Rio, the Olympics, and Broken Promises

Before the games even begin in Brazil’s most famous coastal city, there are winners and losers.

Published July 19, 2016

It was a Thursday in late April, a brisk autumn day by local standards with a temperature in the mid-20s. The sky was brilliant blue, while the sea was darker, cloaked in a light mist churned up by steady surf. It was a public holiday, so by early morning a steady stream of people headed to Rio de Janeiro’s new seaside bicycle path. They walked and they jogged and they biked. Rich white ladies with giant sunglasses strolled with tiny dogs. Brown boys in board shorts zipped past them on skateboards. The ciclovia had opened just a few months before; already it featured on thousands of Instagram accounts. When cutting the ribbon, Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, had called it the most beautiful bike path in the world, something every city would envy. And who could argue? The ciclovia ran for four kilometers from Leblon, the fanciest neighborhood in the city, to the upscale São Conrado neighborhood. Another five-kilometer section to Barra da Tijuca, the fast-growing beachfront suburb to the west, was under construction. The path snaked along the seaward side of a coastal road, perched on the edge of the dark granite of the mountain that cradles Rio. The rock was wet that day, with salty spray blowing up from the waves below.

The ciclovia was intended as further proof for Cariocas—residents of Rio—that their city was steadily improving. It was part of the relentless overhaul Paes was dragging Rio through in a frantic race to get the city ready for the Olympics in August. It sometimes seemed like every road was under repair and every second building sheathed in scaffolding. The bike path would do little for the traffic that strangles Rio, but it had symbolic value, helping to connect the Zona Sul, the south zone that’s home to the beaches and bars of Ipanema, to Barra da Tijuca, the neighborhood that would soon host most of the Olympic competition. The ciclovia was a classic Paes project: shiny and brochure-ready, designed to make the most of Rio’s eye candy qualities.


A new bike path, the ciclovia, stretches from Leblon, an older, glamorous neighborhood closer to Rio de Janeiro’s downtown, to Barra da Tijuca, site of the Olympic Park for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Photo by Lazyllama/Alamy Stock Photo

And then in the late morning of that Thursday, just a few months before the games would begin, a wave—a big one, but not a monster-sized, once-in-a-lifetime wave—slammed into the cliff below the ciclovia, creating an explosive upward thrust of air. The force lifted a 50-meter chunk of the path, which toppled into the surging ocean below. Two people—astoundingly, only two—were killed. One was an engineer from Ipanema, out for a run. The other was a street-sweeper who lived in a nearby favela (a poor city neighborhood), spending his day off on a seaside walk. News of the collapse spread through barbecues and beach gatherings across the city and was met with horror and the question, “How can this be? It’s brand new!”

That led Cariocas to all kinds of dark speculation: for nearly two years, Brazil has been consumed by a corruption scandal that has helped to topple the president, Dilma Rousseff, and rocked the political establishment to its core. The scandal centers on construction companies that paid huge bribes for public contracts. Immediately people in Rio began to ask if the company that built the path was one of the many indicted in the scandal. Had its executives bribed for the contract? What else had they built that might soon collapse? An overpass? A stadium?


Rio de Janeiro’s new bike path, connecting old Rio with the neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca, broke apart this past April, killing two people. Photo by Agencia Estado/AP Images

The next morning, newspapers ran pictures of the two bodies laid out on the sand, their faces hastily covered with beach towels, waiting to be removed by emergency personnel. Nearby, between the dead men and the surf, a group of young men played a nonchalant game of pickup soccer. How, demanded middle-class Rio, could they be so insensitive? The response from the favelas was this: for you, with your bike paths and your beach chairs, this is something new. But we see this each day, bodies on the streets, waiting for the ambulance that comes too late.

The collapse of the ciclovia and the conflicting reactions that followed exposed the gaping divide between the city’s elite and those who clean its streets. It said everything about Rio in that moment—the postcard city with so much pain on its flip side.



As Rio de Janeiro prepared for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the city’s new bike path collapsed, claiming two victims. Residents were horrified by this image splashed across the front pages of newspapers the following day. Photo by Felipe Dana/AP Photo

Rio has been many things in the centuries since the Portuguese colonizers established a city here: a synonym for the exotic, the capital of an empire, the center of the global slave trade. And, for the past few decades, a laboratory for experiments in urban planning. Now, almost like a reward for Cariocas surviving all of that, Rio is about to be an Olympic city.

The official bid for the Rio games talked about Carnival, the rainforest, and samba. But at their core, these Olympics are rooted in elements more Brazilian than all of those: land, money, and power. The Olympics, as the mayor loves to say, are reshaping Rio. But first, as has always been the case in Rio, the traditional powerbrokers shaped the plan for the games.

The Birth and Near-Death of a Great Brazilian City

If you put your finger on a map of South America, on the bulge that sticks out farthest to the east, and then draw it down to where the continent starts to narrow—that, more or less, is Rio, the state and the city. In 1502, a boatload of Portuguese explorers turned in from the coast and sailed into a vast bay, which they thought was a legendary river flowing from the heart of the continent. They found many small rivers, but not the one they sought, and it would be another six decades before a city grew up along the shore. As with so many “discovery” stories, there were already people there, although they make few appearances in museums or history textbooks today. There were at least four indigenous nations living in the area, including the Tupi, whose language is sprinkled in modern Brazilian Portuguese. The Portuguese named the bay Guanabara, Tupi for “bay that looks like the sea.” Over the next 200 years, this natural harbor grew from a collection of shacks and naval fortifications into Rio, the busiest trade center in the world for a popular commodity: humans. Some two million slaves moved through the port, two-and-a-half times more than the total shipped to the United States during its slave trade.

Rio took on new airs and graces in 1808 when the Portuguese emperor and his court fled Europe one step ahead of Napoleon and settled in the city. When Brazil declared independence from Portugal in 1822, the country kept an emperor of its own in a palace in Rio. The country also maintained its slave trade for another 60 years, long after it was banned everywhere else in the western hemisphere. Throughout these years, the city spread north from the bay, expanding along the spokes of train lines.

Then in the 1920s, a craze for beach culture swept through Brazil. For the first time, Rio turned its attention to the arcs of powdered-sugar-sand beaches that stretch from the mouth of the bay to the west. A low, forest-covered mountain separated the city from the sandy shore, so the city government ordered a tunnel blasted through. Rio’s elite moved to the beach, and apartment towers soon replaced the modest cottages and family houses that were razed to make way. The new neighborhoods would become bywords for elegance—first Ipanema and then Leblon. But Leblon ends abruptly at another mountain. There was nowhere left to build in Rio.

By the late 1950s, Rio was congested, its narrow alleys impractical in the era of the automobile. A presidential candidate campaigned and won on the idea of moving the capital inland. His modern, new city would be safe from naval attack and would also draw people to the interior. Legendary urban planner Lúcio Costa was charged with creating the new capital city in the central highlands. Brasilia, a city of futuristic, swooping, white concrete buildings on a tidy grid of wide esplanades, made its debut in 1960.

Starved of federal spending, and no longer the natural focus for business, old Rio crumbled. And that, says Luiz Fernando Janot, an urban planner and the president of the Association of Brazilian Architects, is when the story of the city takes a surprising pivot. In 1964, the military, with backing from the United States, overthrew the national government; the resulting dictatorship lasted for the next two decades. The new military rulers had even more disdain for Rio than the previous government, says Janot. They deemed the city—with its crumbling imperial villas, cobbled streets, jumble of races and classes living cheek by jowl, and the forest creeping in around the edges—decadente. In Portuguese it means “decaying,” with an overlay of sensuality and earthiness. Rio was everything, in short, that the new Brazil envisioned by the dictatorship would not be. A clean slate was in order, but how to clean up a centuries-old city?

Government planners looked beyond the mountain at the edge of the posh neighborhood of Leblon. “There was nothing there, just virgin sand and lakes,” Janot says. And beach—17 kilometers of coastline. It was the perfect spot to start over. Lúcio Costa was brought in, fresh from his job creating Brasilia, to imagine a new neighborhood in Rio in the triangular wedge of land squeezed between the mountains and the sea. The new suburb was called Barra da Tijuca: barra is the Tupi word for a sandbank, while tijuca means swamp or muddy water. Cariocas pronounce it “Baha dzhe Tijookah,” with the double-r in Baha (Barra) gently aspirated, like a small sigh.

The government had willing partners in this new development: three men who held title to essentially the whole expanse, 135 square kilometers of land, more than double the size of Manhattan. The owners had acquired the land from a failed bank, bought on friendly terms set by the dictatorship, says Janot. The government blasted a tunnel through the mountains to connect it to Leblon, and the developers began to erect new condominium towers. “It was an effort to change the whole focus of the city,” Janot explains. The shift was sealed when the International Olympic Committee decreed that the 2016 Summer Olympics would be centered in Barra.


The neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro. Illustration by Mark Garrison

Costa designed Barra with a main road parallel to the seashore. The seafront strip filled up quickly with buildings, and development spread inland, destroying swamps and lagoons in the process. The real estate barons gave their Barra developments names such as New Leblon and New Ipanema; they were whole complexes behind high fences, with bakeries and hair salons and even schools. Residents never needed to leave—except to take the 20 steps to the beach or drive through the tunnels to get to work in Centro. They built no sidewalks.

“It’s an entirely car-dependent development,” says the writer Juliana Barbassa. “It’s not on a human scale, and it grew faster than the most basic infrastructure, like sewage.” She was born in Rio, traveled the world, became a journalist, and came home in 2010 to find a city where few people were asking questions about why things were the way they were.

The old Rio was characterized by the abrupt proximity of its rich and poor: the slaves who were finally freed in 1888 were denied land ownership in the city, and so they built cascades of scrappy houses, the favelas, that carpet the hillsides. But it was different in the west, where Barra had been planned with uniform streets of expensive apartments. Of course, people still needed nannies and maids and gardeners—the fleet of domestic helpers that is made possible by Brazil’s stark inequalities and that even the middle class considers a birthright—but those people were essentially barred from living in Barra.

Brazil returned to democracy in 1985, but by the end of that decade, old Rio was really in trouble. The arrival of cocaine from Andean countries to the northwest had caused a militarization of criminal organizations that operated in the favelas, and now gangs ruled swathes of territory where police or other agents of the state could enter only on brief raids. Rio was soon infamous for its violence, and another wave of middle-class residents moved to Barra, spreading development all the way to the end of the beach.

And right about here is where mayor Eduardo Paes comes into this story.

The Remaking of Rio (Again)

For almost as long as Paes, now 46, has been in politics, people have whispered about his potential to one day become president, such is his boy-wonder aura. A Carioca from Rio’s white elite, he has a chiseled jaw, hooded brown eyes, and perfect teeth; he sucks up the air in every room he enters, all backslaps and handshakes and quips. Paes had a brief career as an extra in telenovelas (soap operas) before going to law school and then into city politics. By 1993, Rio’s then-mayor had appointed him subprefeito (a sort of deputy-mayor) of a district comprised largely of Barra. Paes left the job to run successfully for congress and bounced between five political parties and a variety of increasingly high-profile political positions before he won a narrow race for mayor of Rio in 2008.

From the outset, the patrons of Paes’s political career were the land barons of Barra, says Renato Cosentino, a 32-year-old researcher associated with Rio’s Federal University who has closely tracked the development of the region. At least a third of the US $7.1-million donated to Paes’s party for the 2008 mayoral campaign came from real estate and engineering companies.

Paes’s ascension as the mayor of Brazil’s second-largest city came at a moment of peak optimism for the country. The economy was booming as Brazil reaped the dividends of the commodities boom, and its left-wing federal government, first elected in 2002, invested heavily in health, education, and anti-poverty programs. In Rio, Paes championed a bold experiment the state government had hatched: sending new police forces, dubbed “pacification units,” into favelas to take them back from the gangs. As the state police moved in, the city’s social services followed—health clinics, libraries, garbage collection. Or at least that was the theory. The introduction of new services started in a flurry but soon became bogged down and inconsistently funded. And police were slow to change their ways. They had only a few days of training in community policing before being deployed and were used to viewing everyone in the favela as an adversary requiring maximum force. There were some shocking incidents of kidnapping and murder by police. In one case that made international news in 2013, a 43-year-old bricklayer disappeared from a favela and was later found to have been tortured to death by members of the new community police squad who thought he had information on drug dealers. But the city’s level of violence did begin to fall, says Barbassa, who tracked the pacification effort closely for her book, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God. And that change sparked a new sense of the possible.


Some residents in the poorest areas in Rio de Janeiro have been forced from their homes to make way for Summer Olympic venues. Photo by Anthony Burns/Alamy Stock Photo

In 2009, Rio made a bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics; it was Brazil’s sixth try since 1936. On the October night that the successful host city was announced, a huge crowd gathered on the beach in Copacabana to watch the ceremony on a large screen. As the name Rio was read out, Cariocas danced and cheered. It would be South America’s first Olympics. It was a surprise win for Rio, which beat out Chicago (a city that had the Obamas on hand to lobby), Tokyo, Doha, and Madrid, and anointed Brazil as a serious international player.

There were four sites in Rio’s Olympic plan: Guanabara Bay (which the city pledged to clean up from its dire level of pollution) for sailing; Copacabana, where beach volleyball and the triathalon would take place; the Maracanã stadium near Centro, old Rio’s downtown, where soccer would be played; and Deodóro, in the city’s northwest, where field hockey and some cycling events would take place at existing athletic facilities. But the focus would be a new Olympic Park with nine venues, including an aquatics complex and tennis center, an athletes’ village, and the media center, all out in Barra da Tijuca on the last piece of empty public land.

Paes was steeped in the buzzwords of modern, smart-growth cities—sustainable, inclusive, technologically enabled—that made him a darling of the TED Talk circuit. He promised an Olympics for which human rights would be respected; there would be no forced removals, he vowed. Unlike other Olympics, citizens would not bear the cost; there would be a legacy for Cariocas of every income level. “The Olympics aren’t going to be served by the city,” he repeated like a mantra. “The city is going to be served by the Olympics.”


In 2009, Rio de Janeiro beat Chicago, Madrid, Doha, and Tokyo to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Crowds gathered on the beach at Copacabana to celebrate. Photo by Antonio Lacerda/EPA/Newscom

With the bid won, Paes announced immediate work on several projects. First, he pledged an overhaul of the port in the heart of old Rio, a city now decrepit and plagued by crime. The plan included light rail transit, a huge new public square, and a behemoth Museum of Tomorrow that cost over $118-million. (The plan did not include any memorial to the millions of slaves who were sold on the site or buried in mass graves nearby.) And, of course, there were plans for Barra. Rio’s tiny metro line would be extended out toward the Olympic Park, and rapid bus lanes would be built through Barra and from the Olympic Park all the way up to the northern zone where Barra’s workers come from. Mass transit was desperately needed since development had created more sprawl. Rio’s entire western flank is a car-choked, gridlocked mess, and the commute into Centro can easily take two-and-a-half hours from Barra. In addition, Paes announced that there would be new power lines, sewage treatment, and expanded highways.

To pay for all this, Paes vowed to leverage public-private partnerships. Just 43 percent of the almost $22-billion for the new Olympic facilities would come from the public budget, he said. His model was essentially to have private developers donate land and construct facilities in exchange for concessions. For example, the company Carvalho Hosken built the athletes’ villages and media facilities around the Olympic Park on land it owned. Athletes and the media will use the village and broadcast center for two weeks, and then Carvalho Hosken will sell the apartments. In exchange, Paes raised the maximum height of the buildings in the area from 12 floors to 18.


Eduardo Paes, at the podium, has been the mayor of Rio de Janeiro since 2008. During his tenure, the city has raced to ready itself for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Not everyone believes it’s been a successful transformation to an Olympic city. Photo by Luiz Souza/Alamy Stock Photo

Cosentino, the Federal University researcher, has put in hundreds of hours untangling the complicated accounting of Rio’s Olympics. When he couldn’t get the city to provide figures, he reverse-engineered them, working from the glossy brochures of the real estate developers. Carvalho Hosken may earn over $300-million on the athletes’ village alone. Mayor Paes’s accounting is conspicuous in its absences, Cosentino says, because public money paid for the roads, the sewer lines, and the power connections for the new developments, but those costs don’t show on the ledger. And the developers put up no cash for the Olympic buildings; instead Paes arranged low-cost loans from public banks. Cosentino calculates that Barra, with nine percent of the city’s population, is receiving 80 percent of the spending on the Olympics. Is the private sector taking this entirely from its own pocket? “No, of course not,” says Cosentino, adding that the government takes on much of the cost.

And indeed, Rio’s developers have nothing but positive things to say about the Olympics. Carlos Carvalho, 91, one of Barra’s original three landowners, is the majority shareholder of Carvalho Hosken, which has an estimated value of $4.5-billion. He has said his company expects to make at least $1-billion off the Olympics.


The Olympic Park, which includes the tennis arena, was built to the west of Rio’s original downtown, further shifting the city’s focus to an area called Barra da Tijuca, a relatively wealthy enclave. Photo by Foto Arena LTDA/Alamy Stock Photo

Other developers are equally pleased—take Rogério Zylberstajn, for example, vice president of RJZ Cyrela, the firm that built the golf course and the accommodation for media covering the Olympics, in partnership with another firm. “It’s been very good for us because it’s so expensive to do infrastructure,” Zylberstajn says. For the new condo complexes, the city picked up much of the bill, he says. “The mayor and the market have really worked together.”

The story of that golf course may help explain some of Zylberstajn’s enthusiasm. It is the subject of two ongoing investigations by state prosecutors. In Rio’s original plans for the Olympics, golf was going to be played at an existing city club. Then, in 2012, Paes surprised everyone with an announcement that a new course would be built instead, and it wouldn’t cost Cariocas anything. A developer would foot the bill in exchange for the right to build apartments around the course, right on the oceanfront, swallowing up close to half of an existing municipal park that was home to threatened species of butterflies and lizards, and a chunk of another nearby nature preserve. (The city said it would build a new, bigger park to make up for what was lost.) The golf course, ringed by white-sand beach and tropical marsh, would be spectacular. And the huge glass-fronted apartments, perched on previously untouchable seafront land, would be too.


Carlos Carvalho (majority shareholder of the firm Carvalho Hosken), left, and Eduardo Paes (mayor of Rio de Janeiro), second from left, in 2010 looking at a model of the Olympic Village. Carvalho Hosken will make a sizeable profit off the 2016 Summer Olympics. Photo by Felipe Dana/AP Photo

Writer Juliana Barbassa was one of the only people paying attention when city council rushed the deal’s approval through an extra session on December 20, when Rio is virtually shut down for a combined Christmas and summer holiday. At that meeting, the council granted the developer RJZ Cyrela the right to erect condominiums that were not the standard six stories zoned for that area, but 22. Documentation presented in the investigation claims that building the golf course cost  $18.3-million at most—while RJZ Cyrela stands to make $375-million off the condos. Cosentino, noting that individual apartments are valued at $1.8-million each, calls that a conservative estimate.

The second claim under investigation is that Paes himself was bribed to change the plans for the golf course. The mayor denies the allegation.

Breaching the Public Trust

Paes was re-elected mayor by a wide margin in 2012, but Brazil’s corruption scandal has claimed one prominent leader after the next. Paes’s name also turned up on a list of politicians who were paid bribes by the construction giant Odebrecht, whose former CEO is now serving 19 years in jail for corruption and money laundering. The overall upheaval is striking. The graft scandal involving President Dilma Rousseff, combined with a sharp economic recession and a disastrous series of government policies, culminated in a political showdown that saw the president dramatically forced from office in mid-May. Meanwhile the crash in oil prices hit Rio, where much of the state budget comes from offshore oilfield royalties, particularly hard. By early 2016, the state was weeks, then months, late to pay teachers, nurses, firefighters, and police. The chief of state security pledged that safety during the Olympics would not be affected, then admitted Rio’s police force didn’t even have the cash to put gas in its cars or paper in its printers.

Paes’s pitch to the Olympics committee used the word “environment” almost as often as it used “secure”—and he made much of the idea that taking the Olympics to a developing country offered unparalleled opportunity for public benefit. But what does it look like, weeks before the games? The bus corridors were hastily finished and opened on July 9, while the metro extension is scheduled to open four days before the games, which begin on August 5. So much else of the Olympic legacy, however, looks nothing like what was pledged. Without the promised infrastructure and services, the pacification efforts in the favelas stalled and there are daily reports of gunfights in more than a dozen communities around the city. The new housing is all luxury apartments and does nothing to address the city’s deficit of 221,000 affordable homes. The plans to clean up the bay were snarled in bureaucracy and thwarted by the sheer scale of the problem—only 37 percent of the city’s homes are connected to the sewer network. The triathlon swimmers will plunge into seawater that exceeds recommended bacteria levels by 1.7 million times what’s deemed hazardous on a Southern California beach.

Mayor Paes’s pledges on human rights look hollow, too. Some 77,000 people have been relocated for infrastructure projects—the majority for the public transportation lines. The city gave them the value of their homes, but in many cases this was as little as a few thousand dollars because few had title to the land. In 2014, one community in particular became a symbol of the conflict: Vila Autódromo. The favela of 2,500 people had stood on the site of what is now the Olympic Park since the 1960s. Under pressure from activists, city hall worked out a deal to move the majority of residents prior to construction in exchange for cash. But 30 families resisted eviction, and city hall began a relentless campaign of intimidation to force them out, culminating in homes being demolished while police fired percussion grenades and rubber bullets at protesters.

In the meantime, the mayor has promised a full investigation into what happened to the ciclovia. Concremat, the company that built the bicycle path, is the subject of allegations in the bribery scandal, and, ominously, it was in charge of quality assurance at several Olympic venues. Paes also says he believes the bicycle path can reopen in time for the games. Cariocas joke darkly about letting the tourists try it first. Between the political upheaval and the growing economic struggle, few citizens are paying much attention to the games. “The face of Rio has changed because of the Olympics,” says Barbassa. “But not the faces of the people who benefit from all of this. They’re just the same. We had a moment—an opportunity—and all we’ve done is solidify the old relationships of power.”