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Analysis

From Rio to LA, the Olympic Games are the Exclusion Games

LA won’t pull off the exceptional ‘successful’ Olympics

The expensive cable car installed in the Alemão favela complex was shuttered weeks after the Rio 2016 Olympics ended. Photo by Bruno Itan / Coletivo Alemão (2011).
The expensive cable car installed in the Alemão favela complex was shuttered weeks after the Rio 2016 Olympics ended. Photo by Bruno Itan / Coletivo Alemão (2011).

Four years ago today, on August 5, 2016, the Rio de Janiero Olympics finally got underway after seven years of traumatic preparations. Mass displacement, the installation of violent police occupations in favelas, broken promises to clean up polluted waters, crackdowns on houselessness and street vending, tangled political corruption webs, and shuttered hospitals and schools were just some of the crises that rocked the Brazilian city.

Nearly three years ago, on August 11, 2017, Los Angeles’ City Council voted to rubberstamp bringing the 2028 Olympics to LA. “LA is not Rio!” Councilmember Joe Buscaino huffed in response to members of the public who suggested that hosting the Olympics maybe wasn’t a great idea.

Touché, Mr. Buscaino. Los Angeles is literally not Rio de Janeiro. (But watch your casual global-North, racist exceptionalism, please!) LA is not Rio, but it’s worth taking a closer look at this comparison…

Pre-Olympic Rio de Janeiro was a metropolitan area of 12 million residents that was marked by:

  1. Severe urban inequality
  2. A large unhoused population and a critical housing crisis
  3. Evictions and gentrification combining to displace low-income residents from central areas of the city to peripheral regions further from good jobs and opportunities
  4. A police force infamous for violence against poor, Black communities, and an active Black Lives Matter movement in response
  5. Billions of dollars invested in flashy transit expansion projects with costs ballooning in order to meet the manufactured deadline of the Olympics, jeopardizing improvements to the bus networks that low-income riders rely on
  6. Urban “revitalization” initiatives to attract tourism and investment to the downtown area
  7. Corrupt politicians busted for accepting bribes from real estate developers
  8. A media savvy mayor with ambitions for higher office who wants to solidify the city’s status as a “global city”
Map of evictions in pre-Olympic Rio. Green icons mark favelas with evictions. Orange icons mark public housing facilities where many were moved. The numbered circles represent regions with Olympic sports venues. Image from Catalytic Communities.
Map of evictions in pre-Olympic Rio. Green icons mark favelas with evictions. Orange icons mark public housing facilities where many were moved. The numbered circles represent regions with Olympic sports venues. Image from Catalytic Communities.

Pre-Olympic Los Angeles, in contrast, is a metropolitan area of 13 million residents that is marked by:

  1. Severe urban inequality
  2. A large unhoused population and a critical housing crisis
  3. Evictions and gentrification combining to displace low-income residents from central areas of the city to peripheral regions further from good jobs and opportunities
  4. A police force infamous for violence against poor, Black communities, and an active Black Lives Matter movement in response
  5. Billions of dollars invested in flashy transit expansion projects with costs ballooning in order to meet the manufactured deadline of the Olympics, jeopardizing improvements to the bus networks that low-income riders rely on
  6. Urban “revitalization” initiatives to attract tourism and investment to the downtown area
  7. Corrupt politicians busted for accepting bribes from real estate developers
  8. A media savvy mayor with ambitions for higher office who wants to solidify the city’s status as a “global city”

Clearly no comparisons to see here!

Could we come up with a list of eight or more things that show how LA and Rio are different? Probably. Does that mean that this list of eight attributes is mere cherry-picking? No.

In the case of Rio, these eight attributes are essential to understanding why the 2016 Olympics were not the “Inclusion Games,” as then-Mayor Eduardo Paes promised, but rather the “Exclusion Games,” the label preferred by anti-Olympics organizers.

The first four points — inequality, houselessness, displacement, and policing — are intersectional systemic crises that deserve all the financial, personnel, and energy resources a city has available. The Olympics, however, do not offer, or even contribute solutions to these crises. Instead, they exacerbate them. In LA, the Police and Sheriff’s Departments expect to expand their ranks ahead of the Olympics, while the police union is already using the city’s schedule of sports mega-events to argue against reducing the police budget. Unhoused residents of Rio were criminalized and forcibly removed from tourist areas ahead of the 2016 Games, just as they were right here in LA in 1984. Mayor Garcetti’s 2018 claim that homelessness will be magically solved by 2028 means little — the 2028 Olympics are a threat to unhoused Angelenos.

Of course, displacement for LA2028 will look different from that in Rio, where at least 77,000 favela residents were forcibly removed from their homes during Rio’s Olympics preparations. In contrast, LA had already displaced people in order to build most of its “world-class” sports venues before it even bid for the Olympics. Phew! The small exception to this earlier displacement is the SoFi Stadium, the multi-billion dollar development in Inglewood that is currently driving rents up and low-income tenants out. Olympics boosters will tell you, however, that this stadium is not for the Olympics, but rather that it would have been built anyway. Nonetheless, it joins the list of 2028 venues that constitute colossal monuments to displacement. Then there are other cases like The Fig in South Central LA, a 32 unit rent-controlled apartment complex that is being demolished to make way for a hotel-retail-residential complex that will be adjacent to the Banc of California stadium. The City Council cited a ‘need’ for more hotels for the Olympics to justify exploring public subsidies for the project. Make no mistake: we know that the 2028 Olympics will justify, accelerate, and symbolize displacement in Los Angeles. They are doing so already.

Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium, a monument to displacement and gentrification, seen through a chain link fence. Photo by Cerianne Robertson.
Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium, a monument to displacement and gentrification, seen through a chain link fence. Photo by Cerianne Robertson.

What about the last four points on the list? These are more about the orientation of the cities themselves, and how the Olympic project fits into them. In Los Angeles and Rio, the prioritization of expensive, flashy rail projects and the attempts to “revitalize” the city’s downtown are both well-visited stops on the endless road to ‘global city’ or ‘world city’ status. Mayors Paes and Garcetti are each champions of talking up their city as a “global city.” It’s an activity Garcetti has (unironically) referred to as “selling LA.” But geographer Doreen Massey writes that “deprivation” always exists in a global city not in spite of the city’s “glitz,” but because this “combined outcome of the politico-economic strategy of neoliberalisation” has come to define that world-city status. In other words, the city’s orientation towards capital investors and tourist dollars and away from residents’ basic needs produces and maintains inequalities.

On arriving at Rio’s newly refurbished international airport and setting out into the city, an Olympics tourist would likely pass by Complexo da Maré. This favela complex was occupied by the military for fourteen months between the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics. Tanks patrolled the streets as kids sidled by on their way to and from school. 38 other favelas were occupied by the Military Police under a policy called “Pacification.” Spoiler alert, this “public safety” project made the majority-Black favela residents a whole lot less safe. Olympics tourists likely also spotted the Complexo do Alemão favelas, easily identifiable from the highway thanks to the towering cable car system installed during a time when residents were demanding basic sewage investments. The cable car was shut down weeks after the Olympics and hasn’t run since.

Two soldiers set up barricades of white bags and barbed wire fences in Complexo do Maré in 2014.
The army sets up barricades in Complexo do Maré in 2014. Photo by Tomaz Silva/ Agência Brasil.

Locals often remarked that these spectacularized security and infrastructure investments were “para inglês ver” — “for the English to see.” This phrase dates back to 1831 when Brazil’s government only pretended to stop its slave trade to appease the (suddenly righteous) British. Today, it describes projects that are superficial rather than substantive, designed to impress tourists and investors while leaving underlying problems locals face daily intact.

LA’s Olympics preparations will probably not involve fourteen-month military occupations or white elephant cable cars, but they will still be part of a city project for the powerful, metaphorical ‘English’ (read: wealthy Angelenos, tourists, and investors ) to see. The Olympics are, after all, a stage for cities to try and project an idealized image to the world. What will a solution to houselessness ‘for the English to see’ look like? What will policing ‘for the English to see’ look like? What does Los Angeles ‘for the English to see’ look like?

Real estate developers in LA have considerable power to shape the answers, as they did in Rio. In 2015, The Guardian identified billionaire developer Carlos Carvalho, a regular donor to Mayor Paes, as one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Rio Olympics. In discussing his plans to turn the land he owned in and around the Olympic Park into a new city, Carvalho laid out visions for what it could “represent on the global scene as a city of the elite, of good taste,” with “noble housing, not housing for the poor.”

The outsized power of real estate developers in LA politics is no secret either. Two of the 12 city councilmembers who voted to approve the LA 2028 Olympics have since been busted in the FBI’s ongoing corruption investigation after allegedly accepting bribes from real estate developers. More worrying, though, is the level of power that real estate interests wield mundanely within the confines of the law. Even city councilmembers themselves admit that developer campaign donations wield too much influence in LA politics, but efforts to stem that influence have been whittled down to what councilmember Mike Bonin called “piecemeal crap.” Borrowing Sam Stein’s concept of the “real estate state,” it’s clear that developers hold “inordinate influence over the shape of our cities,” and are well-positioned to drive this Olympic city in the direction that suits their interests. Once again, that means a city oriented to the wealthy, tourists, and to investors.

LA is not Rio. At surface level, the 2016 and 2028 Olympics will look very different. But if we ask what kind of city is being constructed and celebrated through this Olympic project we start to see the similarities stack up.

During the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil, millions of people took to the streets across the country to protest a confluence of grievances, one of which was the enormous public expenditure on sports mega-events while hospitals and schools went underfunded. Angelenos are already rising up in 2020, and the NOlympics LA coalition is growing. LA is not Rio. LA can still cancel the Olympics.

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