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World Cup and Olympics: The Show and the Myth

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For the original article by Raquel Rolnik, UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, in Portuguese published on her blog click here.

I recently spoke with the magazine Revista Pagina 22, from the Sustainability Research Centre of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation Business School, about the social impact that the mega sporting events will have. The interview is available on the magazine’s website. See (the transcript of) our conversation below:


The show and the myth

In the history of mega sporting events the commonly touted urban and socioeconomic legacy is an exception, not the rule. Much more frequently their history is characterized by unassisted communities being transformed into victims of a chaotic evictions scheme and public coffers bobbing in the red.

Urbanist Raquel Rolnik, professor at FAU-USP and Rapporteur on Adequate Housing at the UN, had the first hand opportunity to observe the impacts of the Olympics and World Cup in various countries. In March of 2010 she presented her findings to the UN, a report denouncing the human rights violations she witnessed, and as a result since then has been seen as a spokesperson for the communities affected by these changes in Brazil.

“Rio officials arrive and paint numbers on the houses, just like the Nazis did during the Second World War. You know that your house is a target, but you don’t know what is going to happen to you or when,” explains the professor. In this interview, she explains the origin of the myth of “legacy” and reveals the common attributes among the few cases where legacy has been unmistakable: transparency and participation.


Is there empirical evidence that holding large sporting events brings economic and social development?

They do bring gains. The question is what for? And for whom? Because, yes, they do generate a large amount of money and investment. There is no doubt that these large events, since the late 80s, have become a sort of brand: a brand that sells in association with a particular city or country. However, all of the companies associated with that brand are automatically promoted in the international market. And it is a well executed strategy, because the event is seen by billions of people, a unique opportunity to communicate with this audience or the consumer public. That’s what this is about: it is a grand marketing event for companies and large businesses and the brands associated with them.

Of course depending on the city, context and country, occasionally these lucrative moments are also used to finance projects that benefit not only those who partake of the event, but other people in the long term. Basically, Barcelona was particularly noted for using the Olympics to implement an urban revitalization plan and for re-establishing itself on the international scene at a moment when its people were going through a radical process of productive restructuring as a consequence of globalization. Barcelona had traditionally been an industrial port city and was losing its position because its location was no longer sustaining this industry economically. At the same time, at that moment we also experienced an era of structural adjustments; with the withdrawal of central government and large public investment projects. Cities entered the self-promotion game on the international scene to attract external investment and promote reengineering of its economic base.

When people speak about the legacy of these events, they always mention Barcelona ‘92. Is there anything else comparable in the history of the Olympics and World Cups?

Barlecona established a paradigm that the Games (should) always come with a legacy of urban transformation. But urban interventions are not neutral. There are people who benefit and those who are harmed by them. It’s important to distinguish between the two things.

When the story of Barcelona is told, their specific Olympic experience is always separated from the immediate previous history. To understand Barcelona, it is necessary to understand what was happening more than ten years before (the Games) and to know that the city voted in an autonomous socialist government, in a movement that was incredibly important for Cataluña, as they broke away from authoritarian and centralized pro-Franco control. This constituted a successful struggle for popular and democratic control that for at least a decade invested radically in the betterment of the lives of workers and their surroundings, invested in the betterment of urban conditions for low-income neighborhoods, invested in housing, tremendously increased the level of popular participation in the workings of the city. Therefore, when Barcelona came up with their Olympic plans, they did not come from out of the blue. The Olympics did not fall from the sky, as is happening in Brazil. Even so, there was resistance, there were questions, there was a fight, there was transformation on the agenda of intervention as a result of this fight and these questions. It’s just that nobody ever tells that part of the story. That part of the story disappeared.

So the big legacy paradigm associated with the Barcelona Olympics only came about because there was already a trajectory in place independent of the Olympics?

Absolutely. You can see the case of London right now (host city of the 2012 Olympics). The London project also has a much longer history of integration, of rejuvenation in the East End, which historically has been the area with the worst living conditions in London. In addition to the construction of a large public park, most of the Olympic equipment will be taken apart and housing, commerce and services will replace it, with an estimated 35% put aside for subsidized social housing. And also in London’s case, there was questioning, public debate and again the project was changed with this in mind.

I would say that in cities where a public platform for debate and territorial interventions are already in place, the Olympics appear as an additional opportunity for implementing interventions. Where this is not the case a project falls out of nowhere that does not suit (the city). Brazil’s case is emblematic of this. Brazilian cities began coming up with master plans following approval of the federal Statute of Cities, in 2000. But these plans and projects have all been set aside or ripped up.

Rio’s enormous Olympic project was elaborated with and almost entirely by private interests who are going to launch an enormous real estate investment in Barra da Tijuca and Jacarepaguá, an area where private sector-led urban interventions were already happening. Nothing has changed. On the contrary, it’s strengthening the centrality of this middle-class area of Rio, and benefitting few. It’s the extension of the (elite) South Zone of Rio. It is not the Rio that most needs urban intervention, like the more central neighborhoods. It has everything to do with processes of private valorization and very little with public interest and a revision of tendencies, in such a way that the perverse elements in our precarious urbanism could be addressed.

The unmistakable legacy is the exception within the history of large sporting events?

Exactly. You have to understand this in the context of what happened to the land and real estate markets with globalization. The international real estate market became a fundamental part of the financial world. We experienced a “financialization” of the process of housing production and of cities. This means — and this is what we saw with the American crisis — that real estate assets, rather than representing a value for cities, instead became a speculation-inducing financial asset. Look at Dubai, developing on so many fronts in order to attract interest from financial capital. The megaevent is nothing more than a fantastic and immediate sales counter, yet associated with the spirit of sport, solidarity between people, nationalism through which the country can show the world what it is capable of. Associated with all of these elements, the event is even more powerful.

Where does this myth of a World Cup or Olympics-induced socioeconomic boom come from?

If we look at the history of the Games, they have gone through phases. They gain importance from a cultural and geopolitical perspective in the postwar period when they represented a space for reconciliation between nations. Just afterwards, during the Cold War, it was very important to see who was going to win. If it were the United States and therefore the vision of the capitalist free market, or if it were the Soviet Block and, later, China. It was a meeting of forces, a reaffirmation of the Cold War.

The Olympics became associated with urban intervention starting with the L.A games in 1984 when for the first time corporate capital was recruited to invest in the city in more permanent ways. And ever since then capital runs the show. It is the space of corporations mediated by Olympic committees and World Cup organizational committees, but also government.

And then, increasingly, come plans based on the concept of legacy and urban transformation. But this, as I have said, coincides with two phenomena: a reduction in the role of States to provide for urban demands, and consequently the entrance of private capital to fill the gap; and cities competing in the international globalized arena to see who receives investments from financial (speculators) looming over the planet searching where to allocate resources. The Olympics and World Cup open the space for this investment to happen, especially due to their symbolic elements, with the advantage that they represent an environment of consent. Everybody likes it, everyone thinks it’s cool.

Is this why the expectation of a transformational legacy exists when, in truth, a convincing positive balance for the (broader population) is extremely rare?

It is a show, which moves people. The emotion is real. You don’t only watch. You support, you suffer, you cry. The event plays on these feelings and it is because of this that it is so consensual. Everything associated with the event is permeated by these emotions.

On the other hand when you have a physical intervention, people see something was done. In a lot of cases, there are improvements. If you weigh up the goods and the bads, the majority doesn’t benefit too much and very few benefit a lot, but there are real changes. In South Africa, even with all the limitations, the bus route to Soweto completely changed the lives of those who were living there. That is real.

But there are perverse effects that aren’t remembered, that aren’t touched upon. Speaking as a rapporteur for the UN on the right for adequate housing and in general for human rights: the principal focus of human rights are those of the most vulnerable. These should be the priority, but in general, they are the ones who are harmed. It is they who end up bearing the perverse effects.

With regard to the involvement of civil society mentioned by you as an important factor to the success of Barcelona: do you think we here in Brazil still have time do this, considering the horizon is 2014?

One starts with who formulated the Olympic project. Who participated in it? And the project for the cities for the World Cup? These projects are developed behind closed doors by the public sector workers and corporates involved with the production of the event. Period. Everything that we have built in Brazil in the way of public participation, councils, participatory planning, is being left by the wayside, at the moment when the works are decided on for the World Cup and Olympics.

Do you see a difference in the carrying out of these processes between developed countries and those less so?

One thing is carrying out a large-scale project of urban revitalization when a basic level of quality of living has already been obtained, as was the case in Barcelona and is the case in London. For 50 years, London’s policies included strong investment in social housing, with 30% of all entrepreneurial ventures producing social housing, and because of this they have been able to practically eradicate poor living conditions.

Another thing is the situation of Brazil, or New Delhi in India where the Commonwealth Games took place. It seems to me that, in our case, this so called legacy should be totally driven toward building this basic level of quality of life or at least aim at this. But no. What we have seen is that those who have been living in poor housing conditions have been simply evicted, their houses destroyed and no other alternative presented to them. And we are repeating this here in Rio, right now exactly the same thing. And in other Brazilian cities as well. It goes like this: “So this is where there is going to be a stadium? OK cool, let’s do it, let’s get everything out of its way,” without respecting the rights of those people and without carefully weighing the alternatives.

According to your report, the impacts in relation to housing repeat themselves above all in developing countries, due to precarious urbanization?

Exactly. The impacts repeat themselves and are more serious. But this happened in Athens as well.

Does this new tendency to host the World Cup in developing countries say something about FIFA (International Football Association)?

FIFA goes where the money is. I was able to observe this firsthand while preparing a report about mega events and the right to housing which I presented to the UN. As a UN Rapporteur, I sought out the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA to discuss this with them and see how they approached this issue. I systematically received shocking information of forced evictions en masse, from Beijing to New Delhi, and in various places in South Africa. With the IOC I was able to start a conversation, understand the process, initiate a dialogue. FIFA didn’t respond.

In developing countries, would it not be easier to push certain demands?

I don’t know. I have not analysed how the relationship evolved between FIFA, for example, and the German government for the 2006 World Cup. What I saw that I thought was absolutely scandalous was that FIFA established protocols with local governments in South Africa. Some of the demands were: you could not sell another type of beer not only inside the stadiums but also within a certain radius around the stadiums. A specific policy was established allowing for on-the-spot judgement when someone commited a crime. In such a way that you could call them “states of exception” and “territories of exception.” I don’t know if this has been an increasing tendency in general, that is getting worse, or if it is because of the nature of the emerging economies. But in fact, this state of exception is getting bigger. And I don’t need to talk about the corruption allegations against FIFA as they are notorious.

In terms of transparency, how do you evaluate the removal and resettlements of people in Brazil for the World Cup and the Olympics?

It is very obscure. You are not able to find anywhere within the projects created by the cities, how many people will be removed, what value is being negotiated, what options are being presented to them, where they will go. When a relocation is going to take place, the community has to learn about the project, has the right to discuss the project, has the right to present an alternative, to establish a negotiation. The community has the right to an independent monitor to accompany them throughout the whole process, with technical and judicial assistance, for example from a university.

Are you talking about international or Brazilian law?

I am talking about the international treaties with regard to the right to housing of which Brazil is signatory and that therefore are absolutely applicable here. I had the opportunity to visit communities which are marked for eviction. The people don’t know anything, they don’t know why, they don’t know when. City officials arrive and paint their houses with a number exactly like the Nazis used to do during the Second World War. Therefore you know that the house is a target, but you don’t know when or what is going to happen to you, nor what space you have to discuss it. This is happening in Morro da Providência in Rio, in Fortaleza and other cities, without any transparency, in clear violation of international treaties with regard to the issue at hand.

Ricardo Teixeira tends to say that the CBF (Brazilian Football Confederacy) is a private entity, the World Cup is a private event, apparently making it clear that nobody else has anything to do with it. What do you think about this argument?

The CBF may be a private entity but our cities are public, at least that’s my concept of the city. We simply can’t allow for our cities, with approval and participation from our governments, to be transformed according to guidelines established by a private entity.

In states and cities which aren’t used to receiving much investment from the federal government, can the expenditure on stadiums eventually be justified as a result of related urban transformations?

This is the other dimension: public spending. Federal government is not investing resources in the building of stadiums, state governments are. They are using certain tactics to access public resources. In the case of Atlético Paranaese, the stadium is being rebuilt with the selling of building rights. Building rights are traditionally determined by the city’s planning process, so it is meant to benefit the public. The Brazilian national bank, or BNDES, is also investing and financing projects with lighter interest rates than those of the market, which can also be considered public financing.

The second question is overall expenditure. Is it all worth it? There are cases where cities indebted themselves. Look at what is happening in Greece. A part of it has to do with the Athens Olympics and which was not paid for. Now they are discussing this in South Africa. They are in the red. I saw a study that did the same calculation for the case of the Commonwealth Games in India. And in a country where there exists so much demand for investment, is it worth spending money on this type of thing? I think this question is only logical.

In your opinion, what would damage the pride of Brazilians the most? A new Maracananzo (humiliating football defeat) or organizational problems that would harm the nation’s image?

There exists a tension in international geopolitics between emerging economies and less developed nations, and North America and Europe. This tension is essentially that: “Ah, those little emerging countries don’t know how to organize anything, they’re all corrupt”.

It is important for these countries to show that they can organize large events. This was extremely important for South Africa and it is extremely important for Brazil on the international scene, because these countries are trying to establish a political counterbalance to the history of hegemony in the world. It is not only silly nationalism, it is also a real tension between countries. Who leads the world? I think Brazil is putting itself in a position of leader of the excluded. This component is also very important. For Brazilian citizens, obviously the emotions of winning or losing a game are very strong. For the love of God, after all this it will be very depressing to lose a final in Maracanã (stadium). But from the perspective of international geopolitics, whether we do a good or a bad job organizing the Games is going to be more important. The central question is: for whom?

Raquel, I would like you to answer your own question. In Brazil who is going to benefit? What do you think will be the outcome?

I have great doubts. If all continues as it has begun, this is an operation that benefits a few large cooperations and businesses who are going to be able to sell products and services, some national, others multinationals. And it’s going to fill FIFA and the CBF’s pockets along with their directors.

There will be a few specific improvements, like a new bus route that will benefit a community that did not have good access to transport, a clean-up of a public space where a part of the population will find a pleasant space in cities which are generally unpleasant, some interventions in informal resettlements. But the central question is the overall balance of wins and losses.