How the Olympics could reshape Rio de Janeiro

The Games are bringing vast public spending with it. But its legacy on Rio de Janeiro is up for debate.

Ricardo Moraes/Reuters
Rio de Janeiro's Mayor Eduardo Paes travels on a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) vehicle during a media tour on the Transolimpica expressway that will connect the Recreio and the Deodoro neighborhoods in the West Zone, linking the two main venues of the 2016 Rio Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

By this end of this month, Rio de Janeiro will have hosted the pope, the World Cup and the Olympics in the space of only three years. And the profile of a city long prized by international tourists for its sumptuous geographies and dramatic diversity of cultural attractions has almost certainly been elevated, just as local and national leaders intended.

Such mega-events have also undergirded determination in government and the public alike to move on longstanding issues of housing and infrastructure. A flood of public-works projects have accelerated a profound reshaping of Rio de Janeiro, often in ways that reanimate bitterness over racial and class divisions. 

What city authorities hail is the transformation of how Rio’s residents get around. Sixty three percent of Rio’s residents used mass transit this year, as The Guardian reported, compared to just 18 percent in 2009 – no doubt because of the “legacy projects” that will stick around once the tourists leave, such as light rails and rapid buses.

But critics say that such plans are geared too exclusively toward the interests of tourism and the moneyed classes, at the expense of the city’s other residents. They point to juiced real estate values and spiking rent prices beginning in 2007 – after the announcement that the World Cup had been awarded to Rio – and the forced evictions of tens of thousands of lower-income residents as evidence. 

"These games are always sold to locals as great opportunities for the city to have an enormous economic development that will raise everybody's boats," says Clara Irazábal, professor of urban planning and director of the Latina/Latino studies program at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. "But it doesn't work that way if you don't put enormous effort into making sure the effects are equitable. Rather, it gets converted into an opportunity for greater capital accumulation by the wealthy."

Many of the innovations in transit, Dr. Irazábal tells the Christian Science Monitor, have simply connected wealthier districts and suburbs to the city’s south and west. She added that a new cable car system serving a historic favela and former redoubt for escaped slaves, Morro da Providência, leads to a port – great for tourists headed to Providência for the spectacular views of the city, but less useful for residents who need to get to work in other areas.

Protestors have channeled local discontent in recent demonstrations, even staging an “anti-Olympics” mock opening ceremony. Rio's mayor, however, Eduardo Paes, has strongly contested the idea that development favors the elite, pointing to his government’s effort to build hundreds of new schools and clinics in poorer neighborhoods. “It’s crazy to say there is no investment in poor areas,” he told The Guardian. “If people say this, they don’t know the geography [of the city].”

Studies show that the economic effect of such global mega-events in other cities tends to be mixed. Barcelona, which hosted the Olympics in 1992, is sometimes held up as a model for how cities can use the events to spur revitalization: unemployment plunged and stayed down, the sewage system was improved, and the investment in roads and beaches helped keep tourists coming well after the games ended, according to a study by Ferran Brunet, an economist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and the Olympic Studies Centre.

Others are thought to have gained little, however. South Africa’s current economic contraction is sometimes blamed on whopping spending for the 2010 World Cup. Montreal and Athens, which hosted the Games in 1974 and 2004, were left in debt after the Olympians departed. And some experts say that while the 2014 World Cup brought big increases in public debt, it did little to encourage growth over the long run. 

Mr. Paes told the Guardian that Brazil's crises have made his city "look bad in the eyes of the world", calling the Olympics a "missed opportunity". The job of figuring out what equitable development means in Rio may be an ongoing one.

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