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Olympic legacy – blessing or curse?

Today, the world gets its first glimpse of the future home for the Rio Olympic athletes.

The 2016 Olympic Village located in the Barra da Tijuca suburb of Rio consists of seven compounds with 31 buildings all stretching a whopping 31 stories. Each building contains 3,604 flats with more than 18,000 beds, the entire village can house an estimated 17,950 people and spans 200,000 square meters.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 08:  A Rio Olympics 2016 car is seen before the first day of parades of the panel's Carnival in Rio de Janeiro on Marques de Sapucai Sambadromo on February 08, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by William Volcov/Brazil Photo Press/LatinContent/Getty Images)

The compound also includes a 72,000 square-meter park and a 5,500 square-meter reflecting pool for good measure.

Costing around $835 million in total the Village is slated to open up to buyers as a luxurious condominium complex after the Olympics, with one unit costing up to $700,000.

Remember… Rio 2016 was promoted as an engine for urban renewal and lasting change, a positive addition to years of social progress and growth in Brazil, yada yada.

However, unfulfilled promises in a country now challenged by a deep economic and political crisis show that the Olympics did not succeed. The failure might be Rio 2016’s most lasting legacy.

When Brazil won the bid fireworks and confetti lit up the sky, and thousands wearing yellow and green danced along Copacabana Beach. The festivities lasted into the night.

Brazil was then flourishing economically and it was politically stable.

The IOC’s decision to hold the Games in Rio, after Brazil had already been chosen to host the World Cup, was read as recognition of these achievements and a vote of confidence in a future that held more of this growth in store. These two world events would provide the stage to display this up-and-coming nation.

To Rio residents, known as cariocas, the powers that be promoted the Games as not only a chance to highlight achievements, but also as an engine for them to push for more, and necessary changes.

And there was ample reason to believe this, the bid came with promises to address some of Rio’s most serious challenges, with a concrete deadline by which to fulfill them.

The biggest social legacy would come through a programme called Morar Carioca, which Rio mayor Eduardo Paes touted regularly. This was not part of the bid, but Paes linked it to the city’s broader transformation. The programme’s goal was to bring basic services – running water, safe electricity, sewage collection – to all of the city’s favelas by 2020.

Fast forward to today… Nothing is as expected.

Brazil, now mired in a serious political and economic crisis, scarcely seems the same country. There are crowds in national colours surging along Copacabana beach again, but this time, they are furious. The crowd’s indignation stemming in part from the President’s inability to stop the downward spiral of the economy and control finances.

Brazilian frustration with government malfeasance and misplaced spending priorities was already evident in the mass demonstrations that preceded the 2014 World Cup. Posters had called for investments in education and health, not stadiums, and an end to venality in politics. Now, with less than two months to go until Rio de Janeiro’s Olympics, the marches are back, and bigger than ever. Congress members – about 60 percent of them personally facing criminal charges – have voted to impeach the president, whose political future now lies in the hands of the Senate.

The sense of betrayal is most tangible. It is not a matter of getting the sports facilities ready. Unlike the mad rush to finish stadiums before the World Cup, most of Rio’s sports venues were nearly complete, and test events had been held in many of them. A closer look at the city and state, however, revealed strained systems that were close to snapping. The facilities might be ready, but basic services were suffering cuts. State hospitals closed to all but the direst emergencies. Imagine even carnival was on a budget in 2016, after the sponsors of street parades ratcheted down their support.

In addition, some key Olympic projects went unfinished. Guanabara Bay, whose cleanup was held as a one of the most important legacies of the Games, remained a toxic soup. Casual observation was enough to reveal that floating trash also remained.

Even the comprehensive favela improvement programme Morar Carioca was financially gutted and dismantled without an explanation to the public. Its name was re-appropriated for minor projects that lacked its participatory nature. With this reversal of priorities, the city went from having a favela integration programme to actively promoting the spatial segregation of the poor.

The operating expenses for the Games, which had long overblown the original budget, were trimmed under the guise of fiscal responsibility, there would be fewer employees, more temporary structures, and more modest opening and closing ceremonies. Emergency measures promulgated by city and state authorities would make sure that, despite economic retrenchment, Rio would be ready to welcome the world.

Traffic congestion would be handled by declaring holidays during competitions, as happened during the World Cup. Pollution would be taken care of by sending out specially rigged boats to rake in the trash floating on the bay. Security would be guaranteed by sending out 85,000 law enforcement officers to clamp down on the city, turning Rio into the safest, and cleanest (not so much) place on the planet while the competitions lasted.

These exceptional measures would turn Rio de Janeiro into an Olympic theme park for the duration of the Games – safe, clean (enough) and with stellar transit. Once the closing ceremonies conclude, the cariocas would resume life in a city that was at least as polluted, congested, unequal and as violent as before, if not more so.

Just as the Olympics is leaving its mark on Rio, the city has left its mark on the Olympics as well. There were many external factors affecting the city’s development during these crucial years. Plus, research has long shown that hosting the world’s biggest sports spectacle is not a money-maker.

Still, the gap between what was expected and what has been delivered is so great, and the gap between priorities pursued and those emphasized by the population is so extreme that it makes clear that whatever else they might be, the Games as they are currently cast are not a good tool for the propagation of urban development.

Rio residents are watching their government make cuts to school maintenance, close down hospitals, fail to pay public servants and cut back on security funding even as billions in public money are spent on preparing for a sporting event. This might be Rio 2016’s most lasting legacy.

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