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Rio Olympics has its commandments – but what legacy will it leave?

Given Brazil’s chaotic sociopolitical situation, the legacy the 2016 Olympic Games will leave remains unclear. Reuters/Sergio Moraes

During the recent launch of the “ten commandments” for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff declared that they have guided and will continue to guide all actions and plans for the event.

Most of the commandments would easily fit under the umbrella of the first one. This claims that the Olympics should:

Leave a legacy for the entire population of the city.

Commandment eight says that the event must “deliver a better city after the Games”. Commandment ten compels the organisers to:

… create simple facilities and … not build white elephants.

Both commandments fall into the category of “legacy”. This is a concept that promoters of sporting mega-events have used extensively to justify not only the amount of – mostly public – money involved in the bid and execution of such events, but also as an excuse for the human rights violations that take place before and during them.

Brazil and mega sports events

In 2007, Rio hosted the 15th Pan American Games. This was the largest international sports tournament held in Brazil since Sao Paulo held the Pan American Games in 1963.

At the same time, Brazil was bidding to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Rio was attempting to capture the 2016 Olympics. As such, the 2007 Pan American Games played a crucial role in showcasing the city’s and the country’s abilities as real contenders in their future bids.

The Pan American Games’ legacy, though, is controversial. There were several improvements on sports facilities that were renovated or specially built for the event. However, a few years later, some facilities – such as Engenhão Stadium – needed expensive renovations as they were deemed unsafe for public use.

Another of its important but underrated social legacies was the victory of civil society over the Games’ organising committee’s attempts to privatise and gentrify the Marina da Gloria. The committee wanted to build a complex of shopping centres, parking and sports facilities that would host the event’s nautical competitions. However, it ignored that the marina is a public space for leisure and viewing activities.

This sort of social legacy was also seen more recently during the 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2014 FIFA World Cup. While alleging that white elephant stadiums were being built, the international media also noted that locals were marching on the streets, protesting against the events and for better public services.

A contentious, whole city legacy

The 2016 Olympics’ operational centre will be located at Barra da Tijuca, as will the Athletes’ Park, the Olympic and Paralympic Village and the international broadcasting centre. This upper-class neighbourhood is surrounded by lagoons, mountains and Rio’s best beaches.

The already privileged inhabitants of Barra da Tijuca will benefit from the construction, with road improvements, much better public transport and world-class entertainment and sports facilities on the cards.

A similar pattern occurs in two of the other three regions that will stage Olympic competitions: Maracanã and Copacabana. Despite not being as upper class as Barra da Tijuca, both are much more socially advantaged than other areas in Rio’s north.

The Olympics’ second-largest venue is to be located in Deodoro, a poor region in Rio’s west. Here, much social and cultural improvement is needed. But so far, the promised legacy in this area is very loose, with promises of “better public transport connections”.

Much of Rio’s north is dominated by favelas – densely populated areas with low levels of public service and transport and high rates of violence.

With an eye on the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, in 2013 Rio’s state government launched a “pacification program” in the favelas. Aiming to reclaim these from the drug dealers that terrorised the local population, armed elite police troops invaded many areas. These remained under their control while other public services came to affirm the state’s presence.

The operations were very controversial. There were constant accusations that the state forces abused human rights.

So, what for the Olympics?

With eight months to go before the Olympics, the “whole city legacy” promise is still trying to find its place on the authorities’ agenda. The organising committee faces problems with delivering facilities – such as in Guanabara Bay’s polluted waters, which will host the sailing competitions.

Meanwhile, many layers of government are engulfed in serious crises. The parliamentary speaker, Eduardo Cunha, is facing serious corruption allegations. Rousseff has to deal with an impeachment bid and one of the biggest ecological disasters in Brazil’s history. On top of that, Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin remains defiant in the face of mass public protests over his plan to close dozens of public schools.

With this chaotic sociopolitical scenario, the 2016 Olympics’ legacy remains unknown. The only hope is that civil society will counteract the major neoliberal forces involved with the Olympics to point out potential political, cultural and social legacies of such large interventions in the lives of their city’s citizens – as it has done previously.

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