Rio’s Olympics of urban planning disasters: Which one will win the gold?

Well, this is just a nightmare. Rio's Olympic mascots do their thing. Image: Getty.

The long-awaited 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics are finally here -- long-awaited, of course, because it’s been painfully clear for a long time now that these games are going to be an ungodly, nightmarish, train wreck of a mega event.

Forget those campy, ultra-high-def slow-mo montages of athletes strutting their stuff as the music from “Chariots of Fire” plays in the background that seem to appear on the world's TV stations every time the Olympics rolls round: the main reason people are paying attention this timeis out of some sadistic desire to see just how miserable a flop the 2016 games are going to be.

Yes, it’s been one of those Olympics, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and everything that can’t go wrong goes wrong anyway. That something had truly gone afoul during the preparation for Rio’s cherished mega-event had already become apparent well over a year ago to many outside observers (cough, cough, told you so).

But as the opening ceremonies drew near, Rio just kept screwing things up, sometimes almost cartoonishly so. The city suffered from pretty much everything, from killer cops to an improper response to the Zika virus, to the oh-so-symbolic shooting of the games’ mascot, a rare Amazonian jaguar. This dumpster fire of an Olympics has had journalists falling over themselves in search of fitting epithets to hurl at the event (“Rio, capital of disaster capitalism”, an “unnatural disaster”) only to be bested by the government of Rio itself, which declared a “state of calamity” a month before the games began.

So, guided by a passion for pithy reviews of urban planning projects that will never be snuffed out – unlike the Olympic torch, which was in fact snuffed out in advance of the opening ceremony, then relit – I present for your enjoyment a different kind of Olympics: a competition between all the planning nightmares loosed upon the good people of Rio to determine which one is the absolute worst. Which one will take the gold?

Runner up: Porto Maravilha Plan

Rio 2016’s flagship waterfront plan, Porto Maravilha, comes in a lackluster 6th place in our little bad planning Olympiad. Which is actually good news for the project, to the extent that being the least bad is actually good.

The project has succeeded in getting rid of the ugly freeway that had gutted the zone. But many residents now worry that construction by big-name developers, including a certain spray-tanned, proto-fascist US presidential candidate, will push out long time residents. Sad!

Runner up: Tim Maia Bike Path

This one involves people getting killed, as well as a cause I actually believe in when done right: bike lanes. So I’ll suspend my barrage of bad jokes until the next finalist.

As part of its Olympic plans, Rio officials planned and built a series of bike paths, including a long elevated section along the coast, named for famed Brazilian soul singer Tim Maia. But in late April, the path’s shoddy construction led to one section collapsing after being hit by a wave, killing two cyclists.

Runner up: Barra da Tijuca Olympic Golf Course

Olympic proponents in Rio have long argued that the games will be a huge benefit to the city’s poorest residents. But it will be an even huger benefit to the city’s richest residents, who will now have their very own golf course upon which to smack small white balls around with sticks, built on environmentally protected marshland as part of a project that also includes luxury condos.

Bronze Medal: Guanabara Bay Clean-up

Pollution in Guanabara Bay last year. Image: Getty.

If you want to get an idea of what Rio’s Guanabara bay looks like, think of one of those carnival games where you grab toys with a metal claw. Then replace the toys with dead fish, trash, and all kinds of other nasty stuff you don’t even want to think about. As a Gizmodo headline put it, “Rowers will literally paddle through shit at Rio Olympics”.

Officials are frantically trying to clean the bay up, though they’ve somehow ruled out the rather obvious strategy of putting an end to the dumping of raw sewage into the bay.

Silver Medal: Australian Athletes’ housing

The housing created for Olympic athletes has been downright lousy, to the point of being uninhabitable. The US basketball team has slyly avoided this issue by camping out on a cruise ship protected by hundreds of armed guards.

The Australian team, lacking its own cruise ship, nonetheless decided to abandon its own Olympic digs due to leaky pipes and exposed wiring, and instead to move into a hotel. Instead of offering to fix the problem, Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes, showing the same level of planning prowess he did throughout the run-up to the games -- which is to say, none at all -- offered to bring in a kangaroo to make the Aussies feel more at home.


Gold Medal: Vila Autodromo

Back in 2010, an impoverished settlement on the western edge of Brazil named Vila Autodromo was slated to be obliterated to make way for an Olympic Park – a clever name for a site that would host a handful of events during the games and then be converted into mostly shopping malls and luxury condos.

In the years that followed, residents were bullied, intimidated, and in some cases physically assaulted in an attempt to make them go away. And in the end, despite fervent resistance, most of them did. Its 2010 population of 600 families was down to 20 by 2016.

Though this might not seem like a natural pick for the top slot, it gets the gold for two reasons. First, because it so perfectly sums up what has all too often been the norm for Rio’s Olympic planning. And second, because it actually has something of a happy ending. The 20 remaining families were allowed to stay in Vila Autodromo after the games ended. City officials, bungling planning efforts in so many cases, also lived up to their promise to provide new housing to these families.

And all it took was six years of relentless pressure and the vast majority of residents being bullied out of their homes. I love a happy ending.

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