Buildup to Rio 2016 part of a chaotic and shameful tradition of Olympic hosts | David Goldblatt

Preparations have often been chaotic but Rios buildup may be the most disorderly yet and no matter how special the Game a disaster of unprecedented proportions will have already happened

The final days of preparation before the first modern Games in Athens in 1896 offered many of the tropes that still structure Olympic coverage a century afterward. Rumours persisted that the stadium would not be ready on time, leading to a furious exchange of letters in The Times. The New York Times correspondent came to dig for dirt and detected it. There were plenty of old tin cans and rubbish scattered where once the silver Ulysses sparkled to the sea: the orchard of Academe reminded me of picturesque bits in shanty town.

The refurbished stadium for the 1920 Antwerp Game, started simply 15 months beforehand, was finished perilously late. The French occupation of the Ruhr and the flooding of the Seine in the winter of 1923 put Paris 1924 in question. The designer of the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic complex was harried in the local press for shady practices and sweetheart bargains. Los Angeles 1932 was held in the very depth of the great depression. All feeling remarkably familiar narratives , not just from the distant past but from pretty much every Olympic Games since Atlanta 1996.

Yet in April 2014 John Coates, a visit member of the IOC, proclaimed the preparations for the Rio Games the worst ever. Two year later, the already disastrous state of affairs has been conjoined with Brazils sharpest ever economic downturn, the impeachment of the president by a corrupted parliament, the nations most explosive corruption investigation which is cutting a scythe through the political and business class, and the threat of the Zika virus. To this has now been added the Russian doping scandal and the IOCs hapless response to it. Coatess case appears strong but how exactly do the Rio Olympics match up to the past?

Frankly, if Athens could be ready on opening night, anywhere can. Nowhere, even the notoriously late starting Cariocas, have cut it as fine as the Athenians with venues and Olympic spaces. The new Calatrava roof went on to the main arena with merely hours to spare in the construction deadline. That said, Rio is doing its very best to compete by planning to open the metro line to the Olympic park simply four days before the beginning of the Games. In its favour Rio has avoided expensive iconic architecture, opting for the dull, the functional and the temporary. Consequently it is set to produce fewer and less expensive white elephants than the leaders in this field, Athens( 2004) and Beijing( 2008 ).

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An aerial view of the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Pawel Kopczynski/ Reuters

The Greek capital has more than a dozen useless or underused venues, and an Olympic village that has become a super-concentrated zone of poverty and decay while Beijings venues for kayaking, beach volleyball, BMX biking and baseball remain solely unused. London avoided this fate by, in fact, dedicating its Olympic stadium to a Premier League football club, while Sochis used only for the ceremonies is now, and at great expense, being refitted as a football stadium for a handful of Games at the 2018 World Cup, in a city with no football team of significance.

On the other hand Rio has not been able to avoid the other pathologies of stadium and infrastructure construction: large scale corrupt practices and forced removals. Again, historical comparisons are kind. Sochi was bedevilled by allegations of corruption and as for forced removals, while Rios record is hardly exemplary, it is dwarfed by the scale and authoritarian timbre of the population motions required by the rebuilding of Seoul and Beijing, both involving up to a million people.

However, when it comes to using the Olympics as a cover for solely unrelated but fabulously profitable real estate development Rio is a contender. Considered in all promotional literature to be a central Olympic project, the Porto Marvilha redevelopment of the citys historic dock district is only home to the media village and a small technical-operations centre. Not much, but enough for the programme to acquire the urgency of Olympic projects and a gigantic publicprivate partnership, in which the city government handed over the planning and governance of the citys largest ever growth to a consortium of three private construction companies.

Most Olympic villages have fallen victim to a short burst of objection before the Game. In 1908, the World reported that the arrangements which have been provided for the American Olympic team here in London are unsatisfactory. The abrasive head of the American delegation, James Sullivan, appalled by the dismal accommodation available in London, moved the entire team to Brighton. A century later in Sochi, American and European journalists joyfully satirized the facilities on social media; water, Wi-Fi and heating were often absent, and a German photographer reported arriving to find workers and stray dogs wandering through his hotel suite. In a very similar vein reports have been arising as a result of Rio of blocked toilets, flooded flats and unfinished accommodation the Australian team refusing point blank to move in.

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Australias Olympic squad have refused to move into the athletes village. Photograph: Matthew Stockman/ Getty Images

Irksome as this must be to the visitors, the real tragedy of Rios Olympic village has yet to unfold. Situated like the main Olympic complex in the upmarket region of Barra Tijuca, the village is actually a high-end gated community in waiting. Again this is not unprecedented. Rome and Mexico Citys villages were handed out to already privileged civil servants. Both Vancouvers and Londons villages, schemed as mixed residential zones, insured their public and social housing component squeezed out by the logic of property markets. Rio, which never bothered with such fig foliages, has taken the process a stage further by allowing the construction of an even more profitable residential complex around the new Olympic golf course.

The construction programme for the 1936 Berlin Games was, at the time, imagined as a stepping stone to the wholesale transformation of the city into Germania capital of the thousand-year Reich. We can be grateful that this kind of legacy planning is no longer in vogue, though its contemporary kind is hardly cheering. Legacy promises are belated attempts to counterbalance the enormous costs of staging the Game with something tangible and long-term for the city and the citizens that have hosted it. London 2012, which made a lot more noise about this than most, has not come close to delivering on the claims that preceded them. Sydneys tourism has not leapt by leaps and bounds. The idea of Beijing as a green city was always risible. Vancouver, strangulated by gentrification and rising rents, is less liveable. Londoners exercise less since the Games.

Rio at least is not devoting us the bother of having to wait a few years before we know whether its legacies have been successful or not, because so many of the most socially useful Olympic investments promised in the bid volume have already been abandoned. While the rapid bus transit system and perhaps the metro are permanent legacies, both are primarily designed to ferry rich person between rich regions. The vast majority of the citys population in the Zona Norte, desperate for better transport to relieve their grindingly long journeys to work, will barely benefit at all. Similarly, as the toxic state of Guanabara Bay host to sailing makes clear, the citys plan to renovate its sewage systems, especially in the poor regions, has been completed abandoned.

Security has been a fraught issue for every Olympic Games since the Munich massacre of 1972, underlined by the tube bombing of Atlantas Centennial Park in 1996. While Palestinians and US libertarians might be on the organisers radar, they do not explain the fact that Rio looks set to expend somewhere around$ 2bn on security, deploying 85,000 personnel an Olympic record, more even than the hyper-militarised Sochi with its vaunted Ring of Steel and all for just 17 days of urban peace.

The possibility of a major terrorist attack has been ever present since 2001, and is part of the reason that security costs for all Games have escalated so sharply. The recent apprehend of what appears a rather amateurish jihadi cell in Brazil suggests the organisers continue to take it seriously but for Rio, unlike any recent summer Games, the organisers must also face a small but organised anti-Olympic motion and the disquiet of their own poor.

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Rio will spend virtually$ 2bn on security for the Olympic Games. Photograph: Christophe Simon/ AFP/ Getty Images

Anarchic and provocative anti-Olympic activists present at Sydney 2000 were absent from Athens, Beijing and Sochi drowned by cynicism in the former, corralled by anxiety of the Chinese and Russian states in the latter. London demonstrated equally quiescent. Where there was protest, the politics and meanings of the Games were mainly contested in the international media and on the internet, rather than in the host city itself. Merely the 2010 Winter Game in Vancouver have mobilised a serious visible anti-Olympic presence; native American actions against Olympic infrastructure on sacred lands, an alternative protest village downtown and anti-capitalist march on the central business district.

In a sense Rio has already fought this battle. For almost a decade a small network of Brazilian activists the Comit Popular Rio Copa e Olimpadas has taken to the streets. Their cause was turbocharged in 2013 when huge spontaneous public protest broke out during the Confederations Cup and the corruption and costliness of Brazils sporting mega-events was a key issue for the demonstrators. A massive security operating and the militarisation of sports venues and transport interchanges ensured that they were a very marginal presence at the 2014 World Cup. The same will be true of the Games, with the same deadening consequences for public debate and space.

Much more worrying for the authorities concerned will be the mood of the citys favelas. Perhaps the most important element of Olympic preparations and one for which “were not receiving” historical precedent has been the pacification programme, invented in 2008 and designed to replace the principles of the rule of narcotic lords in the favelas with the rule of law and a modicum of social service. The outcomes have been poor, with limited and often inappropriate investments, widespread human rights abuses by the police and the steady return of street conflict and ailment. Surely the crime rate in Rio has been rising; the widely reported muggings and hold-ups of foreign camera crew, Olympian and Paralympians, an indicator of what many of Rio citizens, above all its poorest and most vulnerable, have to deal with all the time.

If all else fails, Olympic cities have hidden their poor and their destitute. In 1964 the Tokyo authorities told the local gangster class the Yakuza whose unmistakable burly street presence was an embarrassment to the organisers, to take a holiday out of town. The beggars and vagrants who constructed their homes in Ueno Park were swept aside. Stray cats and dogs, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were systematically exterminated. In 1968 Mexico City told its poor to paint their shanties in blocks of psychedelic colourings, while the ominously named Orgcom organisers of the 1980 Moscow Games announced that they would cleanse Moscow of chronic alcoholics and drug addict, and for a fortnight they did.

Most thorough of all was Atlanta.

Soon after the city had won its bid, local soup kitchens started reporting regular and inexplicable drop-offs in client numbers, eventually realising that they always immediately preceded IOC visits to the city. Some homeless people were locked up, some were scared off, and some were put on the bus. A partnership between the police, city hall and an NGO called Project Homeward Bound furnished homeless Atlantans with one-way bus tickets to anywhere else in the country they could plausibly claim a bed or find family members. Redevelopment in downtown erased many of the citys homeless hostels.

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A scene taken from a partially demolished house in the Vila Autodromo slum in April, with house run continuing at the Olympic park where the velodrome and aquatics centre have been built in a different location to the main stadium. Photograph: Ricardo Moraes/ Reuters/ Reuters

Rio, whose levels of inequality, temporary housing and poverty surpass Atlantas by some way, has not had the luxury of such surgical strikes on the marginal. Operating under these conditions the city has long learnt to screen or ignore its poor. Favelas are rarely included on official maps and the use of Olympic signage on the citys motorways to obscure poor neighbourhoods especially on the road from the international airport is simply the latest version of this.

In the face of such multiple catastrophes and injustices, history seems to offer Rio wriggle room. It can claim that Athens was more last minute and produced more white elephant, Sochi was as least as corrupted and wasteful, Beijing was more repressive, Seouls displacements were more widespread and viscous and Atlantas social cleansing more thorough. However, Rio is devoting all of them a run for their fund and adding its unique injustices and shameful dissembling.

Does this make it the worst prepared Game ever? Probably. But to this Brazil has added a certain degree of political, fiscal and administrative chaos that is its own. South Korea was in turmoil a year before the Games, engulfed in a tectonic struggle against the ruling junta, but by the opening ceremony the street were at peace and a transition to democracy had been executed. Only the massive student protests of summertime 1968 and the appalling murder of activists before the Mexico City Games comes close to Brazils mayhem, and that was all silenced.

Rio, whatever its other sins, cannot be faulted in its determination to let it all hang out. Such inadvertent transparency, such a tangible display of the demolition of whatever remains of the myths of Olympic urbanism, and the IOCs political independence and moral probity, is a possibility Rios historic legacy. For whatever happens for the 17 days of the Games, however fabulous the spectacular, which it no doubt is likely to be, the disaster has already happened, it is of unprecedented proportions, and it cannot be hidden.

David Goldblatts The Games: A Global History of the Olympics is published by Macmillan( 20) Click here to buy it for 13

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