Rio’s Olympic Park is already an $800 million ghost town
RIO DE JANEIRO — The behemoth sports stadiums on the sprawling grounds of Rio’s Olympic Park were built to impress international visitors for the 2016 Summer Games. Today, they are eerily deserted. The space reopened as a public recreation area in January, but aside from the occasional security guard, there is hardly a human in sight at the 2.5 billion real ($800 million), 300-acre complex.
When Rio won its bid to host the 2016 Olympics, citizens hoped the mega-sporting event would compel the city to upgrade its infrastructure and improve the quality of life for all residents across its staggering socioeconomic divide. But that promise was never realized, and now, six months after the Games ended, the Olympic Park stands as a testament to the real legacy of Rio 2016 — billions of dollars worth of unused or crumbling projects across the city, and broken promises to the residents who were evicted from their homes to build them.
The week after Rio’s new mayor, Marcelo Crivella, attended a ceremony to open the Olympic Park to the public in January, the site was almost entirely deserted. It wasn’t hard to see why; apart from using a few isolated recreation areas like a skate park and a playground, there was nothing to do but gawk at the neglected sports arenas. Crossing the fully exposed concrete pathway of the complex in the vicious Brazilian summer sun was also an endurance test.
One of the few miserable vendors at the park, 26-year-old Vinicius Martini, found precious shade under a tarpaulin erected beside his beer cart.
“I’ve seen about 12 people here since I arrived five hours ago,” he said. “And I haven’t sold any beer.”
Martini said basic services like electricity, water, and toilet access that had been available during the park’s grand opening had already been taken away. Despite the unfavorable conditions for selling beer, the brewery where Martini works decided to stake out the empty space in exchange for preferential vending rights later this year, when the park will host big events like the music festival Rock in Rio.
The largely deserted Olympic Park is especially galling to the people who were kicked out of their nearby homes to make way for the Games. Hundreds of families used to live alongside a lagoon next to the park, in a favela called Vila Autódromo. But the government worried the informal community would be an embarrassing eyesore, and aggressively sought to clear it out ahead of the Olympics.
One Autódromo resident, Maria da Penha, was a constant and vocal critic of the government’s campaign. She reported being beaten and intimidated by Rio’s municipal guard when she refused to leave. But after her experience helped turn the removals at Vila Autódromo into a public scandal, da Penha and 19 other residents won a surprise deal to stay. Following years of resistance, on the eve of the Olympics they secured an agreement to receive new public housing and urban infrastructure on the original site of the favela.
“People didn’t think they would ever build us these homes,” da Penha said.
Da Penha became a symbol of the resistance to Rio’s forcible removal of favela residents in the lead-up to the Olympics. The Brazilian news organization Agência Pública documented 100 such cases across the city, providing insight into the government’s attempts to hide Rio’s widespread poverty from the international community and allegedly clear poor people out of areas with promising real estate value.
“This is a case of private companies using public security to benefit their interests,” said da Penha’s husband, 54-year-old Luiz Claudio da Silva.
But da Penha’s victory proved bittersweet. Residents received rows of sterile white public housing on an isolated field of asphalt — a far cry from the multistory homes surrounded by lawns and lush greenery they once enjoyed. Six months later, there’s still no sign of the promised playground, sports court, or community center that were supposed to be under construction within 60 days of the end of the Games.
“We have rights to this in writing,” da Penha said. “Our fight will continue.”
Yet it appears unlikely that Vila Autódromo will get its promised urban infrastructure any time soon. The government says it has no timeline to start building.
Removing favelas in Rio has historically been the last step toward realizing an area’s potential real estate value. But not even developers hoping to make big bucks in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood have won the day. The revitalized and bustling neighborhood they envisioned has not materialized, and local media reported earlier this month that the city is negotiating low-cost loans to sell thousands of unoccupied Olympic Village apartments to government workers.
The emptiness of Olympic Park is not helped by the fact that it’s far-removed from the city center. Getting there by public transportation is a major hassle that requires two hours and several transfers from the city’s busiest neighborhoods, such as Copacabana. When the metro bursts out of its tunnel into the daylight and arrives at the last stop, which was built ahead of the Games to help transport visitors, the carriage plays a jingle and optimistically announces, “Smile! You have arrived in Barra da Tijuca.”
But only just. From there it’s at least another 30 minutes by bus to reach the Olympic Park.
Clare Richardson reported from Brazil with a fellowship from the International Reporting Project. Additional reporting by Anna Jean Kaiser.