Global Parties, Galactic Hangovers: Brazil’s Mega Event Dystopia




The following is a feature article from the new intern issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: The Magazine. The issue, which our interns produced as part of this past summer’s LARB Publishing Course,  comes off press at the end of the month and will be mailed to subscribing LARB members. Click here to get your subscription today.

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FOR MOST COUNTRIES, playing in four semi-finals of the last six World Cups would be considered a major accomplishment. But not for Brazil. At least since the 1938 World Cup, football has become the defining characteristic of the country, and since the 1970s, there has always been an expectation that Brazil will win the Cup, that losses are mere detours on a predestined path to glory. This belief had become so powerful as to be evangelical in its certainty abandon all doubt, the salvation is coming before 90 minutes have passed. God, Zico, Socrates, Romário, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Kaká, and Neymar will provide.

In the 2014 World Cup semi-finals, however, the visiting German national team didnt only defeat Brazil 7-1. They embarrassed, humiliated, and toyed with the country of football on their own very expensive turf. Brazilians are still having trouble processing what happened. Just as the colossal failure to win the 1950 World Cup still haunts the national consciousness, the historic 7-1 drubbing by the Germans will shape the Brazilian football narrative for the foreseeable future.

Most of the post-World Cup media coverage favored this narrative, the opposite of the storyline leading up to the Cup — one of Brazilian favoritism on the field and impending disaster off. Before, Brazil´s seleção had the support of Vegas oddsmakers while the media clamored about the lack of preparation, the threat of social upheaval, and the decelerating economy. Naysayers doubted that the infrastructure of a country with such obvious deficiencies would be capable of hosting such a large event. And yet, as Brazil mourned its football team in Belo Horizontes Mineirão stadium, the World Cup itself was heralded as a success.

Incredibly, everything went according to plan. The stadiums were ready on time. The airports functioned well. Though expensive, there were enough hotels. Only one major piece of infrastructure collapsed, killing two people and injuring dozens — but no one blinked. The football was entertaining, the parties pulsating. The systematic violence used against protesters was brushed off as a necessary measure against radical student groups and anarchists. The police didnt commit mass murders, few tourists disappeared, and Brazil came out on the other side of the World Cup with its reputation intact. The pessimists were either shunted aside, swept up in the euphoria, or never interviewed again. The smug satisfaction of FIFA and their Brazilian partners in government and industry bubbled over in their champagne glasses. After years of haranguing Brazil for their apparent disorganization, FIFA president Joseph Blatter gave Brazil a 9.25 out of 10, calling the tournament “very, very special.”

Though hyperbolic and facile, this is the narrative that seems to have won the day. Now that the dust has settled and Brazilians try to digest seven German goals, it is important to understand how Brazil managed this outcome and what has changed, because the Olympics are next.

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In 2007, Brazil’s former Minister of Sport Orlando Silva declared that not one penny of public money would be spent on the 12 World Cup stadiums. The logic was clear: stadiums are great investments, so the private sector will take them on. Yet the private sector was under no obligation to deliver FIFA-standard stadiums; the government was. The Brazilian governments transparency sites indicate a public layout of more than 4 billion dollars in stadiums, the majority of which have been handed over to private consortiums. According to the Danish NGO Play the Game, the Brazilian World Cup stadiums are among the most expensive ever built and have become sites of social exclusion. In any country, stadiums reproduce and reinforce the existing socio-economic and cultural structure. In Brazil, these new stadiums have consolidated the privileges of the elite at the expense of everyone else.

One of the governments justifications for the 10 billion dollar outlay on the World Cup was that Brazil was not investing in the tournament, but in the future of Brazilian cities. The investments included airport upgrades, communication lines, security, port renovations, hotels, tourist infrastructure, and urban mobility projects.

The majority of these projects, however, either attended to the demands of the Brazilian elite or reinforced the dominant paradigms of urban mobility. The multi-billion dollar investments in airports were long overdue, but will not stitch together more effectively Brazils urban archipelago. The main beneficiaries will be business travelers between Brazil´s major cities. Meanwhile, it is still not possible to travel between major cities by rail, and Brazil´s woeful road system was condemned by the World Health Organization for racking up more than 50,000 deaths a year. The governments urban solution is more Bus Rapid Transit lines, which are cheaper than metro and light rail, but notoriously damaging to the urban fabric. BRTs mean more buses and more cars, less space for bicycles and pedestrians, and a massive subsidy for civil construction firms and automobile manufacturers.

After years without significant investment, no one questioned the utility of the infrastructure projects themselves. Meanwhile, the usual processes of longterm urban planning were discarded in order to throw pet projects into the Responsibility Matrix that every host city signs with FIFA. To achieve the short-term goals of the World Cup, host cities were given an exemption to Brazils federal Law of Fiscal Responsibility. This exemption allowed for deficit spending and the emergency financing of over-priced infrastructure. Cheap loans? Throw another project in. Tight deadline? Increase the cost, and do away with environmental impact studies, due process, and human rights. According to the Popular Committees of the World Cup, tens of thousands of families were forcibly and illegally removed from their homes.

Given all of this, the expectations of riots leading up to the World Cup were not far-fetched. The country had been in upheaval since before the Confederations Cup in 2013, with the violent repression of strikes and protests dominating the headlines. The national mood was sour. Brazilians forewent the long-standing traditions of painting streets, and the refrain “Imagina na Copa” (Imagine [how bad it will be] during the Cup) dominated everyday speech. Yet now the narrative of the World Cup has been spun in the positive, begging the question: how is a country that is so apparently dysfunctional capable of pulling off a mega event to such widespread acclaim?

Much of it was accomplished by force. The Instituto Humanitas Unisinos identifies the Rio de Janeiro Military Police as the force that most kills civilians in the world. The national army occupied the streets of Rio in the months before the World Cup, armed to the teeth and given a mandate to crush protests. According to Brazils 2012 strategic plan for World Cup security, the federal government planned to spend a billion dollars on public security, and the states and cities contributed much more. The threat of police violence kept most middleclass protesters at home. Israeli drones patrolled the skies, the FBI and CIA trained Rios police in counterinsurgency tactics, and new technologies of surveillance remain to keep a wary eye on the population. This kind of military operation hasnt been seen in Brazil since the military dictatorship, but repeats itself with every major event. Currently the Brazilian Senate is debating whether public protests will be considered acts of terrorism. Just after the Cup, the president signed a law allowing Municipal Guards to carry guns. This is the same police force tasked with eliminating informal street vendors, taking drug users off the streets, and handing out parking tickets.

Another reason for the Cups apparent success is that anything is possible when 200 million people stop what they normally do. Brazilian productivity was disastrous during the event, and negative second quarter growth has ignited rumors of recession. People worked and traveled less. All public universities and municipal school systems were on vacation. Every time there was a match the host city declared a holiday, and the seven times the Brazilian national team played, the whole country took the day off. The streets were emptied of Brazilians and filled with tourists, which made it seem like the transportation systems were adequate, the security pervasive, and the party everlasting.

It also helped that Brazil and FIFA treated the press very, very well. Journalists had express service at airports and were taken around on special junkets to see the best Brazil has to offer. The working conditions at the new stadiums were good and the temporary wi-fi was fast. Most had never been to Brazil and had no point of reference while others forgot about old difficulties after a few caipirinhas. The anticipated story of massive protests didnt materialize and even when there was a major disaster, no one wanted to spoil the mood, not once the stadium lights turned on and the ball started rolling.

Its true that Brazil is an amazing place with fantastic people who know how to put on a spectacular party at the last minute. Most visitors had a great experience, enjoying the football, the sunshine, and the camaraderie. But the same cannot be said for the millions of Brazilians cleaning the toilets, working as stewards and security guards, recycling beer cans or being shaken down by the police. The 2014 World Cup became a smokescreen for Brazils violent dystopia even as it exacerbated the stark economic and social inequalities that define this country of 200 million.

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When we watch a World Cup from afar, we only see the glamour shots of the stadium in its urban context before our attention is focused on the field of play. From a distance, its difficult to know what is happening on the streets or understand the political and financial machinations that bring the event to life. Brazil 2014 brought these larger conversations to a global stage, politicizing football fans and commentators like never before, but in the end it was still the sport that dominated the media. Brazil put on a fabulous party and hosted a great show, but many footballs fan consider the outcome a national tragedy. Watching the most successful national team of all time dissemble like schoolchildren was a sign that something is terribly wrong with Brazilian football. The seven German nails in the Brazilian coffin will be difficult to pry loose.

But for those who make their living off of football, the 7-1 disaster was just a blip, a dengue-laden mosquito bite. Once the fever passes, everything will be back to normal. For the well entrenched, the way forward is better financial management within the system as it is. These people dont see anything wrong with a profitable business model that continues to produce worldclass footballers that come together as quadrennial favorites to win the World Cup. They consider the fevered pursuit of “global tendencies” towards neo-liberalism as necessary and good. Privatization, corporatization, militarization, sanitation, and the deferential treatment that comes with being rich in Brazil are natural outcomes of the Brazilian episteme. That is why, in the wake of 7-1, the Brazilian national team hired a players agent as technical director and re-installed the same coach that delivered an inglorious, anti-football defeat in 2010.

Most Brazilians, however, have cared less about the national team since the Nike-infused debacle of France 1998, and despite winning the Confederations Cup, Brazil hasnt played attractive football in years. Indeed, for some, the sete a um reflects longer trends in Brazilian sport and society. Rampant urbanization has reduced the open spaces where Brazilians develop their talents. The increase in closed-condominiums, shopping malls, and consumer-based entertainment has made for a more sedentary population with an impending obesity epidemic. An incessant wave of big events has further eroded already fragile democratic institutions, instituting a permanent state of exception. The 7-1 humiliation was an inevitable wake-up call.

Every four years the actual conditions of the national sport come into sharp relief for the general population. Brazils football federation (Confederação Brasileira de Futebol, or CBF) is in intractable shambles, the major clubs are hopelessly indebted, and attendances are at their lowest point in decades. Historic stadiums have been deracinated, sanitized, and privatized. According to the Brazilian website Pluri Consultoria, ticket prices have risen by more than 250 percent in five yearsmaking them the most expensive in the world when compared to minimum wage. The very people that make Brazilian football culture so unique can no longer attend games, or are treated as potential criminals by the police. The millennialong tradition of drinking alcohol and eating red meat around sport venues has been banned. Beer vendors are harassed and their coolers confiscated.

Still, every major club in the world includes a Brazilian player. According to FIFA, Brazil exports more footballers than any other country (Argentina is a close second). This conveyor belt has weakened the domestic game and enriched the players agents and club directors. The CBF has ignored the long-standing problems of the national leagues, essentially abandoning the teams to the voracities of a monopolistic media landscape. These conglomerates have increased their stranglehold on the football schedule, insisting that Wednesday night games start at 10 p.m., after the telenovela. There have been tepid governmental attempts to pry open footballs black box, but they have never met with any success; the CBF is devoid of credibility, closed to external investigations, immune to criticism, and yet remains one of the most powerful sporting institutions in Brazil.

The lack of accountability which plagues Brazils domestic leagues has poisoned the international sport, too. The political character of FIFA today is the result of 24 years of Brazilian leadership under João Havelange (19741998), and the current tenure of Sepp Blatter, Havelanges protégé. Meanwhile, Havelanges former soninlaw Ricardo Teixeira was installed as vice-president of FIFA and, for 19 years, president of the CBF. Before Teixeira could be convicted of receiving tens of millions in bribes in the International Sport and Leisure (ISL) scandal, he resigned from both posts and fled to South Florida to rub elbows with the rest of Latin Americas money launderers, petty tyrants, and fugitives from justice. Havelange was forced to resign from his honorary positions at FIFA and the International Olympic Committee. Yet despite these accusations, Teixeiras daughter Havelanges granddaughter served as secretary general of the local organizing committee of Brazil 2014, and Teixeiras brother holds an executive position in the CBF. This is colonial style Brazilian family politics written across the global football landscape.

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Brazil will be the fourth country to host successively the World Cup and Olympics (Mexico City 1968, Mexico 1970; Munich 1972, Germany 1974; USA 1994, Atlanta 1996), but it will be the first to do so in the era of mega event gigantism. Research from the Observatório das Metrópoles at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro has estimated the combined public outlay for both events will be in the neighborhood of 30 billion dollars. The effects of the World Cup on Rio were relatively minor compared to what is coming for the Olympics.

The time pressures to pull together infrastructure for mega events do not allow for the reform of pre-existing institutions. To the contrary, the institutions become more powerful as decision-making processes are shortened and concentrated in fewer hands. In Brazil, where the concentration of power in the hands of jowly white men is a long-standing tradition, this situation has gone to the next level. For the first time in the history of the World Cup, the president of the national football federation — Teixeria, then José Maria Marin — was also the president of the local organizing committee. The double role ensured that the World Cup decision makers would repeat the CBFs characteristic lack of transparency and dialogue.

The same consolidation of power is happening now for the first time in Olympic history. Carlos Nuzman has been in charge of the Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB) since 1995 and is also the president of Rio 2016. According to Alberto Murray Neto, a Brazilian lawyer whose grandfather was the previous president of the COB, Brazils terrible Olympic record is directly attributable to Nuzman. Much in the same way that the CBF has eviscerated the national leagues to bolster their own interests, the COB has taken billions in government funding to subsidize a narrow set of stakeholders.

The institutional framework for the 2016 Olympics is just as tortured as the 2014 World Cup, but even more laden with bureaucracy. Brazil has no significant tradition of Olympic sports. All federal funding for Olympic sports has to go through the president of the COB. This creates a situation in which the presidents of the federations have to curry favor with Nuzman in order to get access to money. According to the former president of the Brazilian Ice Hockey Federation, they are forced to use the same accountant as the COB, eliminating transparency and tightening the chain of command.

The absence of an effective public policy for sport means that the only Olympic sports in which Brazilians are competitive are of the super wealthy (yachting) or of the poor (fighting). With the notable exception of volleyball and some gymnasts, there is almost nothing inbetween. The middle classes do not practice Olympic sports; there is no national development system and very few public recreational facilities. In Rio, for example, there are only four public tennis courts. During a ceremony to dedicate sport facilities in a poor area of Rio in 2010, an aspiring tennis player told then president Lula that he wanted to become a tennis player. Lula told the kid “not to pursue such a bourgeois sport.”

Much like hosting the Olympics, being good at Olympic sports is a mark of distinction in the international community. The production of world-class athletes is an indication of wealth, ample leisure time, and scientific achievement. Sport has long been used as a diplomatic tool on the global stage. Brazil has the sixth largest economy in the world and more than 200 million people, yet has never placed higher than 16th in the medal table.

Nobody is expecting Brazil to win a pile of medals in 2016, either, and perhaps that is for the better. Though its infrastructure is better off than it was a generation ago, Brazil doesnt have basic sanitation, education, health care, or recreational facilities for the population atlarge. Football might have served as smokescreen at the World Cup, but fewer Brazilians will be distracted in 2016. So when the government willingly spends billions on Olympic facilities, with no equivalent investment in the recreational facilities of its citizens, it bloody well better have a use for them afterwards. Sadly, this is unlikely to be the case. We know because we have gone though this all before.

Following Rios failed bids for the 2004 and 2012 Olympics, the city hosted the 2007 Pan American Games. The 2007 Pan was an opportunity for the COB and the Rio government to demonstrate their capacity to host largescale sporting events. The results were not encouraging.

According to Brazils national auditor, the 2007 Pan was 10 times over budget with suspicions of misused funds. On the eve of the event, the Rio Military Police killed 19 favela residents and the national army occupied the city for three weeks. The city government constructed an Olympic stadium in a lower to middleclass neighborhood, without consulting residents or improving urban mobility in the region. The João Havelange Olympic stadium has since been condemned and is undergoing major reforms for the 2016 Olympics. The Maracanã underwent a 150 million dollar reform, still required an additional 600 million overhaul for the World Cup, and will likely undergo even more surgery for the Olympics. In the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, the 8 million dollar Pan Velodrome was demolished in 2013 and the Maria Lenk swimming facility does not meet Olympic requirements. According to Brazilian geographer Gilmar Mascarenhas, citizens resisted the governments attempts to privatize public spaces while favelas were forcibly removed to make way for the Athletes Village (which later began sinking into the swamps of Barra da Tijuca). Carlos Nuzman admitted publically that the events only legacy was to enable them to bid for the 2016 Olympics. No one was held accountable.

The same people in charge of the 2007 Pan were in Copenhagen when the IOC foisted the Olympics on Rio. The same promises have been made by the same people, on a larger scale, with more pressure, less public input, more money, and tighter deadlines. What could possibly go wrong?

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After a decade hosting mega events, Rio de Janeiro is going through an extended period of real-estate valorization, speculation, and gentrification. The city now has Parisian prices and Conakry services, and the real estate boom is exacerbating an already grave housing crisis. However, using familiar rhetoric, the Olympics have been promoted as a way to fix Rios problems and provide a “legacy” benefit. Just as we saw with the World Cup, investment in urban infrastructure is hailed as a universal good without examining the process by which these projects were imagined and contracted, their impacts on residents, their opportunity costs, or their long-term effects on the city. Transportation, housing, security, environmental protection, education, health care, access to recreation and leisure, transparency in governmentall are being set back with the realization of Rio 2016.

If we are to believe the Olympic fakirs, Rio 2016 will help create sustainable housing solutions through favela upgrading. The principal housing project is called Morar Carioca, a pre-existing program that was co-opted by the organizing committee. Morar Carioca ran an international competition to propose creative solutions for informal settlements, with the ambitious goal of urbanizing all of Rios favelas by 2020. After being slathered over Rio 2016 billboards, the Morar Carioca program was cut for new pilot programs. Once the political capital was gained, the budget dried up. The architects are left unpaid, and little is currently being done to upgrade systematically Rios 1,000-odd favelas.

In sharp contrast, both the 2016 Olympic Village and Olympic Park are financed with billions in public funds and will be given over to real estate development after the event. The Village is being constructed by two of Brazils largest civil construction firms using a R$2.33 billion loan from CAIXA, one of Brazil`s main public banks. The 3,604 apartments in 31 high-rise towers will be sold on the open market after the Games and are expected to bring in retail sales of over R$4 billion. The companies have risked none of their own money, obtained low interest government loans, and are contributing to a closed-condominium residential landscape. As has become de rigeur for this kind of hypertrophied installation, the buildings will be LEEDcertified, but according to researchers in the graduate school of architecture and urbanism at Rios Universidade Federal Fluminense, will contribute to the denigration of the wetland environment.

Formerly the site of Rios Formula One racetrack, the Olympic Park will dedicate 40 percent of the space to sport facilities and parkland, and 60 percent for real estate speculation. AECOM, the same company that designed the 2012 London Olympic Park, is in charge of the Rio 2016 site. Analyzing the documents and videos available on the Rio 2016 website, the AECOM plans envision a long-term project that will replicate the car dependent, anti-urban project that defines residential development in Brazil. One can almost hear the smacking lips of the real estate sector.

A notable bystander to the AECOM project is the Vila Autódromo, a favela on the margins of the lake. The Vila Autódromo began as a collection of fishermen in the 1960s and grew into a low-income community of 4,000 by the 2010s. According to long-time resident Inalva Mendes Brito, when the current mayor began his push to confiscate their property in the mid-1990s, the majority of residents had title to their land. By the time the 2007 Pan American Games rolled around, efforts to pry the residents off their land had redoubled. The Vila Autódromo residents’ association organized a brave resistance, articulating with civil society groups to bring media attention to their plight. They presented an alternative plan, but it was roundly ignored by Rios autocratic mayor (who was also involved in the Pan debacle). With Rio 2016 fast approaching, the city government has destroyed the community little by little, through lies, intimidation, and dissimulation, erasing lived space for an Olympicsized parking lot that will later make way for some of the most valuable real estate holdings in Brazil.

The root cause of the battle over the Vila Autódromo is land. If we think about hosting the Olympics as an exercise in reshaping urban territory in order to generate short-term profits, then the contradictory logics of the events come into sharper focus. Whether they are in Vancouver, Beijing, London, or Tokyo, the Olympics are about real estate. The flaccid Olympic mantras, superstar pedestal climbers, stadiums, and legacy promises are mere distractions from the realpolitik of urban development.

The World Cup was only a sample of whats to come. Yet the post-Cup narrative being promulgated in Brazil is that the foreign media were hysterical and overly critical of a place they dont understand. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the world seems to have decided that things are really good in Brazil, that the World Cup was a resounding success, and that the Olympics are going to be the best ever. If we are to follow the same script with the Olympics, the sporting, urban, economic, ecologic, and social cataclysms of Rio 2016 will be talked about incessantly as the Games approach, ignored while the party is in full swing, and forgotten as attention fades. Post-2016 Rio will be portrayed as a paradigm of progressive urban development whose visionary urban administration was able to leverage the Olympics to transform social relations and throw a cracking party. Yet the Games will have been used to consolidate power and wealth through the use of eminent domain and military occupation, consolidating a process of internal colonization that will ensure that in Rio, the more things appear to change, the less they actually do.

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Christopher Gaffney is an academic geographer who has studied the impacts of the World Cup and Olympics for more than a decade.



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