A Marathon That Began Long Before the Olympics Opening Ceremony

Many working-class Brazilians feel excluded from the Games and won’t even be curious spectators when the opening ceremony takes place on Friday.

Children play soccer in the Vila Autodromo slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 2015.
Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

RIO DE JANEIRO – Some city buses here boast signs proclaiming that locals have really got “onboard with the Olympic spirit.” But this message goes unnoticed by Gilda Tereza Gonçalves, 43, during her commute home. The Olympic agenda has passed her by, just like the fact that the Olympic Games are about to begin in her home city.

Even just ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony, most Brazilians remain disinterested in the Games. The recession hit Rio hard. An economy that shrunk by 4 percent last year caused unemployment and inflation rates to soar.

Four public holidays have been added due to the Olympics (including the opening and closing days, and even the day when the Olympic flame arrived). Less cause for celebration was the huge traffic jam, estimated at some 120 kilometers (75 miles), that stretched throughout the city last Sunday, when travel lanes exclusively for Olympic athletes and officials came into operation.

“Just because of these new holidays and buildings, we end up knowing that something is going on. I see the advertising for ticket sales on newsstands and TV. It seems to have suddenly stopped everything,” says Gonçalves, who actually works in front of the Olympic Park – the main venue for the Games.

In the run-up to the 16 days of competition, little or nothing has changed in Brazil. There is still major frustration over widespread political corruption, embezzlement of public funds, overbilling of government spending and contractors involved in big scandals.

Brazil’s attraction to the Games is not as strong as its love for soccer. Soccer’s World Cup tournament was held here two years ago, but even that triggered tensions caused by financial problems. Brazilians still flocked to the games (even if the host nation crashed and burned 7-1 in the semifinal), and the Olympic arenas will, of course, include Brazilians. But the event has yet to truly grip the nation.

Trying to enthuse the public, television programs run advertisements promoting ticket sales. Although many in Rio know about the actual Olympics, the overwhelming majority are unaware of the various sites, dates and times of the 301 events until August 21.

A street vendor offers unauthorized Olympics items for sale along Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro, July 28, 2016.
Sergio Moraes/Reuters

Far from the madding crowd

Sitting under the mango trees in her improvised yard, Margareth Letícia Souza, 33, can see the Olympic Park in the distance, but it may as well be in another country. Balancing two young children in her arms, she says she cannot afford to attend any events.

“I don’t know about the chances my children will have,” she says. “I see millions and billions being spent on building Olympics spaces. It’s too expensive. We need basic things like education, health and building renovations, so that people in the favelas [slums] have opportunities to grow and participate in the development of the entire city. Unfortunately, this is of no political interest to those who live in Ipanema and Copacabana, facing the beach. Rio does not need the Olympic Games,” she states.

The only legacy Souza has witnessed is the blood of those who were forcibly removed from their homes to free land for the new stadia. She also saw the spilling of blood in the slums as an attempt to control violence during the Games.

Rio is divided into zones: The South Zone (Zona Sul) is the wealthier area, located directly on the coast; the poorer North Zone is situated in the hills. The Olympic Park is located in the West Zone, about an hour from the southern zone by public transportation.

“I think that setting up sites for people to watch the Olympics in the northern part of the city is a way to make the event accessible – but also to prevent us from going to the south and west zones,” says Kris Moreira, a resident of the northern part of the city.

It’s easy to get the impression from the Olympics and its building campaign that the government and social elite just don’t value the common citizen. The new road tunnels are far from lower-income communities, while the new subway lines only connect areas in the south. Bike lanes and renovation projects are directed only toward areas around the airport or the Olympic Park. And a large wall that spans the road from the airport to the “Olympic Zone,” close to the Maré neighborhood, has become a major bone of contention: Neighbors say the wall is meant to hide their favela from the gaze of visitors. City hall, meanwhile, says it prevents traffic noises from reaching the residents.

Going to the wire

The Olympics also stirred a marathon protest by the residents of Vila Autódromo – a protest that is stilling running, even as the Olympics is beginning.

Marcio Moza sits in the debris of his just-demolished house in the Vila Autodromo community, March 2016. The neighborhood made way for the Olympic Park in Rio.
Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Located by the western entrance to the Olympic Park, Vila Autódromo was and still is one of the most controversial issues surrounding the Games. At the height of the negotiating process to remove the favela and build the main competition sites there, residents staged protests and clashed with city officials. City hall’s actions drew the attention of the media and eventually became cited as a prime example of Brazilian social injustice.

The removal of some 600 families and the destruction of their homes, which began in 2011, isn’t over. Just a few weeks ago, the remaining Vila Autódromo residents refused to receive the keys of their new homes, claiming the estate to which they were being relocated had no electricity and had problems with plumbing and leaks. In addition, they said, the municipality had failed to pave the road leading to the square and church, as originally promised.

“There is a rush to demolish the old buildings and remove the machinery from the area of the Olympics. But the residents will only accept the new houses with everything working properly,” said a local priest, Núbio Montenegro, who followed the meeting with representatives of the local municipality and Public Defender’s Office.

While only one old property remains standing in Vila Autódromo, with two floors and several small rooms, residents remember the slogans like “Memory is not removed,” “Not everything has a price” and “2016, the Games of exclusion.” But the one-time community has been reduced to piles of rubble, demolished homes and an abundance of dust.

Delto de Oliveira, 50, is removing the last of the furniture from his home – that last one standing in Vila Autódromo. It will be demolished this weekend.

Denise Costa dos Santos, meanwhile, lived in Vila Autódromo for 26 years, where she raised her sons, now in their twenties. She says she would happily give up any million-dollar compensation. “It makes me very sad,” she says. “I don’t know how things will be after the Olympics. Even though we are being suffocated, we have to fight to get achievements for our residents.”

Together with Antonia Henrique dos Santos, 70, another resident of Autódromo, she goes back to check on what became of their neighborhood. Their houses were very basic, but were located in the place they loved, she says.

“This caused us a lot of pressure. The city even offered me 2.4 million reais [$730,000] to get out of here. But my story and my dignity have no price,” says the diarist Maria da Penha Macena, 51, who has lived in the favela for 22 years and is one of the few who remains, in a specially built, whitewashed new home to the west of the Olympic Park.

Still, some still see an upside to Brazil’s hosting the Olympics. Geane Costa, 40, will be working at both the Olympics and Paralympics (also in Rio, from September 7-18). “It will be an opportunity for me, although for two months only.” Costa says. “I meet people, practice English and, whenever you get a chance, I will discuss problems that our country has.”