In the run-up to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the favela community of Vila Autódromo was virtually destroyed. It sat on prime real estate at the water’s edge, in the up and coming West Zone neighborhood. Dwellings were demolished, and hundreds of families were pressured to leave.
One long-term resident, Luiz Claudio Silva, lost the home he had built with his wife over two decades. “Where the Olympics have been,” he said in 2018, “there is a trail of demolitions, of destruction of life stories … this is very clear, it’s obvious, the only people who don’t see it are those who don’t want to.”
Silva’s was one of the 22,059 households evicted in the buildup to the Rio Games. And his story is not unique.
Whether it’s the young people and local businesses left traumatized by evictions due to the London 2012 Games, the elderly tenants whose homes were destroyed to make way for the new National Stadium in Shinjuku ahead of Tokyo 2020, or the unhoused people fighting for their camp ahead of Los Angeles 2028, displacement is as Olympic as medals and records.
It begins during the planning stage and continues throughout the live staging, its effects written into the post-event legacy period.
The planning stage
Planning to host the Olympic Games is a huge undertaking. Usually it takes around a decade, with a significant amount of that time spent building physical infrastructure, from stadiums to transport networks.
For Rio 2016, the city installed a Bus Rapid Transit system to connect different parts of the city to Olympic zones. In preparation for the Paris 2024 Games, extensive construction is under way in various areas of the French capital to build the Athletes’ Village and the Media Village.
Because hosting is often vaunted as a tool for urban regeneration, construction tends to be situated in deprived areas. Rio’s BRT system accounted for around 20% of all evictions in the city, including the wholesale removal of entire communities. Residents and businesses in Saint-Ouen, a deprived district in the north of Paris, have been told they need to leave in order for construction to begin.
Having been evicted in the planning process, these communities then have little to no access to any future benefits that construction might bring.
During the event
There might be some truth in the frequent claim that the Olympics bring tourism spending to host cities. Local businesses and entrepreneurial residents situated adjacent to event sites usually look to make a quick buck.
In Rio we noted food stalls selling churros, mobile caipirinha units, and local residents serving up BBQ from their porches to hungry spectators.
However, these entrepreneurs are often banned from using the Games’ branding. They also often have no access to the tourists to begin with, because of the way the city is reorganized during the actual events.
Official sports and cultural activity take place in purpose-built zones, to which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) offers exclusive rights to mega-corporation sponsors, supporters and suppliers.
Visitors are encouraged to stay within these zones. They are shuttled between them by an Olympic transport network that effectively shrouds the city and excludes the local community. Not only does this disrupt residents’ day-to-day lives, it reconfigures the city in a way that displaces the existing population.
The legacy is often cited as justification for these comprehensive programs of urban transformation and its attendant cost. London 2012, a case in point, was touted as the Legacy Olympics, with the British foreign secretary at the time, Jack Straw, pledging the Games as “a force for regeneration.”
But legacies are not exclusively positive. Even as the money is being spent and preparations are under way, much is written about the missed opportunities. Whether it is investing in grassroots sport facilities or developing sustainable tourist experiences, there is the sense that the investment and energy put into the Games would be better deployed elsewhere.
After the fact, this sentiment is often borne out. Newly built stadiums turn into white elephants. Almost a decade later, UK taxpayers are still in effective subsidizing Premier League soccer club West Ham United to use the Olympic Stadium in a sweetheart deal agreed to ensure that the stadium doesn’t remain embarrassingly empty.
Transport infrastructure built for the Games doesn’t always bring long-term benefits either. In Rio, despite the billions spent on shiny new buses and trains, cuts to existing services meant that urban mobility was actually worse after the Games, especially for poorer communities.
There are some clear benefits for citizens after a city hosts the Olympics. New cultural quarters that increase subsequent flows of tourists. And the less tangible outcomes, such as increased civic pride or skills development as a result of volunteering opportunities during the event.
Because of intense media attention and affiliation to the Olympics, there is a rise in real-estate prices and rental values of both residential and commercial property. Poorer communities that avoided eviction in the run-up to the Games often end up pushed out of the areas which see the greatest economic benefit from hosting.
Long-term tourism development suffers too. Tourists visit cities to catch a glimpse of something both novel and culturally specific to a place. Post-Olympic gentrification erodes the local cultural offer: small businesses, which play a key part in cultural production, find themselves excluded, resulting in a tourist experience that is ultimately less authentic.
These negative outcomes have led to host populations vetoing the very idea of hosting the Games when given the option, as happened recently in Calgary and Hamburg, among others. The Olympic project is in real peril as a result, because it may not be compatible with modern inclusive and sustainable development.
Indeed, the IOC recognizes this and is attempting to implement reforms. It suggests future games must consider local planning and development needs. It remains to be seen whether this rhetoric will be followed by robust action.