Gold-Plated Guns, Silver Linings
Bronzing in Peace

Who are the winners and losers in Rio’s race for global sports recognition? Greg Scruggs reports from the 2007 Pan American Games.

By Greg Scruggs

Mais favelas na mira (More favelas in the crosshairs)” threatens a June 29 headline in the newspaper O Globo, on the heels of heavy police operations in the Complexo do Alemão, a group of favelas in the Zona Norte of Rio de Janeiro, that left 19 dead two days prior. Scarcely two weeks later on July 13, considerable global media attention had its cameras fixed on the Carnavalesque spectacle of choreography, singing, and fireworks emanating from Brazil’s Temple of Football, Maracanã. The opening ceremonies of the Jogos Pan-Americanos (Pan American Games) were feted as a promising beginning to a sporting event that is something of a bronze medal proving ground for Rio’s bigger ambitions: World Cup silver in 2014 and Summer Olympic gold in 2016.

The Suburbanization of Rio:
Another Olympic prerequisite is on display across town at the Vila Pan-Americana, or athletes’ village, where an information booth proudly declares Rio, “O Capital dos Esportes nas Américas.” It outlines the heavy investment in sports infrastructure at both the professional and amateur levels across the city over the last several years, then goes on to claim, “O Rio corre hoje na mesma raia das cidades mais modernas do mundo (Today Rio runs in the same league as the most modern cities in the world).”

The modernity rub is a trenchant one, given where the Vila Pan, and indeed the locus of activity for the Games, is located: Barra da Tijuca. A few decades ago, Barra was a largely deserted area just west of Rio’s tourist-friendly Zona Sul, crested by 15km of Rio’s most famous resource: beachfront. Since then, it has become Rio’s nouveau riche wonderland: 24 shopping malls along 14 kilometers of its main drag, the Avenida das Américas; gated condominium complexes with names like London Park, Saint Tropez, Ocean Park, and Wimbledon Park; and dealerships for all of the top European, Japanese, and American carmakers. Barra’s American dream of a “modern” suburban luxury lifestyle is so obvious it borders on self-parody, as in the trend among young cariocas (Rio natives) born in Barra to pronounce the area’s name as though it were an English word, rather than the Portuguese “Bah-ha.”

Barra’s civic sensibility is best evidenced, however, by its architectural hallmark. The Zona Norte has Maracanã, Centro has historic structures galore, the Zona Sul has the undulating design of Roberto Burle Marx’s Copacabana promenade, and new wonder Cristo Redentor looms over all three sides of town. Barra’s crowning achievement? The New York City Center/Barra Shopping. The former prominently features a replica Statue of Liberty and American chain restaurants, while adjacent Barra Shopping is one of South America’s largest. Together, they embody the Barra paradox: the metonym of a city, invoking Manhattan’s dense urban grid, consumed through the apex of suburban life. The Downtown Shopping, a few kilometers away on Avenida das Américas, only heightens the spatial confusion. The real downtown is Centro, Rio’s historic center and a walking city in the European tradition. But Downtown as appended to a shopping mall is only an ersatz downtown, a simulacrum of the Anglo-American understanding of “city.” Barra is a suburban construction that yearns for the sheen of New York’s or London’s urbanity, while seeming to hold in contempt the great city of which it itself is a part.

Of course, that Rio’s city leaders would choose to build the new sports infrastructure needed to host the Pan American Games in Barra is not simply a plot to increase mall traffic. It’s a logical place for new construction given the plethora of open space in Barra and its relative proximity to Rio’s historical tourist center, the Zona Sul, albeit an uncreative solution. And in the cases where they did try to integrate new facilities into the city, integration was far from the result. Elvira Lobato, writing in the Folha de São Paulo on July 15, reported on the Estádio João Havelange, “a obra de maior impacto visual do Pan (the new Pan structure with the most visual impact),” which butts up against the favela Belém-Belém, only to separate itself from its neighbor with iron gates. Nonetheless, João Havelange is the exception rather than the rule, with Barra serving as the workhorse of the games. Moreover, as another dose of Barra’s ridiculous condo nomenclature suggests, Barra’s prominent role in Pan is also part of a wider geographical bait-and-switch. 

Leblon and Ipanema are neighbors along the praia, two eminently walkable neighborhoods with a tight urban fabric that would be practically one and the same were it not for the canal that runs between them on its way from the Atlantic into the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. Novo Leblon and Nova Ipanema in Barra are also neighbors, but the similarities end there. Gated grounds patrolled by private security are the antithesis of their Zona Sul counterparts and are a keen window into just what makes them “new.” Rio de Janeiro’s constant fear of violence and subsequent obsession with security is not a new phenomenon, but the preference for complete separation that a Barra condo offers is growing in appeal and further damaging the city’s attempts to mend its social rifts. The real Ipanema and Leblon struggle with equality at the city’s traditional democratic space, the beach, but along Praia da Barra da Tijuca, it’s a debate that will never even begin. 

The link between “modernity” and “fashionable” is a simple etymological skip via the French “à la mode”, and the axis along which the Barra concept coalesces. Ipanema and Leblon are passé, declare their Novo condo cousins to the visiting tourists and international media who crisscross Barra as they spectate and report on the Games. Maracanã hosts the opening and closing ceremonies and the symbolic men’s football final because its role is as just that, a ceremonial symbol. Copacabana has a temporary arena set up for beach volleyball, but given the likely stream of tourists, the beach also houses an equally large Salão de Turismo and official Pan merchandise retailer. Barra, the Pan organizers decided, will be the new face of the city, the first-world face, the modern face — where the air-conditioned comfort of the shopping mall and the automobile trump the whirl of humanity at Centro’s Uruguiana market and on the city’s fleet of ônibus. It is precisely this version of Rio, moreover, that is the centerpiece of making the city into the capital of sports in the Americas and both a World Cup and Olympic contender.

A Deadlier Competition Lurking at the Periphery:

Which brings us back to the Complexo do Alemão, far from Barra’s sporting competitions, but integral to their success. The article in O Globo, subtly headed by the category “A Guerra do Rio (The War for Rio)” went on to list six other favelas across the city that have been targeted for more police action in the run up to the Games. One of them was Cidade de Deus, whose notoriety on account of the 2002 Oscar-winning film of the same name has made it into a universal referent for violence in Rio, much to the bane of those interests trying to promote the city on the international stage. Cidade de Deus also happens to be about 2 kilometers up the road from the Vila Pan, a reminder that despite Barra’s façade of wealth, it is still in close proximity to the urban configuration in which 25% of the city’s residents live. 

The day of the opening ceremonies, I spoke with Crislaine Lima, coordinator of Central Única das Favelas, at CUFA’s headquarters in the Associação de Moradores building of CDD. She said that while the Vila Pan is close by, luckily its construction did not require annexing any land in CDD. In 2005, however, municipal leaders organizing the game gathered favela community leaders and promised direct investment for “integração de classe social (integration of social classes)” in the form of new facilities, better public services, and more public security. Not a real of this arrived, Crislaine told me. The best they got was the Guia Cívico project, by which 10,500 youths age 14-24, principally from favelas, were hired with federal money to work during the games as civic guides to orient visitors. Some, like Edmario, who was organizing Guia Cívico shirts and jackets, got an even better role than giving tourists directions — he’s working as a journalist for a sports magazine. 

Something is better than nothing, but Crislaine remained disappointed. “Uma vez mais nada para os moradores (Yet another occasion with nothing for the residents),” she sighed. Later that day, reflecting on Globo’s prognostication, I discovered what the residents might have gotten instead of investment. Clécio, also a coordinator at CUFA, was giving me a tour of some of Cidade de Deus’s poorest areas when firecrackers went off in the distance. We cut our visit short and headed straight back to the building — the firecrackers were a signal that police had entered the favela from that direction. As we arrived, two men from the Comando Vermelho, the criminal faction that rules CDD, pulled pistols from their waistbands and hurried down the road in the direction we had just come from. I didn’t stick around to ask the police if their incursion was Pan-related, but Clécio was adamant that the Games have brought more police activity to Cidade de Deus.

Not surprising, given the incredible expenditure on security for the Games: R$ 562,000,000 (£148,000,000) out of a total budget of R$ 3,500,000,000 (£921,000,000), or about 16%. The result has been an influx of security forces into the city, including 6,000 soldiers from the national paramilitary forces, as well as new helicopters and aircraft. The War for Rio, indeed. Governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro Sérgio Cabral, whose inauguration was marked by an exceptional outbreak of violence, has been using Pan as a means of pursuing a bigger goal: retaking the favelas. A quixotic goal, unless Cabral really wants Rio erupt into an all-out civil war, but one that hints at the human cost of major sporting events.
What a Torch Can Do:

“The modern Olympics have an especially dark but little-known history,” writes maverick urban critic Mike Davis in Planet of Slums. “In preparation for the 1936 Olympics, the Nazis ruthlessly purged homeless people and slum-dwellers from areas of Berlin likely to be seen by international visitors. While subsequent Olympics — including those in Mexico City, Athens, and Barcelona — were accompanied by urban renewal and evictions, the 1988 Seoul games were truly unprecedented in the scale of the official crackdown on poor homeowners, squatters, and tenants: as many as 720,000 people were relocated in Seoul and Injon, leading a Catholic NGO to claim that South Korea vied with South Africa as ‘the country in which eviction by force is most brutal and inhuman.’ Beijing seems to be following the Seoul precedent in its preparations for the 2008 games.” Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, echoed Davis’s sentiments in an e-mail: “It is definitely true that cities have long used sporting events as excuses to engage in mass evictions. Beijing has pushed out more than 300,000 people from various low-income neighborhoods in the run up to the Olympics next year. South Africa is muscling out squatters and shanty communities in anticipation of the football world cup in 2010.”

The World Cup, in truth, would probably have minimal impact on the city, as it would be hosted by all of Brazil, with Rio’s pre-existing football stadiums hosting major matches. And in a country constantly in the grip of football fever, one would be hard-pressed to find detractors for FIFA’s finest. But if Rio’s dreams of Olympic gold are realized, the city’s favela dwellers will certainly come to experience the Olympic torch’s ability to burn what it doesn’t illuminate.

 Greg Scruggs writes on the interaction of audio and urban spaces at Beat Diaspora. He is currently living in Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, while he researches his bachelor’s thesis.
View photo gallery
Share this page
Contributors retain the copyright to their own contributions. Everything else is copyright © Spannered 2015.
Please do not copy whole articles: instead, copy a bit and link to the rest. Thanks!