The 2016 Rio Olympics Are Already a Trainwreck

Pretty much everything that can possibly go wrong has, and I'm not even talking about the poop in the water.
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Publish date:
May 12, 2016
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sports, olympics, Disasters

Getting selected as a host city for the Olympics is kind of a prestige deal, which is why people fall all over themselves when they're bidding, but it actually kind of sucks. It's expensive, incredibly disruptive, and did I mention expensive? Most hosts actually take a loss, and they end up with a bunch of weird buildings that frequently just rot into the ground, despite promises of being opened to the public as sports facilities. Rio even got out ahead of the usual post-Olympic decaying infrastructure with a bike path collapse that killed two people and could have been a lot worse if it had happened during the games themselves.

Instead of waiting until after the Olympics to observe the economic and social fallout, the country has been engaged in an ongoing disaster from day one. Which is incredibly awful for Rio, and also terrible for all the world class athletes who spend years of training to qualify for the Olympics, and it's bad for the Global South in general — because the IOC is going to point to the mess in Rio as evidence that the Olympics should remain hosted in the West. The catastrophe that is the Rio Olympics will further justify the incorrect belief that nations across not just South America but Africa and parts of Southeast Asia are clearly not equipped to host the Olympics.

The first warning sign that something was going deeply wrong in Rio happened in advance of the World Cup, when people in the favelas – the low-income communities that many tourists find unsightly — were pushed out of Rio in what some called a "cleansing." Almost 20,000 families were summarily ordered to leave with effectively no warning so the city could start building sports infrastructure, with no plan in place to house them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, even with offers of compensation from the government, some people did not want to leave their homes, and violent protests erupted in the summer of 2015.

Pushing low-income communities out to make way for major sporting events is not uncommon. In fact, it's routine, no matter where those events are held, from Mayor Ed Lee pushing San Francisco to evict the homeless community from downtown to spruce up the city for the Super Bowl — despite the fact that it was being held 50 miles away — to communities in London displaced for the 2012 games.

Cities justify these moves on the grounds of wanting to put their best foot forward for visitors, and the need to build supportive infrastructure for major sports events, including athlete housing, stadiums, hotels for guests, and the like.

The situation in the favelas is escalating, as seen in the sharply growing number of police killings in Rio, most of which have involved young Black men in and around low-income communities. A Brazilian soccer star even advised people to think twice about coming on the grounds of the violent tensions erupting across the city.

These policies are devastating to displaced communities, especially those who may have been living in an area for generations — in a city like London, where rents are high and affordable housing is scarce, for many people being evicted effectively meant being forced out of the city altogether. Residents of the favelas in Rio have almost no social and bargaining power, and forcing them out of their homes reinforced the existing social stratification in Brazil.

Observers say that some parts of the city look like a "war zone," and as in San Francisco in advance of the Super Bowl, the sports event is proving to be a very convenient excuse to get rid of social undesirables. Actions like extending social services or addressing systemic poverty are, of course, out of the question.


Let's talk poop

The real fun begins in the "Bay of All Delights," which sounds like a pretty nice place to hang out. That's the general idea, as Guanabara Bay is going to play host to Olympic sailing events. The problem is that boats are not going to be skimming across blue, clear, glorious waters, waves cutting gracefully along their bows while paint sparkles in the sun.

The bay is basically a giant garbage heap, with piles of electronics and other junk scattered throughout, along with the remainders of an oil spill and schools of dead fish, but the bigger problem is that it's also filled with raw sewage. This isn't just a problem in the bay itself, but far out to sea, illustrating the depth and severity of the problem — cleaning up raw sewage is an endeavor that could take weeks or months, and that's assuming the point source is addressed as well.

Obviously, competing in waters with raw sewage carries considerable health risks. Even if that waste is coming from a relatively healthy population, it carries fecal coliform bacteria and a host of other nasties that people do not want to be exposed to. Should Rio experience an outbreak of infectious disease, though, particularly something that causes diarrhea, the results could be catastrophic for Olympic athletes as well as judges and observers.

On the up side, thanks to the Olympics, the world is finally aware of the problems in Guanabara Bay, but locals have been struggling with them for years. Many people live and work around the water, including fisherman who have seen their livelihoods slowly devastated as fish die out and the waters grow more contaminated. The Olympics might have represented a spark of hope for environmental cleanup, but that's looking less likely.

A recipe for a public health disaster

Aside from the obvious public health risks for sailors, there's something else that will endanger everyone in Rio, athlete, official, and visitor alike: Mosquitoes. Brazil has been hit hard by the Zika outbreak, and public health officials are warning that it could be an extremely bad idea to host an international sporting event in a city with an ongoing outbreak. Bringing large numbers of people to act as incubators for Zika is bad enough — then they're going to disperse all over the world and take the virus with them.

Microcephaly associated with Zika has been making the headlines, but the virus could carry other dangers. It's bad enough to tell pregnant people and those thinking about becoming pregnant to stay away from Rio — the virus may also have an effect on the nervous system, which could potentially pose health risks for anyone. People of all ages can be hit by the neurological problems associated with Zika infection.

The World Health Organization thinks it's safe to proceed, and the Brazilian government hasn't announced any plans to change venues or put off the games — probably in part because the logistics involved in canceling or moving the games would be nightmarish. That said, individual national Olympic committees are certainly keeping a close eye on the situation and advising their athletes on best practices, but what about the rest of the 500,000 estimated visitors to Rio this August?

Political chaos

Brazil isn't just dealing with social unrest and public health problems. The government is also in complete turmoil. On Wednesday, the Brazilian Senate met to discuss whether President Dilma Rousseff should be impeached, following a long, bitter, and very public fight. Meanwhile, Brazil is also experiencing a severe economic recession, one reason why the nation is struggling to pay for Olympic infrastructure and can't make good on promises like the pledge to clean up its waters.

One consequence of the recession was that Brazil lost out on significant private capital which was supposed to be earmarked for development. As companies pulled out of the country, fearing unstable investments, the government had to pick up the tab at precisely the moment when it was most economically stretched. That's one reason why Rio is floundering to get infrastructure finished in time, cutting corners and in some cases appearing to give up altogether.

Athletes say they're descending upon Rio come hell or high water, and perhaps the games will pull out of freefall. It seems unlikely, though, which could turn them into a terrible and unfair referendum on other potential Olympic hosts from the Global South. The bulk of the games held since their modern revival in the late 1800s have been in North America and Europe, and it would be a shame if Rio's problems serve to prevent this from changing.