developments for the Rio Olympics, and the devastating results of the Games six months later. Many of the projects now stand desolate and useless, as is often the case in host cities after the athletes and media have come and gone. However in Rio, where there had been high hopes the international sporting event would provide an opportunity to improve infrastructure and help address its staggering Gini coefficient, the result was particularly disturbing.

Instead of focusing on fixing basic infrastructural issues that would improve the quality of life for people living in favelas, the government forcibly removed tens of thousands of poor residents from their communities to make way for developments and keep them out of eyeshot of international visitors. Now much of what was built in place of their homes is either remote and largely abandoned or already starting to fall apart. For example, I wrote about how even an egregious white-elephant project – a cable car built over favelas lacking access to basic sanitation – has stopped running. Similarly, a Trump Towers Rio that was supposed to go up near an area being revitalized for the Games hasn’t broken any ground. (Update on Feb. 24: Perhaps the most obvious example is the creepily abandoned Olympic Park itself, which I wrote about for VICE News.)

The Olympics were also not the grand entrance onto the international stage its organizers had hoped. Many locals felt the Games left the world with a negative impression of Rio, despite the multi-billion dollar price tag. Headlines alerted potential tourists to the fact that the city’s beaches are often too polluted for swimming and that public safety is a big – and worsening – problem. Residents running businesses in the tourism industry lamented that the bad press has hurt their numbers for this summer’s high season. Overall, Brazil is facing a grim moment in its history, with an economic and political crisis making maintenance of Olympics-era projects a last priority.

Despite the depressing conditions, I had the opportunity to speak with many passionate people who are fighting to improve their country through activism or even just by voicing their hopes and concerns. Working as a journalist in Brazil had many upsides. For one, interviews practically conduct themselves. Start up a conversation with someone and others will drift into the circle and proffer their thoughts. Everyone’s got an opinion and is always ready to share it with gusto that’s usually reserved for trained TV personalities. Even when it comes to topics that might be considered more sensitive in other countries, such as politics or personal relations, the Cariocas are generally unflappable. One woman I texted to ask for an introduction to someone in her community sent me contact information for a man she’d met on Tinder who fit the bill. We’d never met or even spoken by phone.

Before this trip it had been nearly nine years since my last visit to Rio. The city has changed a lot during that time. The security situation improved, then worsened again. Rio spruced up many public areas before hosting events for the World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016. Yet the time when Brazil was hailed as a Latin American success story and a model BRIC country feels long ago. The uncertainty facing Rio now is pervasive under President Michel Temer’s conservative government as well as thanks to the prospect of more political purges from Operation Lava Jato (“Car Wash”), which has been investigating the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history. Many locals were nervous for their futures and couldn’t speculate about what the next six months had in store.

International media packed their collective bags and hightailed it out of Rio de Janeiro after last summer’s Olympics, leaving behind a city facing an uncertain future as it grapples with political and financial crises. I’m grateful to the International Reporting Project for sending me there after others had turned away. Rio 2016 has left a sordid legacy for many of the people who needed its help the most, and when I departed from the city after two weeks I felt I was leaving behind many stories that have only just begun.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the International Reporting Project (IRP) blog.