I remember the first time I watched a soccer match with my dad. He took me to a local restaurant that was the hub for Galo supporters, our family team. Although we lost the game, the memories from that day continue to resonate with why I’m passionate about soccer and sport (in addition to the birthright). The comradery that emerges from rooting for the same team (especially if that team isn’t very good, which was the case of Galo) in addition to the simplicity of the game itself are two of the reasons I truly believe soccer (and sport overall) can help to create positive change both in individual and societal levels.

Yet, I was also actively involved with the protests against the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Not because I don’t see the value in international competition (or because I somehow could feel the 7×1 coming), but because of the blatant misuse of public funds to pay for FIFA-approved overpriced stadiums and for improvements on public infrastructure that were never delivered.

While these alone were enough reasons to be against the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the mismanagement of funds that ultimately culminated into the countrywide protests, was, as I would find out later, only the tip of the iceberg.

One of the more appalling and lasting outcomes of the World Cup that began to take place the moment Brazil was chosen to host the event was the displacement of low-income populations for the construction of flawed or pointless infrastructures. In particular, some of Rio’s favela residents were either forcibly removed from their communities by unjust evictions or by having their homes demolished.

Histories of the Rio Favelas

Rio’s favelas have worldwide renown as seen in classic Brazilian film City of God or visited by tourists in “favela tours.” While they occupy the social imaginary as dangerous no-man lands, they have rich histories including (but not limited to) being the birth place of samba and of Brazilian soccer legends Ronaldo Fenômeno and Adriano Imperador.

Rio’s favelas emerged in the early 20th century as the mountainous regions on the outskirts of the city became populated by communities of ex-slaves, veterans and internal migrants looking for work. Today, favelas are characterized primarily by high demographic density and lack of infrastructure (Miranda et al, 2016, p.1298).

Regardless of the privileged location of some of these communities, overseeing Rio’s remarkable seashore, their status as favelas meant they were regarded as obstructions to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Eviction in Providência 

The 2012 short film Marked Homes documents the anxieties of families living in Providência Hill, whose homes were to be demolished for the construction of a 28-million-dollar cable car.

Providência is Rio’s oldest favela and most of its homes are still not connected to the sewage system or to waste collection (Fernandes & Gomes, 2016, p.175). Yet, prior to the 2014 World Cup, 832 homes were marked to be demolished as a part of the “redevelopment project” that included a sporting centre, a park and a daycare in addition to the cable car.

Homes marked for demolition at Providência (Photo by Ratão Diniz)

Not only residents were not consulted prior to the plan, they were also not informed of their rights as homeowners and were initially allegedly offered a mere monthly compensation of 450 Reais (170CAD) for leaving their homes of over 40 years. As of 2016, some of the families that chose to be relocated as part of the government’s “My House, My Life” project, had yet to receive their new homes (Fernandes & Gomes, 2016, p.175).

Ultimately, due to residents’ protests, open letters and support from social movements, the initial number of 832 families to be removed was reduced to 70 (in addition to the families who made deals with the city earlier on). Even then, from the structures in the original plan only the cable car was completed, thus the project had no real benefit to the remaining residents.

28-million-dollar cable car at Providência (Photo by Antonio Scorza/Getty Images)

Demolition in Metrô 

Whereas citizen protest resulted in a small victory in Providência, the same wasn’t true for Favela Metrô-Mangueira, located near the Maracanã Stadium where the last game of the 2014 World Cup and the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics were hosted. Favela Metrô-Mangueira is historically home to migrant workers who built Maracanã Stadium in 1981 (Freeman & Burgos, 2016, p.563).

In Metrô, not only did the methods of relocation implemented by the city “involved actions that violated human rights” (de Oliveira, Sanchéz, et al., 2017, p.131) from removing residents without compensation or alternative housing, to giving people less than 30-minutes notice of demolition (Butler & Aicher, 2015, p.307), to destroying homes with people’s belongings still inside, but also the residents that were initially coerced into leaving were relocated 2 hours (60 kilometres) away from their community (de Oliveira, Sanchéz, et al., 2017, p.131).

Shock Troops at Favela do Metrô on Tuesday. Photo by Francisco Chaves
Shock troops guarding Metrô-Mangueira’s demolished homes in 2014 (Photo by Rio on Watch)

The residents who refused to leave ended up living in squalor as the city stopped collecting garbage and purposefully clogged drains, which attracted rats and created puddles that bred Dengue-transmitting mosquitoes (Freeman & Burgos, 2016, p. 564). Eventually through resistance and protest, Metrô residents were able to pressure the city into creating alternative housing that was closer to their original community. However, in 2014 Rio on Watch reported that the new homes were twice as expensive, smaller and of less quality than their old homes.

City officials argued that the buildings demolished had been sitting empty (which is contested by residents) or were at a greater risk of landslides. Whereas the rainy season has destroyed homes in favelas located in Rio’s mountains, now it is apparent that no effort was made to renovate these buildings, but that the city’s goal was to clear the favela away from Maracanã Stadium. This is especially true given that the automotive complex that was supposed to replace favela Metrô, as of 2017, had barely started.

The automotive complex that displaced over 600 families in Metrô-Mangueira (Photo by Analice Paron/For Agencia O Globo)

Not an Isolated Issue

The city of Rio alone estimates 22,000 low-income families were relocated between 2009 and 2015 (Rio Prefeitura, 2015, p.5). Countrywide it is estimated 250,000 people were displaced for the 2014 World Cup and Rio 2016 (Articulação Nacional dos Comitês da Copa e das Olimpíadas, 2014, p.21).

The displacement of low-income populations speaks to a multitude of factors. For starters it raises the question of who has the right to the city. Who has the right to choose where to reside and to decide what happens in their neighbourhoods. It also points at whose histories are worth keeping. Providência and Metrô-Mangueira are sites that add to Rio’s history, yet their status as favelas allowed for that history to remain unprotected. Finally, it points to who is to enjoy these sport mega-events and their legacies. Who will have fond memories of watching the games with their peers and who will remember seeing their homes demolished for an automotive complex that was never completed.

Whereas the city of Rio argued that the sport mega-events had no influence over the displacement of the favelas, historically both the World Cup and the Olympics are known to trigger evictions and demolitions (Crump, 2012, p.325). In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, 1.5 million Beijing residents were said to be displaced with little or no compensation. In Vancouver, even though an agreement between the bid committee, the International Olympics Committee and the government was supposed to guarantee long-lasting benefits for Vancouver’s lower-income neighbourhoods, the 2010 Winter Olympics caused the loss of low-income housing leading to an increase in homelessness in the city.

As sport mega-events mobilize all sectors of society, they easily create a state of exception where laws and actions that may not have been tolerated previously become a reality for the sake of the success of the event. This circumvention of established norms is validated by the official narrative around sport mega-events, that is, their success is for the greater good; such as, for the creation of jobs, for the improvement of infrastructures, for economic growth. However, these jobs are usually temporary (Vico, Uvinha & Gustavo, 2018, p.9), these infrastructures are often not delivered (as previously noted), and the financial costs outweigh the gains (Baade & Matheson, 2007 p.351).

Therefore, realistically, sport mega-events exist to brand nations internationally: the 2008 Olympics was for “Beijing [to assert] itself as a modern economic giant with venerable ancient tradition” while Sochi 2014 was “an international validation of post-Soviet Russia” (Compton, 2015, p.51).

The same is true for Brazil’s 2014 World Cup and Rio 2016. These events were intended to establish the country as an influential economic force internationally, as well as, to attract private and public investment to cities (Nobre, 2017, p.2). In this narrative,  poverty is not supposed to exist and, given that fixing poverty doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it look appealing (what’s a sewage system when we can build a top-notch cable car?), the best alternative is to “clean up” the city to conceal the existing social inequalities. Not to mention that after the event, these remaining structures, like the 28-million-dollar cable car, work to conjure up “an image of redevelopment” that don’t translate into “material benefits for the majority of the city’s residents” (Friedman & Andrews, 2010, p. 197), but that sound appealing to potential investors and tourists.

Conclusion and What We Can Do 

Not only do issues like the demolition of people’s homes challenge the social outcomes said to be brought by the sport mega-events, but they also question the need for these destructive events altogether.

As spectators, watching the games and cheering for our countries can be very rewarding, but at what cost if people’s lives are being destroyed for our temporary enjoyment? While it’s true the displacement of lower-income communities occurs regardless of sport mega-events, as noted, the World Cup and the Olympics certainly help to accelerate the process and viewers are complacent in that.

Although taking on FIFA or the IOC may seem like a challenging task, these events are dependent on viewership, attendance and general approval for their success. In the past citizens have successfully rejected sport mega-events. Innsbruck in Austria was one of the many cities that rejected a potential bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics after a public poll showed its residents were simply not interested in it.

While, unfortunately, the same wasn’t true for Brazil (even though polls show only 48% of Brazilians wanted to host the event), learning about these issues and changing the conversation from the official message to the real outcomes of sport mega-events demonstrates that spectators aren’t just watching the games. After the disinterest in hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, the IOC has promised to offer “significant financial contribution” to host cities as to balance the Olympics’ exorbitant price tag (The International Olympic Committee).

Reducing the cost of the World Cup and the Olympics could make a big impact since it may lower the risk of post-event debt, as it was the case of Montreal in 1976 that spent 6 billion dollars to host the summer Olympics and spent 30 years paying it off until the debt was forgiven.

Maybe I’m an optimist, but the IOC’s response to the lack of interest in hosting the Olympics makes me hopeful that both the IOC and FIFA can be compelled to revisit more than just their price tags. It also shows the strength of citizens who can reject what doesn’t benefit them and even hints at the possibility of international sporting competitions that don’t ruin people’s lives.


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