LSE Comment and Opinion | From Beijing to Rio: Whose Games?

This is a commentary of mine posted on the LSE web site on 22 October, entitled From Beijing to Rio. It builds upon my research on mega-events in China to discuss lessons that can be learnt from China for Brazil’s forthcoming FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. I thank Candy Gibson at LSE Media for the help with editing.

“The excessive amount of money spent on a mega event inevitably sucks up public money to address social needs – and it hasn’t gone unnoticed in Brazil.” Hyun Bang Shin explains why the world’s attention on Rio in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup may reveal more than its government desires.

The eyes of the world will be on Brazil in the next couple of years when Rio de Janeiro hosts the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, but at what cost?

There is no doubt that cities around the world use mega-events to both enhance their global reputation and justify ambitious infrastructure projects at enormous expense.

Key events such as the winter and summer Olympics, Commonwealth Games and the FIFA World Cup are used to not only build soft power on the international stage, but also fast-track major building works, often speeding up and bypassing the normal design, public consultation and implementation processes.

The end result is a wonderful spectacle but the preparation surrounding such events is highly political and there are inevitable losers, such as the urban poor and marginalised.

Mega-event hosting brings about fundamental changes to a host country; not only in a physical sense, but the social landscape is also dramatically altered.

The excessive amount of money spent on a mega event inevitably sucks up intended investment for other important projects, usually public money to address social needs – and it hasn’t gone unnoticed in Brazil.

A neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro (Photographed by Hyun Shin in 2010)

A neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro (Photographed by Hyun Shin in 2010)

Protesters have taken to the streets in recent months, reflecting the civilians’ concerns that the upcoming 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics will only deepen Brazil’s social and economic problems.

Rio de Janeiro’s hosting of the Pan American Games in 2007 was known to have gone “wildly over budget? despite the city’s failure to deliver promises of metro connections or the cleaning-up of polluted Guanabara Bay.

It remains to be seen how much Rio de Janeiro is to spend on its preparations for the 2016 Olympic Games, but growing concerns of over-spending do not seem ill-founded.

On a deeper level, mega-events give countries licence to suspend normal rules and behave in a manner which would normally be unacceptable.

The use of ‘Harmonious Society’ narratives in China to quell dissident movements during the 2008 Beijing Olympics is a good example. In this case China used the Olympics as an opportunity to implement punitive social policies such as enhanced surveillance and security measures as well as attacks on the ‘less desirables’.

The impact of the Olympic Games was felt in a different way. Migrants, who literally built the Olympic city of Beijing, were excluded from sharing the Olympic joy.

This is not to say that will happen in Brazil. Unlike China, which uses the overarching power of the state to gag dissident voices, Brazilians have, in recent decades, successfully challenged their governments. This collective memory of progressive movement creates a different political landscape within which Brazil’s social movements are embedded.

But the upcoming World Cup and Olympics in Brazil will put pressure on the government to present its cities to the world in a ‘desirable’ way. This translates into ‘hygienic’ cities that are free of blighted spaces such as substandard and squatter settlements or of people living on the margins such as homeless people, ‘uncivilised’ migrants and street vendors.

Brazil, like China and other global cities in the South, has embarked on selective slum clearance and eviction of occupants.

Evidence shows that this scale of displacement could be huge. When the Centre on Human Rights and Eviction prepared a comprehensive report to examine the violation of housing rights in mega-event host cities, the number of displacees in cities of the West, including Greece, was several thousand at the most. When looking at the experience of Seoul or Beijing, the number of displacees increased to 720,000 people in Seoul and 1.5 million in Beijing.

Despite the glamour that mega-events seem to generate, the short-term excitement is accompanied by long-term contestations over urban space and social fabric. Rather than seeing mega-events as an occasion of festival and a ‘feel-good’ factor in urban policy making, it is important to recognise mega-events as a process that makes profound impacts on the daily lives of people in host cities and countries.

Whatever transpires, the next few years are unlikely to improve the lives of the urban poor in Brazil. And, it is the moment to ask the very question people in every host city should ask: Whose Games?

The commentary above benefited from my earlier projects on the Beijing Olympic Games and Guangzhou Asian Games as well as the discussions at the sessions on mega-events in the global South at the RGS-IBG annual conference held in London, 28-30 August 2013. See also the recent paper Whose Games? posted earlier in this blog.

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