Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Blog written by Rodrigo Brandao, director of publicity, Kino International
While thousands of cheerful Brazilians celebrated the historical selection of Rio de Janeiro as the host city for the 2016 Olympic Games, many in Chicago, Illinois (USA), were relieved to have the losing bid.
More than 18 months before The International Olympic Committee selected Brazil’s postcard metropolis over other three finalists (i.e. Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo), Chicago residents were already organizing (together with leftists organizations and progressive urban planning institutions) to fight against the Olympic fever -- and protect the housing rights of low-income dwellers threatened by the city’s Olympic ambitions.
“I am afraid that if the city wins their Olympic bid, it would displace many of us poor, Black folks,” said Cathy Weatherspoon, 88, in an a article that appeared on the New America Media website (www.newamericamedia.org) on June 7, 2008. She continues: “My building is three blocks from the Olympic Village site, and I can’t see the city spending all that money to build the darn thing knowing that welfare folks live a few blocks away.”
Weatherspoon’s fears aren’t unfounded, of course.
A year before, in June of 2007, the Geneva-based Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), a U.N.-funded agency, released a report confirming what many have long feared: that the Olympic Games is one of the world’s top causes of displacements and real-estate inflation around the word.
The report, titled “Fair Play for Housing Rights: Mega-Events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights,” revealed that gentrification and soaring real-estate prices linked to the Olympic games have displaced more than 2 million people in the last 20 years.
And while a great number of these forced evictions happened in Seoul, South Korea, and in Beijing, China, low income African Americans were also strongly affected by the 1996 Olympics.
Almost 300-pages long, this respected study has identified key housing issues that result from the staging of Olympic Games. Here are some of them, in a direct quote from the document (the document is available for download at the end of the article; page 196):
It goes without saying that Olympic Games represent a unique chance for Brazil and Cariocas (i.e. Rio’s dwellers) to improve their city as well as their standing among the international community. Brazil is by large, open to both foreign cultures and markets, and this event could be an opportunity for the world to strengthen its connection with South America’s largest nation.
Yet, it is important to point out that Rio de Janeiro has a history of class and racial discrimination that goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, and the preparations for the Olympic Games can not exacerbate this problem.
Now more than ever, it is important that NGOs, community organizers, artists, politicians, architects, and engaged citizens attempt a radical re-thinking of the city’s infrastructure, which is still divisive and discriminatory. Historically, poor people have been renegaded to less desirable locations, and the famous favelas in Rio de Janeiro are, in fact, the direct result of large populations being displaced from other parts of the city -- and even, from other parts of the country.
As such, it is crucial that Rio officials and politicians go against this trend and turn the preparations for the Olympic Games into a rare moment of positive state intervention into public spaces (both in the Favelas and in the “asphalt”). This is a chance for the state to redeem itself, and to establish a different relationship with a new generation of Brazilians which will inhabit the streets of Rio in the decades to come. This is also a chance for the state to ask for forgiviness from its citizens -- forgiveness for decades of exploitative behavior towards its own people.
The budget for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro is set at approximately $14.4 billion, and there’s little doubt that such massive investment in the city can help its habitants live much more fulfilling lives. But for such a revolution to take place, the Olympic Games has to be seen as an opportunity to re-think the city’s structures and core principles -- and not as an opportunity to cement the city’s discrepancies and alienating prejudices.
Yet, it is important to remember that when Rio de Janeiro hosted the Pan-American Games in 2007, politicians failed to deliver on promises of infrastructure improvements (including building additional highways and cleaning up Guanabara Bay). And after the party was over, there was little to show for, besides a debt that was much higher than the projected $177 million that was initially suggested.
Therefore, it might be a good idea for Brazilians to start working on (and organizing around) ways to make politicians and city officials accountable for the huge responsibilities they fought so hard to inherit.