Behind the scenes of the Rio 2016 Olympic Legacy

Photo: Rob/Flickr

Photo: Rob/Flickr


Comment by Igor Kovač
Petitions and referendums against Olympic bids show that the Olympic Games are no longer perceived as indisputably beneficial as they are presented to the public as being. Through a look at the city development plans for the Rio 2004 and 2016 bids, Igor Kováč points to some of the reasons why.

Jordi Borja was a member of Louis Millet’s working group (a main architect of the Olympic project in Barcelona), that was created in 1995 to deliver a proposal of the 2004 Olympic Games project in Rio de Janeiro. This consultation group studied the territory of the Brazilian city and tried to create a proposal of spatial organisation of the games that would harmoniously fit into the urban territorial structure and at the same time help its transformation, so it could benefit most of its population.

After months of work, the group submitted to the representatives of the city a project that to a great extent copied the model implemented in Barcelona. This case is still considered one of the most successful Olympic Games organisational models.

Architects identified several key zones with existing infrastructure. However, at the same time they identified locations carrying important development potential. One of those locations was the island Ilha do Fundao in the north-eastern part of the city. The architects decided to place here the main Olympic park with the Olympic stadium and several other sport venues including the Olympic village, accommodation of referees as well as the main media centre and the international broadcast centre. The other location was Barra di Tijuca, where it was proposed to build a new velodrome and a tennis centre and to use existing Rio Centro convention halls.

According to the architects, the island was the ideal location both from an event organisational perspective and a post-Olympic utilization of infrastructure perspective. It had an excellent connection to the airport, it was connected to the already existing highway network and, most importantly, it was in a location with high population density, living in the nearby city centre and in favelas in the northern part of Rio.

The island was also the site of the local university that was supposed to operate sport venues and accommodation capacities after the games. It should also serve as a public park with sport and recreation spaces dedicated to millions of residents living in its vicinity.

A selective ‘catalyst for improvement’
As is probably well known by now, this project has not been realised. The Catalan architect J. Borja explained the circumstances that led to a change of the original plans in an article, published on his personal website in 2015. Similarly, Gabriel Silvestre, a teaching assistant in urban planning from the University College London, analysed the situation around this abandoned project in an article published at the beginning of this year.

According to Silvestre, the submission of the games concept proposal with Ilha do Fundao as the main centre resulted in strained relations among the members of the Rio 2004 bid committee. On the one hand, it was supported by the representatives of federal government and the then municipal secretary of urban affairs Luiz Paolo Conde. However, the then mayor Cesar Maia and the president of the Brasilian Olympic Committe Carlos Arthur Nuzman were not very enthusiastic and opposed the project of L. Millet’s group. The opposition of C. Maia was evident, when he was absent during the IOC evaluation visit.

When the IOC Evaluation Commission visited Rio to examine its readiness for the 2004 Games, they were horrified by the high level of pollution in the location of Ilha do Fondao. The Games should serve as a catalyst for its regeneration and improvement of living conditions of local, mostly poor residents. However, as Borja explains, the then FIFA president and Brazilian IOC member Joao Havelange noticed, in the presence of his colleagues, that „the people we take care of live in the south.” By that, he meant the area stretching along the coast from Copacabana to the west to Barra di Tijuca, where the wealthiest population of the city is concentrated. This attitude was also shared by the local politicians in the municipal government and the Brazilian NOC, who were in support of local developers. In fact, their intentions were focused on Barra.

The Millet’s group warned that selection of Barra as the main location “…ran the risk of associating the event with real estate speculation, of using funds that did not consider public priorities and for the distance of sports venues to the majority of population, particularly in the case of the North End, where there is a scarce provision of sports facilities.” (Silvestre, 2017)

But Rio’s proposal for the 2004 Olympics was not successful. Therefore, the city representatives along with the Brazilian NOC started to promote a new, this time not socially, but rather marketing oriented model with the main games centre located in Barra di Tijuca. Their argument was obvious. It would be more acceptable to the IOC.

All this happened in spite of disagreement and objections of the working group including J. Borja, who publicly distanced himself to this decision and subsequent practices of the municipality. He knew very well the consequences it would cause to the city.

“There is a perverse project undergoing in Rio that serves speculative business and not the city and its residents. It is evident that it will have impact on local environment as well as social consequences on its territory... Maybe the games will be technical and sporting success. But it does not necessarily mean that it will secure the success for the city and its residents... The City of Rio has lost the opportunity for its positive transformation.” (J. Borja, 2015)

Millions invested to serve limited needs
These words of J. Borja were later confirmed by an urban geography professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, Gilmar Mascarenhas, who worked on a research of the mega-events’ impact on the city.

“Rio insisted on a megalomaniac approach that is already outdated,” he said. The mayor C. Maia preferred the Olympic Games 2016 model with the centre in Barra di Tijuca that was implemented also for the Pan-American Games in 2007. However, in the case of the 2016 Olympics it had more severe consequences.

According to Mascarenhas, the city ignored the existing development plans, created on the basis of expert studies and analyses and decided to extend the metro line as a development axis of a linear system and model, that in fact does not exist and nobody sees it there. Consequently, there were invested billions to impact the urban structure in order to serve the needs of the event lasting 16 days. As a result, there were constructed three highways Transcarioca, Transolímpica and Transoeste with an intention to create a new city centre around Barra. This “barracentrical” concept of the Olympic Games disrupted the entire urban development policy of Rio de Janeiro. As a direct consequence of this, 70,000 people were displaced and severe irreparable environmental damages were caused.

Moreover, it can be added, that all the money went into a location, where only 5% of Rio’s population live.

G. Mascarenhas positively highlighted the construction of the VLT tram line and the regeneration of the central part of the city around the port. In terms of sport venues, however, he was not able to say if they would be beneficial to the city.

Where lies the responsibility?
These days the world is flooded by news about abandoned sports facilities in Rio, less than a year after the Games’ closing ceremony. The IOC vice-president, John Coates, said that the images of the Rio Games venues in disuse and disrepair are hurting the Olympic brand and the IOC.

It is true that the Olympic brand devalues in the light of such circumstances. With all due respect to the sincere effort of organisers and volunteers, the Games in Rio are, even by some of its participants, considered as the worst in decades. In this case, however, it can definitely be claimed that the IOC had different and much better options.

In this regard, information has come to light about former IOC member Lamine Diack, who is investigated by French police. It was claimed that L. Diack’s son received 1.5 million dollars from a company owned by Brazilian billionaire A. C. Soares, who was involved in several Olympic construction projects in Rio. All this happened just three days before the vote of the 2016 Olympic host city. L. Diack is thought to have had a considerable influence on the IOC voting members. It is obvious that the IOC consists of more than one hundred individuals with various intentions and motivations and, as the results of the vote show, also with varied sense of responsibility.

In one of the recent interviews on the current situation, IOC president Thomas Bach argues that the post-Olympic transformation of venues in Rio needs time. He exemplifies the situation in London, where it took one year to transform the Olympic park to be used again. Unfortunately, the IOC president is persistent to implement a rhetoric that presents cases of Olympic legacy in a positive light that in fact should not be considered as such. The situation around the London Olympic stadium can be mentioned as an example. Its complicated post-Olympic transformation is referred to by the London Assembly member, Andrew Boff as “...burning hundreds of millions of pounds  of taxpayers’ money in front of  Londoners’ eyes.” That can be hardly viewed as a desired form of legacy.

A need for a new Olympic model
Historically, the IOC mostly relied on state funded Olympic projects. This approach, as it has been implemented until now, has led to corruption, over-budgeting, organisational and management problems due to political changes, unreasonable construction projects and growing resentment of taxpayers.

The IOC needs more options as it offers Los Angeles within its 2024 Olympic bid. It needs a solely privately funded model of the games. Such a model must be from its very essence effective. There is no space for mistakes and senseless excesses, so it can end up on or under budget.

The IOC also needs such changes as it has recently introduced into its host city contracts. After agreement with the world leading human rights organisations, the contracts will include requirements to prevent discrimination, corruption and to protect the rights of those affected by the organisation of the games In this case, however, it is important that they are implemented and not remain only on paper.

None of us are perfect and every human learns to develop consciousness, wisdom and real compassion. It is possible that some IOC representatives are probably aware what a faux pas happened last year in Brazil. It was, however, just a continuation of a long lasting trend that calls for a change.

Petitions and referendums that destroy Olympic bids in the recent time show to all stakeholders and members of the Olympic movement that the public is still better informed about the pitfalls related to the organisation of the Olympic Games. They show us, that the games in their current form are not considered to be so indisputably beneficial, as they are usually presented to the public as being. And in the spirit of fair play, it must be admitted, they are right.

Of course, Olympism must be viewed as a positive human achievement. However, it is also infected with greed, craving for prestige and intentions to make false impressions, sometimes at almost any cost. These are the weaknesses, in which also the problems around the Games in Rio are rooted and that hide behind the scenes of its legacy.


Borja, J. (2015): Rio 2016. El negocio urbano. O sin pan ni circo. 11. 3. 2015.

Butler, N. (2017): French police probe suspicuous payments made before Rio were awarded 2016 Olympics. Inside the Games, 3. 3. 2017.

Butler, N. (2017): Bach rejects Olympic critics and calls for repeat bidders to pay less. Inside the Games, 4. 3. 2017.

Dolzan, M. (2016): O Rio insistiu em um modelo fora de moda, diz Gilmar Mascarenhas. Estadao, 13. 2. 2016.

Gibson, O. (2016): The London Stadium: an unloved venue resulting from expensive mistakes. The Guardian, 5. 11. 2016.

Kaiser, A. J. (2017): Legacy of Rio Olympics So Far Is Series of Unkept Promises. New York Times, 15. 2. 2017.

Silvestre, G. (2017): O nao legado e os Jogos que nao foram. A primeria candidatura olímpica do Rio de Janeiro e o imaginário de legado urbano para a cidade. Arquitextos, 17. 1. 2017.

Silvestre, G. (2017) : The non-legacy and the Games that never were – Rio de Janeiro’s first Olympic candidature and tme imaginary of urban legacy for the city. ResearchGate, January 2017.

This is an adapted version of an article published in Slovak language:

Kováč, I. (2017): Zákulisie olympijského dedičstva Rio de Janeira. NŠC Šport revue, 24. 3. 2017


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