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Rio's Olympic legacy: Corruption and people power

The Rio Olympics were a breeding ground for corruption that left behind crumbling mega-projects. But they also emboldened locals to organize and raise their voices against Brazil's plutocracy, Andrew Purcell reports.

To begin to understand the legacy of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, walk west along the final kilometer of Avenida Embaixador Abelardo Bueno, in Barra de Tijuca. Pass the aquatic center, where stagnant puddles are the only water in the pools, the Arena Carioca that was supposed to be converted into schools, and the main gate of the Olympic Park, which is padlocked five days a week.

Continue past the Residence Inn by Marriott, where a suite with a view of the Tennis Center costs 120 euros ($142) per night, and you will eventually reach a street of white, box-shaped bungalows, protected by a high metal fence. This is all that remains of Vila Autodromo, a favela that was once home to 700 families. A tattered sign at the entrance has an aerial picture of the houses that were bulldozed so people attending the Olympics would not have to see them.

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The remains of the Rio Olympics

In the run-up to the Games, Vila Autodromo came to symbolize the price being paid by Rio's poorest to host a mega-event that enriched the already wealthy. The 20 families who refused to leave, declining all offers of compensation and physically resisting the evictions, eventually won the right to stay, in new houses built by the city.

"When people talk about the Olympic legacy, I think about my neighbor with blood running down her face, or my friend on the floor with his head bashed in, houses being demolished, families split up," says community leader Sandra Maria de Souza. "The only people who did well out of it are the construction companies who built the Olympic Park … The only legacy was for the rich."

Read more: Why does nobody want to host the Olympics anymore?

We take a stroll, de Souza pointing out where the barber shop and supermarket used to be, the bakery and the evangelical church. The mayor's office could have paved the streets, dug sewers and built new houses for everyone instead of forcing them out, she says: "They would have spent much less, and this would have been a great social legacy, and an example to the world."

"Progress has to be for the good of everyone," chimes in her friend Maria da Penha. "We're not against progress: We're against maladministration, when the government serves capital, not the people." An emboldened, organized resistance to Brazil's plutocracy may turn out to be the most significant legacy of the Games.

Dogs wander on an empty road flanked by the glass towers of a hotel

A Marriott hotel was built where the favela Vila Autodromo had been

The Olympics were sold as a transformative event that would make Rio safer and cleaner, leaving world class sporting facilities and a modern, integrated public transport system as a parting gift. A year on, violent crime is surging, Guanabara Bay is as polluted as ever, the new transport networks are too expensive for the majority of residents, and favelas remain neglected by the state, lacking the most basic conveniences.

Epic fraud

The corruption probe into Operation Car Wash has revealed a political system rotten to the core. Prosecutors allege former mayor of Rio Eduardo Paes received 4 million euros for "facilitating contracts related to the Olympic Games" - a charge he rejects as "absurd and untrue." Former governor Sergio Cabral has been sentenced to 14 years in jail for taking millions in kickbacks, including bribes connected to renovation of the Maracana stadium and the metro extension west towards Olympic Park.

"What was the true legacy? Lots of money for developers and construction companies, and for their colonels, the politicians," says Roberto Marinho, a community leader in Morro da Providencia, Rio's oldest favela. "Where are the basic services in this city? Security is in chaos, the idea of social development has been abandoned … The only legacy is the millions that were pocketed."

Empty cables run over the skyline of the favela Alemao

The cable car only ran briefly above the favela Alemao

In 2008, when Rio was under consideration as a potential Olympic host, a "Program of Accelerated Growth" was announced, with the aim of modernizing three of the city's largest favelas: Rocinha, Manguinhos and Alemao.

"The number one request from residents in Alemao was sewage: They got a cable car," says Theresa Williamson, of pressure group Rio On Watch. "The number one request in Manguinhos was sewage: They got a library and public housing. Rochina, same thing: sewage. They got a sports complex, a pedestrian bridge and some public housing. The real need from residents was clear."

Read more: Rio hits the brakes on controversial favela cable car

In January, Rio's billing tribunal accused the construction companies responsible for the work of overcharging by 59 million euros. The cable in car Alemao has been out of service for 10 months and may never restart, because the state cannot afford the 700,000 euro monthly operating costs.

Angry in the favela

Julia Michaels, an American journalist who has lived in Rio for 35 years, got to know Alemao well while writing a book about the city and has been impressed by the community's response to broken promises and escalating police violence.

"I think the poor started to change the way they view themselves," she says. "They were empowered by this boom that included the Olympics. They are not as easily pushed off the side as they were before, and it's going to be interesting to see how that plays out: How much frustration there is because of the bigger gap than ever between expectations and what can really be."

Williamson agrees. "The positive legacies [of the Olympics] aren't any of the ones that were stated or intended … but civil society is more networked, more aware," she says. "People in favelas are angry."

Dona Alva de Oliveira stands in front of her home in Rio de Janeiro

Dona Alva de Oliveria refused to leave when Vila Autodromo was due to be razed

In April, a wave of demonstrations against austerity measures passed by President Michel Temer's government culminated in a one-day general strike. On May 24, tens of thousands marched in Brasilia to demand Temer's ouster, and a minority invaded and trashed government ministries. Troops were deployed to restore order following pitched battles between police and protesters.

Brazil's economy has been in recession for three years. In Rio, teachers and hospital staff and civil police officers have been without pay for months. As Operation Car Wash exposes how much the ruling class kept for themselves in times of plenty, ordinary people are being asked to tighten their belts. There are certain to be further flashpoints. "It's building," says Michaels. "I have a feeling that anything could trigger it."

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