Making way for the Olympics: Is the displacement of people ever justified?

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Photo courtesy of the AP

Every Olympics is unique–part of the fun is seeing how each host city makes it its own from the opening ceremonies to the type of legacy it hopes to leave behind. Still, there are quite a few common links. From budget overruns to behind schedule projects, in the lead up to every Olympic Games it becomes clear that no matter the steps they take to avoid them, host cities seem to get caught up in the same headlines, making the same choices, and in many cases the same mistakes of hosts before them. One such headline are the billions of dollars spent in development projects that rarely equate to benefits for local citizens.

Why is this the case? Failure to consult local citizens for one and planning that caters more to the needs of Olympic visitors rather than to those of the locals who will be left with this infrastructure for years to come. The most troubling explanation however is the fact that thousands of the local population simply won’t be there to enjoy it. The displacement of locals to make way for Olympic projects has been an ugly reality of far too many Olympic Games. The Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) has identified the 1988 Games in Seoul and the 2008 Games in Beijing as having been noteworthy in this regard displacing  720,000 and 1.25 million people respectively. COHRE estimates that among mega-events the Olympic Games alone have displaced over 2 million people over the past 20 years. Most recently, an estimated 2,000 people were displaced to make way for the infrastructure of the Sochi Olympics, and already 3,000 have been displaced in Rio de Janeiro in preparation for the 2016 Games.

The ironic or perhaps convenient truth about displacing families to make way for Olympic development is that it is often times done with the best interest of those families in mind. Case in point, authorities in Brazil claim that families removed from their homes and placed in government housing are living in conditions superior to the favelas. CEO of Rio’s Olympic Organizing Committee, Leonardo Gryner, justifies forced evictions as part of the greater good and that new roads and bus lines which have resulted will allow everyone better access to transportation and services. He says that “one of the main reasons that people live in favelas in Rio is because of transportation” and that “when you offer them a new means of transportation, that will help…people to move to new areas farther from the city, living in better conditions…” Those evicted families take issue with this perspective. They no longer own their homes and government complexes are miles from the doctors, schools, and jobs that they had access to in their old neighborhoods. They also complain that the transportation infrastructure is inadequate and far from what would make living in a suburb of Rio realistic.

With decades of case studies at their disposal and an entire portion of the IOC dedicated to knowledge management, we must question how host cities find themselves facing the exact same problems as hosts in prior Olympic Games. In Bidding for Development, we trace this occurrence back to the very inception of a city’s Olympic bid where bid champions and bid committees can choose to take a series of steps that will help position them to reap benefits from the Games no matter the outcome. Chief among these is the decision to engage local citizens in the planning process to ensure that development for the Games will be responsive to local needs.

Unfortunately, the guidepost for Olympic planning is not the fact that after two weeks time the grand stadiums, arenas, and transportation infrastructure of the Games will be left in the hands of local residents. It will either be useful for them and improve their everyday lives or it won’t–more often than not the latter holds true. The Olympic City Project has spent the past few years documenting what remains of Olympic infrastructure in host cities and how it has impacted the lives of the people whose neighborhoods have been transformed by Olympic development. It’s a bleak picture which often reveals misguided planning and communities that are more burdened than blessed by the changes their community saw.

The nature of the Olympics and scale of development required to handle the influx of people who will participate in the Games means that the relocation of people will likely always be a harsh reality for host cities. There is no better scenario than allowing people to stay in their homes and close to the network of family and institutions they count on to survive, but there has to be a middle ground before forcibly relocating people to suburban government housing that puts low income residents already living on the fringe at high risk. So, how do we find this?

A start would to be engaging citizens in a conversation about their future–a step that seems to have been avoided altogether in Rio. And yes, as alluded to above, this step is one which should be taken from from the inception of a bid. Its possible that knowing the risks involved in hosting the Olympics, specifically the need for relocating communities, organizing committees may not be able to gain the buy-in of local communities. But if this is the case, it should be a clear sign to bid champions that something is very wrong with their vision and plans for the Games, and as we recommend in our book, bid leadership should be ready to drop out of the bid process. The bottom line is that legacy matters when you are sending a signal as big as the Olympics to the world and although the short duration of the Games itself plays a large part in shaping that legacy, so too does the usefulness of Olympic infrastructure long after the Games are over. The real opportunity here is the fact that despite the differing interests of the IOC, Policymakers, and citizens, concerns about transportation development  can unite all of these groups. To have that development be meaningful, bidding cities must realize from the outset that public input is vital.

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Carnival and Cars: Will the Olympics Accelerate Transportation Development in Brazil?

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 Photo compliments of The Guardian.

With the conclusion of what has been considered a banner year for the Olympics and Paralympics in London, the world’s attention now turns toward Brazil. This emerging economy will host the world’s two largest mega sporting events within two years of each other—the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. Despite the Brazilian government’s optimistic confirmation that “A new city is being born”, many people question Brazil’s readiness to host these events. Rio de Janeiro’s mountainous terrain and dense population of 6 million residents contribute to what may be the greatest test of their readiness: the nation’s ability to transport people.

Brazil is no newbie when it comes to hosting mega events—just last summer it played host to thousands attending the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. And in terms of sporting events, the nation hosted the Pan American Games in 2007, the CISM 5th Military World Games in 2011, and will also host the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2013 and the 2016 Paralympics following the Olympic Games.

In the late 1990s, Brazil spearheaded a concerted effort to bring these global events to South America. The country conducted planning for what would ultimately be two failed bids to host the 2004 and 2012 Olympic Games. As a rising global power both economically and politically, Brazil continues to pursue these events to further raise its international profile and signal its increased readiness to participate in the global marketplace. Besides serving as a way to flex its political and economic muscle, Brazil’s “mega-event focused” strategy is also a decisive effort to bring in much needed development—particularly in the area of transportation.

Billions of dollars are being invested in metro extensions, rapid transit, and other transportation projects, notably the bullet train between Brazils two most heavily populated cities—Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. And while these costly projects have been talked about for years, mega sporting events are serving as the impetus to unite the funding and political will necessary to make real progress. Metrô Rio CEO José Gustavo de Souza Costa said that “the Olympics and World Cup are essentially catalysts for necessary investments” and confirms that transportation projects “will all be ready for 2014 [and] 2016”.  These projects include a $1 billion expansion of the current metro system as well as investments in an interconnecting rapid transit system with a price tag of $1.2 million. Transportation investments such as these are expected to increase capacity and result in quicker travel times and better traffic flow.

With Brazil serving as host to so many significant mega sporting events, the country’s leadership has also taken into consideration the need for streamlining preparation efforts for back-to-back events. These considerations have lead to strategic development decisions to build dual-purpose facilities or to remodel existing facilities to meet the needs of the Games. For example, Rio’s Maracanã Stadium is being remodeled for the World Cup and is expected to also host the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games.  These investments also reflect the public sector’s efforts to avoid post-Games “white elephants”, experienced by many other host Olympic cities, by ensuring public monies go towards projects that will provide long-lasting benefits to residents.

Brazil’s mega-event movement has been championed at all levels of government. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva led the bid for the 2016 Games and President Dilma Rousseff has wielded her influence to give infrastructure development precedence—tying this priority to the two fast-approaching mega-events. This past August, President Rousseff announced a sizeable investment package to repair the nation’s aging roads and railways worth $66 billion stating, “Brazil will finally have an infrastructure that’s compatible with its size”.

Would this level of investment in transportation infrastructure exist in the absence of these mega-events? It is hard to say given the multitude of factors playing into Brazil’s growth and development. Still, the beauty of the Olympic bid process is its catalyzing powers to bring together the people and resources needed for infrastructure investments. Outside of the pressure, timetables, and budget constraints of actually hosting the Olympics, cities stand to receive benefits from the bidding process that are often lost in the spectacle of the Games. What we can be certain of is that Brazil has learned a lot about uniting support and resources, as well as legacy projects, both from its two previous failed bids and from its experience hosting several global sporting events.

Still, skepticism of the country’s ability to safely and responsibly meet deadlines for the World Cup and Olympics is widespread. Only time will tell if Rio and other Brazilian cities will weather both the Olympics and the World Cup with sustainable infrastructure that improves the daily lives of city residents.

At BID, we will track whether this Carnival-crazed country’s cultural allure, government investments and push for these events, and economic power will translate into success with the Olympics and World Cup…particularly in the arena of transportation development.