The Rio Games Were An Unjustifiable Human Disaster, And So Are The Olympics
Like the other Olympics before them, Rio 2016 proved that the IOC is blithely indifferent to the waste, corruption, and human wreckage the Games leave in their wake.
VICE Sports staff writer Aaron Gordon is in Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics and filing daily dispatches.
Every morning for the last 19 days, I woke up to the gentle sound of ocean waves lapping against the sublime Barra beach. I then walked a block and a half to get a cup of coffee, enjoying the few minutes of the day I could breathe the ocean air, the brief moments when Rio was still Rio.
During my walks, I passed the official IOC hotel, which happened to be next door to my Airbnb. First, I encountered about a half dozen volunteers whose job it was to wait with any IOC members or their families for one of the thousands of Nissan Versas adorned with a Rio 2016 decal shuttling the "Olympic Family" around the city in "Olympic lanes." On more than one occasion, I overheard irate fathers—it was always men with children—berate volunteers for making them wait some trivial amount of time for a private car in a city notorious for its gridlock.
After that came another group of volunteers, then the security tent, much like the ones set up outside of venues. In front of that tent, at all times, stood two soldiers with automatic weapons. On the other side of the sidewalk, there typically stood several other soldiers alongside some type of vehicle, a pick-up truck or 4x4. The entire hotel was fenced off—except for the entrance, which had gold Olympic rings hanging over the door.
More than anything else, what surprised me during my first Olympics was the sheer scale of the bubble the IOC has made for itself. After arriving at the airport, members and assorted apparatchiks were ushered into private cars, ferried along exclusive highway lanes—look out the window, and there were Rio 2016-branded walls to mask the favelas—and dropped off at their exclusive hotels ringed by security, so only those with credentials could enter. They then took the same private cars to all of their events. Some even got motorcades. Once they got to the various sports venues, they went in the Olympic Family entrances, passed through the Olympic Family security lines, mingled in the Olympic Family club lounges, and watched athletes compete from the Olympic Family seats. When they were hungry, they surely put their $900 per diems to use at the city's most exclusive restaurants and bars, never risking having to interact with anyone who wasn't wealthy. Except, perhaps, for the people serving them.
Yes, the Olympic Bubble is so all-encompassing that the IOC has convinced itself that it doesn't exist. "These games have not been organized in a bubble," IOC President Thomas Bach told reporters on Saturday as he made other demonstrably false claims, such as the Games not using any public money and Brazilians being "united behind these Olympic Games" despite the fact that half of them weren't. Bach ended his press conference by no-commenting almost every question, but adding that if the Olympics can happen in Rio, they can happen anywhere.
Putting aside Bach's sportocrat snobbery, there is a critical lesson here. The Olympic Bubble's comprehensiveness illustrates just how little the IOC is concerned with anyone but themselves—and how blithely, even happily indifferent the entire Olympic "movement" is to the waste and corruption it fosters, and the human wreckage it leaves in its wake.
In 2010, University of Zurich geographer Christopher Gaffney, who has studied how megaevents have impacted Brazil for the last decade, wrote a paper predicting that the Olympics would result in a radical but negative transformation of the city, exacerbating socioeconomic divides rather than addressing them. I met with Gaffney last week, as he wandered Rio to assess the damage. "Unfortunately," he said, "I was right."
About 70,000 people have been displaced—20,000 families—by the Olympics and its parallel but dubious "legacy" projects. Thousands of poor people—mostly black and mostly men—have been killed during "pacification" efforts to make the city appear peaceful, but the exact number is hard to determine.
To call the Olympics a bad investment would be disingenuous, because few actually believe the Games produce any return of public value. Study after study after study has shown they create no economic benefits, yet cities and nations still fight to host them, always to disastrous ends. Something like $12 billion—roughly $15,000 per Carioca, five times the annual minimum wage salary in Brazil—was spent on the Rio Games. Nearly all of that money went to the already wealthy: developers, landowners, transportation moguls, massive—and allegedly corrupt—construction firms, effectively making the Olympics an enormously successful regressive wealth transfer program, taking money from the poor and middle class via taxes and giving it to the rich. This is an unconscionable crime in a city with open sewers, endemic violence, abject poverty, and lack of economic opportunities for millions of its citizens. Rio will be paying for these Games for years, if not decades, to come.
Not all the damage can be measured with nine zeroes or in lives lost. Two weeks ago, Hugo Costa showed me around his neighborhood in Ramos, a working class neighborhood, where a bus line nobody except the Olympics wanted destroyed the few parks and green spaces they had, divided his neighborhood in half, and didn't address the city's crippling transportation needs. Now, kids play in the middle of the road because there is nowhere else for them to go. After the Games, it will still take hours for Costa and Lima to get to work downtown, but at least there's an easy way to get to the Olympic Park.
Sadly, none of this is a surprise. The last six summer Olympics have cost a combined $33.7 billion on just the sports expenses alone, according to a recent University of Oxford study. That total doesn't include the routinely floundering "legacy" projects—which are supposed to improve the city and make everyone glad the Olympics came, but almost always leave a wake of corruption and waste—and dubious infrastructure improvements such as Sochi's $6.8 billion road to nowhere. They also have displaced some two million people, according to a 2008 report from the Switzerland-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions.
Yet Gaffney would be the first to point out that the Olympic model is far from broken. To the contrary—and this, perhaps, is the most tragic thing of all—the Games are functioning exactly as the IOC intends. "These are not mistakes," Gaffney says. "These are not stupid people doing stupid things. These are highly educated, the best trained minds in Europe, America, Australia, and Asia, mostly. They want us to believe they are mistakes."
Indeed, you could hardly dream of a better business model than that of the Olympics: externalize costs and pocket profits. While the Games cost cities billions to execute, the IOC will make more money on Rio 2016 than on any single Olympics ever: about $9.3 billion in marketing revenues and $4 billion in TV deals. Roughly $1.2 billion came from NBC, which spared no expense in putting up many of their employees at Copacabana Palace, the nicest hotel in the city.
Those rights-holders and high-level sponsors didn't pay for anything. The Olympics turned the city into a marketing convention. Nissan branded their own hotel on Copacabana, Samsung had a demo store, Coca Cola erected a giant digital billboard in the shape of a bottle, and you could only use Visa to buy anything in the Olympic venues. Many countries' tourist departments spent millions of dollars each to set up exclusive hospitality houses around the city that, if open to the public, were in well-to-do neighborhoods aimed at the type of people who can afford to vacation in Europe or Asia. The same houses also held business meetings for major companies hoping to strike their own deals.
The Games themselves were priced for the wealthy. The Official Megastore—adjacent to the Samsung store and giant Coca Cola bottle—was set up inside a tent about the size of a football field and charged prices that compare unfavorably to Brazil's monthly minimum wage of 880 Reals. A basic t-shirt sold for 100 Reals ($30), a giant stuffed animal of the Rio mascot for 750 Reals ($231), track jackets also for 750, cheap children's soccer balls for 300 ($92), and bottles of official Rio 2016 wine for 80 ($24). Gaffney said he tried to go to the Track and Field event one night last week but found the cheapest price was 380 Reals ($117), which matches the prices listed on the website.
Even if you consider yourself a fan of the sports—and let's be honest, if you only watch gymnastics or swimming or running once every four years, you are not really a fan—your viewing pleasure cannot possibly justify the authoritarian agitprop and human rights abuses that accompanied the Beijing and Sochi Games. Nor can it justify the rampant profiteering by the wealthy in Rio, built on the backs of the city's poor and working classes, and diverting needed resources from basic civil services.
That pleasure can be powerful. Almost narcotic. On Friday night, I came down with a vicious case of handball fever when I watched the men's semifinals between Denmark and Poland in a Rio restaurant with two groups of Danes. It was a fantastic game with a last-second goal to send the match into overtime, where the Danish keeper made a few stellar saves to send them to the finals. It was one of those magical Olympic experiences in which you get swept up in a sport you barely understand, but care about like it's your lifelong passion.
The Games, at their best, are a collection of these moments. They're the thrill of seeing Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt pile up medals, pushing the limits of physical performance. But none of it—from the heartwarming gestures of international sportsmanship to the mindless, wall-to-wall guilty pleasure coverage of an American douchebag peeing on a gas station—can possibly be worth lives being ruined so the IOC can sell $92 soccer balls, all while paying Olympic Village housekeepers $1.83 per hour and berating their overworked volunteer help.
Speaking of those volunteers, during the Games they quit en masse, due to exhaustively long hours and limited breaks. Would that the rest of us could follow suit. Instead, the Olympics almost certainly will continue in their current, parasitic form. NBC, the IOC's biggest single revenue stream, has paid for television rights through 2032. Although the IOC has made promises in something called Agenda 2020 about responsible reforms, its recommendations are vague enough to approach meaninglessness: a whole 115 words on how to make one of the most wasteful human enterprises in existence "sustainable," 49 words on gender equality, another 49 words on transparency, and 32 words on "ethics." Predictably, Agenda 2020 has no teeth: nobody signed it, nobody is responsible for implementing it, and nobody will be held accountable if these things never happen.
Meanwhile, the only document that actually matters—the host contract for the 2020 Tokyo Games—ensures more of the same. The city is contractually obligated to make good on its bid promises, no matter the final financial cost. There are no provisions to protect the rights of Tokyo citizens; instead, the city is contractually bound to do whatever it takes to be ready for the Games. Human Rights Watch reported that this will change for the 2024 Games, with clauses added to protect human rights and prevent discrimination, but the implementation mechanisms are vague at best and, as of September 2015, the 2024 Host City Contract operational requirements listed no such provisions.
For the foreseeable future, then, the Olympics will continue to be unjustifiable for anyone who considers the lives of the impoverished or politically marginalized as worthwhile, worthy of the same basic human dignities as their own. Of course, this will not stop the IOC from loudly trumpeting the Games as a vessel of healing, humanity and peace, all while members ride around in bulletproof cars, surrounded by armed guards. It won't stop the IOC from being what it is, or from doing what it does. When you're inside the bubble, the Games are a hell of a show.
While talking with Gaffney on a bright, beautiful day at a small restaurant a few blocks off Avenida Atlantica in Copacabana, I found it difficult to summarize everything I perceived as objectionable about the Olympics. He assured me that doing so is hard, that he has spent a decade trying, and others have spent even longer. He's going to keep trying, but getting it all out will require writing a book, and even then, he's not sure he'll cover everything. All of these problems, he says, are not really unique to the Olympics. They're elements of the modern human condition. The Olympics are simply a three-week party, perversely dedicated to celebrating them.
After every Games, there's a tradition of determining whether or not the event was a "success." This depends on who's judging, and what they consider important. Usually, it's journalists evaluating if the focus remained on athletic achievements and good TV, rather than the surrounding unpleasantness—as if the suffering of thousands and corruption of city officials is simply a regrettable side story, another disposable thread in a quadrennial reality show. But for the people who call Rio home, the Games weren't just programing inventory for NBC to sell ads against, or the set of a late-summer blockbuster. They were real, with a real, lasting impact. From a human rights perspective, from a human perspective, attempting to determine the success of the Games is the wrong question. There has never been a successful Olympics. They're all, as Gaffney puts it, different kinds of total disasters.
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