Spectacle and reality in Rio

Anne-Marie Broudehoux punctures the bombastic narrative of civic pride and prosperity that accompanies sporting mega-events to reveal how they actually remake the city upon the backs of the poor.

The hosting of sporting mega-events like an Olympic Games or a World Cup is accompanied by a fascinating process of image construction. Much like a Potemkin city built solely to deceive and flatter, this is a highly controlled make-believe world of unproblematic success, wealth and prosperity. The false façade is propped up by the projection of a disciplined, relatively crisis-free and cohesive civic order; a positive media image counts – however skewed, biased and photoshopped – and sports federations and event sponsors push it at all costs.

But left out of these images – erased, silenced and made invisible – are the poor, the homeless and the marginalized. When documenting the construction of such a landscape of exclusion and trying to make sense of the urban impacts of mega-events, it is useful to draw on social geographer Neil Smith’s theory of the ‘revanchist city’

Smith described the revanchist city as a dual city of wealth and poverty, where the victors were increasingly defensive of their privilege, and increasingly vicious in defending it. Basing his critique on the disintegration of liberal urban policy and the sharp reactionary political shift heralded by neoliberalism in 1990s New York, Smith underlined the violence and brutality of revanchist policies, often characterized as a war of the rich against the poor. He saw the neoliberal city as punitive, a place where the self-righteous bourgeoisie, driven by a desire for class revenge, attempts to take back, control and dominate urban space. A spirit of revenge against a population thought to have stolen the city from its rightful owners galvanizes this state-backed reconquest.

Revanchism testifies to the emergence of a new moral order. Its proponents have a deep distrust of democracy, the notion of equality among citizens and the idea of equal rights to the city and its public spaces. The sense of entitlement and superiority of economic elites appears to be its driving force, along with an abject hostility towards difference. Under their influence, the city becomes a place where the rich and powerful rule unimpeded, where the value placed on property takes precedence over the value of people.

The message is that the poor are tolerated as long as they remain silent, inconspicuous and civilized

In the neoliberal city, mega-events create the perfect conditions for an authoritarian transformation, according to the dictates of corporate interests. Their tight deadline and symbolic weight provide the necessary context for local leaders to pass new legislation to restore the balance of power towards economic elites and the bourgeoisie, while their execution changes the social, legal and political landscape in ways that may appear temporary but which often become permanent.

When Rio de Janeiro hosted the World Cup in 2010 and the Olympics just six years later, this class war took on an increasingly racialized dimension, with discriminatory policies aimed specifically towards the Afro-Brazilian population.

Territorial takeover

In the run-up to the World Cup, large parts of the Favela do Metrô were razed to build open-air parking for the stadium. The rehousing offered was 70 kilometres away from the city centre, completely uprooting the evicted families.

This is a classic revanchist policy facilitated by the hosting of mega-events: territorial dispossession. Areas long abandoned and neglected by the state because they were considered substandard, undesirable or undervalued are taken from the poor to allow the expansion of capital. This dispossession is often done in a violent, opaque and disrespectful way, accompanied by police interventions, carried out without proper advance warning or in absentia.In 2015, a year before the Olympics took place, 22,059 families had been moved on from various parts of Rio, their homes having being declared ‘at risk’ or in the way of Games-related infrastructure projects.2 In sync, dozens of bus lines were terminated, further segregating the rich from the poor.

In Rio, not only were the embarrassing material landscapes of the poor bulldozed out of sight – despite it being politically difficult to justify massive favela clearance – the process was followed by the displacement of these populations, a policy of disperse and rule.

This was accompanied by a stealthier form of economic dispossession, with the re-direction of funds that had been allocated to poverty alleviation towards private-sector beneficiaries. For example, the construction of cable-car lines over favelas, which were denounced as serving tourists rather than local communities, were financed with funds from accelerated development programmes, destined to improve sanitation and housing.

Best invisible

Another revanchist line of attack is to minimize the visibility of the poor. In Rio, it often takes the form of measures that seek to conceal and discipline them.

Shortly after it was announced that Rio would host the 2016 Olympics, the city erected a series of so-called ‘acoustic barriers’ along the road connecting the airport to downtown. Few residents were fooled by claims that these screens were intended to protect them against harmful highway noises. Instead the barriers were perceived as a mode of sequestration and containment, preventing the poor from gaining access to the roadside to make a living selling snacks to motorists stuck in traffic jams.

In Rio, revanchism has meant that poverty and the poor are not only to be concealed from the city’s physical landscape but in virtual representations of it as well. In April 2013, Rio’s favelas suddenly disappeared from Google Maps. Under pressure from Rio’s tourism board and city hall, the word ‘favela’ vanished from the maps, to be replaced by the word morro or ‘hill’.

But it is not only their visual presence that is contained; their contribution to society is also increasingly ignored or censored, the message being that they are tolerated in the city as long as they remain silent, inconspicuous and civilized.

One example is the ongoing Porto Maravilha revitalization project, which is transforming an area the size of 1,120 football fields into a glitzy business and cultural hub. This was once the site of the busiest slave market in the Americas and later became Brazil’s first favela, housing Rio’s most marginal citizens. It is also the birthplace of samba, capoeira and carnival. However, Porto Maravilha’s vast redevelopment plans only pay lip service to this tragic history and rich cultural heritage. It is only thanks to grassroots pressure that traces of this distinct past are made visible. It is as if, for local elites, acknowledging how the Afro-Brazilian community came to arrive, and its consequent contribution to national culture, would shed too much light on the real sources of social inequality and raise uncomfortable moral questions.

Top: Jubilant spectators watch the Olympic Cauldron being lit at the end of the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Games.
Photo: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty

Civilizing agents

Social beautification efforts, which seek to make the poor more acceptable, are another revanchist strategy. Measures range from anti-homeless laws to repressive measures that criminalize the poor and their informal economic practices. They also include campaigns that seek to inculcate new values, alter behaviour and civilize unruly citizens.

Mega-events help this revanchist impulse work its way into municipal legislation. The poor are often subjected to differential legal treatment, and are overwhelmingly targeted by repressive measures of control and security. Laws against begging, sleeping or urinating on pavements are used to cleanse public space used by foreign tourists, middle-class families, business people, wealthy residents and other groups identified as their rightful users.

This extends to cultural practices. As part of the systemic campaign to tame the favelas for the World Cup and Summer Olympics, attempts were made to ban baile funk, the popular rave parties known for their sexualized dancing and mainly associated with poor Afro-Brazilian favela residents. Armed members of the police pacification units (UPP), who are usually deployed to crack down on violent drug trafficking, were sent in to act as civilizing agents.

Casting the poor as violators of the neoliberal landscape who illegitimately inhabit the city is a hallmark of revanchism and portrays society as an exclusive club for the wealthy and fashion­able. By pointing at the deficiencies of the economically marginalized, elites divert attention from their own corruption and amorality while suggesting that criminality is the exclusive realm of the poor.

The urban revitalization discourse widely used to justify mega-event-related projects also reflects a revanchist mindset that seeks to symbolically disqualify the poor. Calls to public order, civic responsibility, morality, respectability and family values conceal a desire for social purification and control. They reveal a nostalgia for supposed simpler, kinder times, when society was ordered along clear hierarchical lines and everyone knew their place.

Marvel and wonder

As generators of great moments of collective euphoria and, in effect, a state of emergency, mega-events allow the creation of exceptional moments in a city’s history. Market agents and their political allies seize this opportunity to remake the city according to their own devices.

In the search for world-class status, cities like Rio – and it is far from the only culprit – have turned to the spectacle, and branded their landscape as a place of marvel, excitement and wonder, while simultaneously marginalizing their citizens’ actual contribution, opinions, needs and desires. This process of erasure, which is publicly funded, actually increases the value of urban land, gladly captured by the market. In other words, the production of value in the city is extracted from the poor, and transferred, by the state, into the hands of the market. The poor suffer a triple loss: not only do they become poorer due to their displacement away from jobs and services, and from suffering cuts in welfare programmes because of funds being diverted towards event-related projects, but their dispersal and lost visibility weakens their political power.

But hope lies in the fact that the poor are not ready to let their voice be muffled. Rio’s Olympic experience, which came with a $13.2-billion price tag and the usual white elephants (most venues are since abandoned or barely used), also left a lasting legacy of resistance. At the time, many in Rio understood how reclaiming visibility could be a political act of resistance in the face of exclusionary and segregationist policies. They refused to be silenced, took to the streets in protest and spoke to global media. Artists countered the spectacular image-making related to the mega-event with images of their own. In Providência, photographer Mauricio Hora managed to save houses from demolition by pasting giant photographs of local residents on their façade. In the same favela, another artist, Alessandro Farto, alias Vhils, chiselled away plaster on partially demolished homes to create vivid portraits of displaced members of the community. Members of Vila Autódromo, where many were evicted despite active opposition, have kept up their legal battles and opened a community-run Evictions Museum to document a counter-narrative of resistance. The multiplication of such acts could yet open the door to a long-delayed fight-back against revanchist policies.