The inception

The seeds  

In a favela north of Rio de Janeiro, escorted by dealers and watched from all sides to ensure protection, we pass the graveyards of stolen cars, harvested for parts before being burned; their metal skeletons are offset by the concerned glances of residents over the presence of outsiders. An un-uniformed police officer had crept into this slum yesterday in an attempt to kill a leading drug lord. The community is made up of two, three story buildings with cinder block frames and sheets for doors. Tin and trash bag roofs stretch out for miles as a group of shoeless children leads us through their unpaved alleys, in one door and out another. There are few boundaries between homes with the exception of one huge wall that I cannot see over. It seems to divide the slum from the rest of the world. A young girl took my hand and pulled me closer to its parameters, around the corner, and then through a 3 foot round hole where the kids had broken through the concrete. “Tia” she whispered, “come see our stadium.” On the other side of the wall was a training facility, an overgrown track, and the empty remains of a massive pool, worn down cement and children running circles around the expanse, which was a harsh contradiction to their narrow streets. “This is my Olympic stadium,” she said proudly. “Let me show you.” 

As the Olympic committee wrote, “Rio is not a finished work. Just 500 years ago this was all jungle. Compared to other capitals of the world, this city has barely entered its teens. The metropolis we know today is the result of a long struggle between man and nature. In its beauty and contradictions, Rio combines all that is good and bad in Brazil (1).”  The Olympics have always been more than a competition. They are a religious and cultural festival, a dedication woven in and out of temples and stadiums. Temples are beautiful, yet they are only an indication, a shadow of heavenly things. Mankind falls silent in reverence for these spaces, while little reverence is to be found for the actual habitation of spirit: humanity. And so, in the shadow of Olympus lie the ruins of many temples. Shining and fallen, like meteors which left scars on the face of earth. Here mankind comes to demonstrate their strength and glorify their nation while the gods bow low to meet them. A time of peace is spoken between men, of honor and celebration, but the echo is one of war, a sacrifice that covers each stadium in the blood of the people, the money of the poor, and the innocence of children.  Perhaps no other city has been so profoundly marked by the presence of the Olympic games as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Tens of thousands of families displaced to make room for stadiums and billions of dollars poured into the upkeep of these holy temples. But don’t temple religions always demand sacrifices? And so, thousands of girls were trafficked to meet the demand of sex tourists, countless lives were taken in war over the favelas, and the corruption of power consumed the government (3). The mountains of Rio shield the ruins of the titans—a city of angels. But as the nations return to their homes and the torch burns dark, we are left to examine the scars left in tribute of glory. There was a silent refrain, written on the breath of each child I had encountered that day: “Beneath the shadow of Olympus, we are many temples living among the stadiums and structures that rewrote our history. We are a torch ascending the mountain, a city on a hill. The place resurrection has chosen to call home. From under our crown of olive leaves, our crown of thorns, our skin and bone are brick and mortar rebuilding the walls of this city”. As the first developing country to host the Olympic games, Rio de Janeiro leaves a legacy different than any other nation in the collective memory of this global event.

The promises

The concept of Olympic legacy is something that surpasses physical reality. This is what makes it enchanting, but it also makes it controversial. Two weeks of peace between nations, two weeks where the whole world unifies for a series of competitions that can forever change the course of lives. What does this mean practically? Cultural and strategic planning is a core aspect of the Olympic movement. The games have sought to foster development and regeneration to create a new global image for aspiring host cities (4). Each city bidding to hold the event is expected to have a list of legacy projects that will remain after the games: policies, programs, and infrastructure that will benefit residents of the host city for many years into the future. Rio’s Olympic bid included more than twenty-five legacies (5), both environmental and humanitarian. When the games move out, this is when a transformed and improved imprint is supposed to be left in their place. In Rio’s case, many argued this promise came up empty.

In advance of every Olympic games, the media thrives on patrolling the host city and illuminating controversies. The great dispersion of wealth that leaves many without their basic needs met, while another segment of the population enjoys a very high standard of living, put a great deal of tension on the Olympic presence in Rio. This however is not evidence that South America was simply unprepared to host the games. The reality is that many of the problems facing Rio are actually Olympic problems. A similar pattern of struggle occurs in Olympic cities regardless of weather they take place in the developed or undeveloped world. Many arguments exist over which issues were Brazilian and which were Olympic. A Japanese organizer from Tokyo traveled to Rio to learn from the anti-Olympics protest movement here and build momentum in her home country. “It’s usually very similar in each Olympic city,” she told VICE. “You have the eviction of poor populations, just for rich development” (6).

The Olympics were viewed by most within the limitations of a TV screen, showing only frames of the whole story. Rio de Janeiro is a huge city covering a distance of 485 square miles, and the extended Greater Rio area covers an additional, 2,079 square miles (16). Olympic construction and venues were spread out ranging from the very poor Deodoro region, to the wealthy beachfronts in Copacabana. The renovations for the games touched nearly every corner of the city map.  For the state of Rio, hosting the games was seen as an opportunity to showcase Brazilian modernity by displaying initiative, civility, organization and urban growth. Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president during the pre-Olympic period framed their candidacy on behalf of all South America as a mandate to correct geopolitical power imbalances and give prominence to the developing world as a whole (15). Unfortunately, though it won the bid at its highest point in 30 years, by the time the event arrived, the city was at its lowest point in 30 years.  All this was on display in front of an audience of half the world’s population.

The preparation of Olympic cities to accommodate the games can cause both incredible benefit and loss for their inhabitants. It is a seven-year process of urban planning and construction that will leave a legacy of either strength or vulnerability when the event finishes(7). Days of Truce, the International Olympic Committees official documentary of the 2016 Games, defines the process in these words, “Demolitions, reconstructions, renovations. The agony of facing your own flaws and limitations, the pain of being scrutinized by the whole world, the fear of not being up for the challenge. Why would anyone want to go through all this? Change is not always easy and comes in different forms. Sometimes it means looking within and finding new ways of being yourself… What comes next for the city is yet to be discovered but for what we have lived, what we have shared and felt, Rio 2016 will last forever and this city will never be the same again. Rio has shown us that The Olympic games can be more than a metaphor of a utopian society. That the Olympic spirit is strong enough to stand up to the harshness of reality. That the values it carries are not just a reminder of the past, but also a promise of a better future. If the spirit of the Olympic Games carries beyond the games, and it carries through onto the people of Brazil that there is hope, there is a future. There is success, if you can carry this beyond the games and into the future of your country, this is a brilliant thing” (1)

The symbols

The careful progression of the Rio opening ceremonies provides a glance at the story Brazil had desired to share with the world during the games. As the camera zooms out killing time in the countdown to the opening, it is evident that the IOC is filming from over the arm of Christ the Redeemer Statue. The announcers continue, “…38 meters tall, at the peak of Corcovado Mountain, completed in 1941, regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world. It is one of the most recognizable features of any city in any country. The statue looks down over the famous Maracanã stadium, which boasts the world record crowd….199,000 people were here in the world cup final in 1950, all under the watchful eye of Christ the Redeemer “(8)

It seems fitting that the Rio games took place in the shadow of God. Dating back to their conception in ancient Greece, the Olympics were always considered a religious festival held in a religious site, not simply a matter of sports. The location of the games, Mount Olympia, was central to the event. According to myth, this mountain was believed to be the home of Zeus, king of the Greek Gods. Paul Christesen, professor of Ancient Greek History at Dartmouth College, explains, “The games began in 776BC as a festival in his honor, and the next 250 years took place in the sanctuary itself”. An outdoor arena was created from the natural embankments of surrounding hills, and featured an altar, which was a huge sacred pot – now the Olympic Caldron (9). The ancient Greeks considered fire to be a divine element and they maintained perpetual fires in front of many temples. The flame was lit using the rays of the sun, to ensure its purity, as today a parabolic mirror is used in honor of this myth to light the Olympic flame. In the modern Olympic story, Rio’s torch is a spotlight on the social issues surrounding it. The flame was housed in a giant sculpture, with spirals to represent the sun (8). This light was carried by many across Brazil. This light was carried by many across Brazil and burnt throughout the games in two caldrons. One of particular significance was housed in downtown Rio. Lit by Jorge Gomes, this torch highlighted issues of police brutality and displacement.

CBC News writes in the article a Beautiful Life, “Jorge was abandoned at birth. He spent much of his early life in a homeless shelter in a favela called Mangueira. He doesn’t remember much, aside from the hunger, he says. “We would only eat breakfast, that’s it, and we had to sleep on the floor.” Jorge was adopted three times and each time given back to the shelter, until Ana Lourenco and her husband adopted him in 2000… They enrolled him in a government-run program to give promising athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to get some elite track training and to escape the streets. Two days before the 2016 Games began, Jorge’s coach received a message from Olympic organizers looking for a runner … a success story who represents Brazil to light the torch…The flame was to stand in front of a stunning church with a dark history. “In 1993, there was a group of street kids who used to sleep here, and they were murdered by police officers and civilians in the payment of local businessmen,” says Maurício Santoro, a political science professor at Rio State University. “It was a brutal mass-killing even for the standards of Rio. Santoro walks across the street from the church and points at the tiled sidewalk. On it is painted a row of eight small figures that look like children fallen to the ground. “Many of them were killed on this sidewalk here,” Santoro says. “So you have the paintings here in red to remember. It’s a kind of memorial to what happened on that terrible night.” When Jorge learned about the Candelaria massacre‚ it hit home. Most of the victims were his age. “It could have been me,” he says, “and that’s why I lit the flame there, to change the story” (11). That story and the story of the nation follows.