The Rio 2016 Olympics set the tone for subversive planning against sport mega-events.
By Marrell Jones
The Olympic Games are a sports mega-event that claims to bring economic development and promote peace through coordinated planning between private and public sector officials (Wolfe, 2022). The reality is, however, that the Olympics lead to displacement, environmental destruction, and corruption in the host locales, with marginalized populations facing the greatest risk. An example of this was the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympic Games, where the efforts to promote Rio as a modern post-racial city were in tension with the disproportionate displacement of its poor Black population. Rio 2016 illustrates the challenges facing cities that seek to serve as incubators for sustainable development within the neoliberal structure of the Olympic Games. Since the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, there has been a transnational effort to resist the sports mega event in future host cities.
Rio de Janeiro’s journey to becoming a host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics began in 1992, when the city decided to replicate the ostensibly successful cultural and economic transformation of Barcelona, Spain, the host of the ’92 Summer Olympics (Gaffney, 2014). Rio’s desire for this form of development led to the creation of a strategic plan in 1995 aimed at making Rio de Janeiro a ‘competitive’ city through urban renewal and entrepreneurship projects. The plan included two unsuccessful attempts to become an Olympic host city in 2004 and 2012, respectively.
Brazil’s attraction to urban development through sports mega events (SME) such as the Olympics reflects the “arranged urbanism” of Latin American countries, which is characterized by powerful actors using informal actions to shape formal institutions and governance processes (Koch, 2015). In the case of the Olympics, such arranged urbanism often takes the form of private and public entities collaborating to appropriate land, build structures, and organize a host city’s socio-spatial environment. This was no different for Rio 2016, as Brazil seized an opportunity to present itself as a ‘developed’, ‘modern’ nation, an image it long had sought as a massive Latin American country. Apart from using the SME to rid itself of its late-to-industrialization reputation, Brazil also sought to highlight its racially diverse cultural history by promoting its Brazilian Exceptionalism, implying it had overcome its own history of slavery by uplifting its African population alongside the Portuguese and Amerindians (Malanski, 2020). This project could be viewed as Rio’s earnest attempt at a “worlding” practice (Roy & Ong, 2011), seeking to raise the city to western neoliberal standards even if only superficially.
Though Rio 2016 used the Olympics to market its modernity to the world, the city bankrupted itself in the process. The economic strain placed on Rio to execute the SME was not lost on its residents, who disagreed with the city appropriating public funds to Rio 2016 at the expense of vulnerable populations. The state of emergency in Rio during the preparation for the Olympics prompted the Governor to freeze salaries to civil servants such as the police, and public protests erupted before the start of the games. Many residents of Vila Autodromo (in the Barra da Tijuca region) believed they were unjustly evicted from their homes as part of a scheme by the municipal government to drive up property values in the area. Despite promises by then-Mayor Paes to not order forced relocations for the Olympics, eventually the city encouraged residents to move by offering compensation or relocation. While 90% of the residents accepted the offers, those who refused were forcibly removed or protested the demolition of their homes, which resulted in state sponsored violence against the protestors. These residents are the only known community to physically resist displacement during an Olympic cycle.
Rio’s desire to attain modern city status reflects a common desire of many Global South cities for market driven development (Dupont, 2011). To be ‘modern’ is to demonstrate that a city meets conditions required for private or capital investments and further integration into the international system. Global city status allows cities access to the sprawling global tourism industry, new channels of multilateral diplomacy, and monetary gains for political actors with private interests tied to SME, but it also props up consumerism, protects elites, and inflames pre-existing class struggles, with marginalized groups placed at risk of suffering further marginalization.
Hosting the Olympic games is one of the riskiest and expensive economic investments a city can take on. Rarely do the games result in a surplus for the city, and if it does, those profits are tied up in private interests. The Olympics are in effect a capitalist institution upholding neoliberal structure that erodes the agency of the citizens, environment, and sustainable development of the host city. The Rio 2016 Olympics led to mass displacement of residents and gentrification, prompting a transnational movement against the Olympic Games. Since 2016, there have been organized protests in the host cities Tokyo (2020), Paris (2024), and Los Angeles (2028). There have been two international Anti-Olympic Summits, and two insurgent planning organizations devoted to canceling Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 have emerged in hopes of protecting their cities from the displacement and economic peril that comes with the games.
The emergence of these insurgent planning organizations suggests an appetite for radical or critical planning in many cities both in the Global South and North. The communities engaged in these modes of radical planning have adapted to the struggle against superficial modernity by employing decolonial forms of storytelling to demonstrate the possibility for other forms of planning (Ortiz, 2022), while pursuing visible physical and spatial resistance. Because of these protests and the failure of the Rio Games to meet expectations for democratic development, many cities have no interest in hosting the Olympics, so much so that Los Angeles was granted the 2028 games because no other city wanted the bid. Rio 2016 serves as an example of the limitations of “arranged urbanism” and the schizophrenic nature of sustainable development through neoliberal institutions and structures.
Rio 2016 Anti Olympic Protest. Source
Armed forced evictions by municipal military police. Source
Displaced mother and child during Rio 2016 forced evictions. Source
Demolition of Villa Autodromo for Rio 2016 Olympic projects. Source