Behind Olympic glitz lies the reality of Rio’s hidden poor

The 2016 Summer Olympics are so far proving to be a milestone for athletes from all walks of life. A number of young up-and-coming contenders – such as Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez, Joseph Schooling – have already established themselves as fierce competitors, while visitors from various countries flock to watch and celebrate the diverse talents on display. The overall roster of gold, silver, and bronze victories have inspired national pride in citizens around the globe.

Nevertheless, beyond the Olympic glitz, there was much preparation behind the scenes of the summer games. While the public renovations done in Rio de Janeiro paint a picture of infrastructural prosperity, many locals have suffered under the government’s “urban renewal” programs. The impact of hosting one of the most widely-celebrated events in the world has fallen hardest on the impoverished black and brown indigenous communities of Rio.

Most of the displacement that occurred has been due to construction of the Olympic Park and its surrounding venues. Rio’s heaviest tourist area is in the South Zone, where the famous Christ the Redeemer statue is located, along with many other popular beach sites.

A large percentage of the poor and working-class populations, however, live in “Zona Norte” the North Zone, a district that is currently undergoing heavy bus “rerouting” and cuts. The city justified these changes by saying they were necessary in order to transport tourists during the Olympic games, but some have speculated that it was a strategic way to ensure the poorer residents of the North Zone have difficulty making their way down to the more popular attractions.

The elimination of transportation for poor and working-class Brazilians, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Olympic organizers have not only created physical distance between themselves and the locals affected by gentrification, but they have also begun to visibly erase their existence from the community. In 2010, the city erected a 10-foot high, 5-mile long wall stretching out along the “Linha Vermhelha,” a motorway that heads out from the international airport. The massive barrier was primarily set up to wall off the city’s “favelas” – the Brazilian shanty towns which were originally created as a home for formerly enslaved Africans – and which are now known for housing the poorest sectors of the population. The construction of these slums stem from the rural exodus of the 1970’s when black and brown residents moved into urban areas but were kept out of the city center. Favelas have become known drug trafficking and violence, although residents have stated that beyond their own socio economic barriers, they have more fear of heavy police presence in their neighborhoods.

Residents of the favelas were originally told that the wall was being constructed for their benefit, and that it was intended to minimize noise and create an “acoustic barrier” against the increasing traffic of tourists and visitors. Yet, over time, it became clear the structure not only served as a physical means of segregating poverty-stricken communities, but also a metaphorical embodiment of black and brown erasure in Brazil.

When the structure was first proposed in 2009 it was estimated that up to 600 homes would be destroyed during the wall’s construction, but the government claimed that new public housing would be provided for those left homeless. The replacement housing facilities, however, were stationed even farther outside of the city – amounting to the systemic exile of Rio’s poorer residents. Some of the displaced families chose compensation rather than be relocated even further away from resources and opportunities. Those who chose to stand their ground and fight against the displacement were brutalized by the police and dragged from their homes against their will.

In the meantime, the Olympic games proceed, the Temer coup government suppresses protests, and much of the world turns a blind eye as communities continue to face forced evictions in the name of tourism and urban revitalization.

The ongoing disenfranchisement, taking place right at the heart of the Olympic games, enables the marginalization of impoverished identities – all for the sake of national pride and entertainment.

Photo: Fireworks explode over the Olympic Stadium in the distance behind Rio’s Mangueira favela on August 5. | AP


Michelle Zacarias
Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias was a staff writer at People's World. A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Zacarias invested her time in raising awareness on issues of social justice and equality. Michelle self identifies as multi-marginalized: as a Latina, a woman of color and a person with disabilities.