Leaning over the concrete walls on his friend's rooftop, William de Oliveira excitedly points out the view. On all sides, stretching down the hill, filling the valley, are thousands of multicolored homes clinging to the mountainside covering every inch of available space.

Each flat roof is dotted with thousands of rain barrels, satellite dishes or tarps.

At the bottom of the hill, nearly blocked by its surrounding skyscrapers is Sao Conrado, yet another beach along Rio de Janeiro's seemingly endless shoreline. And at the foot of those skyscrapers is passarela, a catwalk over the boulevard that separates the affluent neighborhoods near the beach with his side - the poor side - where his tightly packed neighborhood of Rocinha begins its unregulated sprawl up the hillside. The higher it extends, the poorer the conditions.

A lifetime, resident of Rocinha, de Oliveira has served many roles in the community, a DJ, a leader, an activist, a tour guide, a father, a reporter. But on this day, his role is spokesman, as he works to me the many aspects of this favela, his home.

"Depending where you walk in Rocinha you will see people living in inhuman conditions where their daily life is terrible. It's embarrassing. Maybe that person goes to sleep and wakes up without breakfast in their stomach. They're worthy of pity," he says. "On the other side, you see another person that wakes up and takes a dip in the pool because they have a pool in their house."


De Oliveira is one of thousands living in Rocinha, Rio's largest favela and one of the few near the elegant neighborhoods in the South Zone. Like in most of Brazil, life in Rocinha both confirms and contradicts the stereotypes that accompany its role as of one of an estimated 1,000 favelas, a role that's becoming more complicated as the Olympics approach.

Defining favelas

In contrast to the towering skyscrapers in the affluent areas of the cities, the dominant image of a Brazilian favela is a mismatched layering of short, square makeshift structures that seem in constant battle with each other to hold onto their space.

In its simplest terms, a favela is an urban slum in Brazil. But this definition glosses over the unique history and culture that accompanies these communities.

The name favela was coined in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After the Canudos War in Bahia, in Northeastern Brazil, veteran soldiers marched to Rio de Janeiro to receive their payment. While they awaited their recompense, the soldiers settled on a hillside and named the hill "Morro da Favela" after a tree that grew in where they won their final battle.

The soldiers were never paid and never left.

As the 20th century continued, rural Brazilians began migrate to cities like Rio de Janeiro, often settling in their own versions of the Morro da Favela. By the 1940s, descriptions of favelas as backwards, unsanitary and over-sexualized were already appearing in the news and in essays by doctors, social workers and architects who visited the communities.

This perception of favelas continued as more migrants entered Rio and the favela populations stacked up.

Now, favelas own the reputation of the most dangerous places in Brazil, as hubs for poverty, drug trafficking and gang activity. Sometimes, they are considered scars and blots on the city to be covered up in front of the international eye, especially as the Rio, along with its favelas emerge in the global spotlight.

Eli Geovane, a Rio native and activist journalist, says the poor public perception of the neighborhoods defines the relationship between Rio and its favelas at the most basic level. Geovane works with Viva Favela, a non-profit advocacy news website focused on bringing media attention to favelas and helping those that live there tell their stories. The biggest wall separating the favelas and the rest of Rio, he said, is the way they are perceived and feared.

"The relationship is at its narrowest, maybe with the government, with the state and perhaps the very people who have this discrimination, this xenophobia of the favelas," he said.

Hiding favelas

Understanding the uneasiness surrounding favelas even among Brazilians, it isn't hard to understand why Rio would do its best to hide or cover up favelas from tourist eyes before the Olympics bring millions to the city. For Rio, hiding favelas means pacification and evictions.

The outcomes of these police actions, as well as the opinions surrounding them, are mixed. While murder rates in the favelas have fallen dramatically, critics argue that these so-called pacification attempts are merely pushing criminal activities to other areas, rather than eliminating them.

From 2008 through 2012, for instance, the number of homicides declined by nearly 30 percent, according to the Institute of Public Security, an agency of the state of Rio de Janeiro. But by 2012 the number of kidnappings in the state nearly doubled since the previous year.

Other concerns involve increased police violence. In 2013, at least 2,212 people were killed by police in Brazil, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, a non-governmental organization. The actual number is probably higher because many states do not report police killings.

To compare, in the United States, where public scrutiny of police killings has lately spiked after a series of high-profile incidents and protests, 461 people were killed at the hands of police in 2013, according to the FBI. That's not even a quarter of the recorded deaths in Brazil.

Although the police presence is intended to clean up favelas, it also can heighten tension over fears of stray bullets from shootouts between gangs and police.

For residents in favelas close to Olympic venues, a question is how much longer they can keep their homes. In Vila Autodromo, a favela on the edge of the Olympic Park, a few holdouts are fighting to stay. About 90 percent have moved out after offers of financial compensation. A few dozen are adamant in their refusal to leave.

For them, staying means living with unreliable access to water and electricity as well as an occasional run-in with police. But they also serve as symbols of the fight against using the Olympics to create a modern Rio designed to exalt the wealthy.

When favelas aren't being pacified or removed in preparation for the Games, they are being ignored. The scenes used to promote the Games highlight the landmarks of the South Zone Sugarloaf Mountain and the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema are far from the favelas concentrated over the hills in the North Zone.

"A lot of people don't live in the South Zone," said Geovane. "The southern part has little of what the favela today can offer."

Understanding Brazil

The dense and clustered favelas may seem like a foreign concept to U.S. audiences, but the issue of stark socioeconomic inequality ought to be more familiar, says Jerry Davila, a professor and director of the Lemann Institute for Brazilian Studies at the University of Illinois. That said, inequality in Brazil is much more severe.

"The gap between the poorest wage earners and the wealthiest wage earners is one of the largest in the world," he said, "and the possibility of moving between those lower and higher socioeconomic strata is also much more restricted."

Based on the most popular inequality index, the Gini coefficient, Brazil ranks 16 in the world in income inequality, with a value of 51.9 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. The coefficient is based on hypothetical range from 0 to 100, with a score of 0 meaning that everyone earns the same, and 100 signaling that a single person earns all of a country's income.

Brazil's score has decreased since peaking at 63 percent in the late 1980s. Still, Brazil remains the most unequal of the world's 20 largest economies. It retains a significantly higher Gini coefficient than the figure for the United States (45 percent), which is dealing with its own wealth gap.

Brazil's socioeconomic inequality dates back to its days as a Portuguese colony. When the country gained independence in 1822, few people owned land, slaves made up the majority of the labor force and education was a luxury. The structural inequalities translated into wealth and opportunity gaps that, Davila says, persist today.

"Brazil's a country that really has [had] at its independence a tremendous division between [the few] people who concentrate political economic power and the overwhelming majority of the population," he said. "And that's been a line that hasn't been particularly permeable."

This contrast is exacerbated by history of migration that brought the wealthy and the poor within such close proximity.

When major cities like Rio de Janeiro began, most of the poor were pushed to the peripheries. The cities expanded quickly in growth years, notably from the 1950s through the 1970s, as the rural poor migrated to these cities for work. They took up residence wherever they could, often creating and expanding favelas closer to downtown. The areas of poverty became intermixed with middle-class and even wealthy neighborhoods.

Mixing in the Olympics

Since October 2009, the IOC, the country of Brazil and the world has known that Rio de Janeiro will play host to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Winning that honor was a process in and of itself.

Ten years before the Games were set to take place, the bidding process began for Rio de Janeiro as the Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB) met in July of 2006 to discuss the possibility of nominating a city to host the 2016 Games. The last time the COB had nominated a city was in 1993. The committee picked Brasilia to bid for the 2000 Summer Games. But the city ultimately withdrew after an IOC inspection group rated the city's facilities as substandard.

Fourteen years later, on Sept. 7, 2007, the COB made its next attempt by submitting Rio de Janeiro's bid to host the 2016 Games. Rio joined seven other applicant cities, and the bidding process began.


The stage was set for a massive planning task and a difficult couple of years as Brazil prepared to host two consecutive world mega-events, a task that had never been attempted by a developed nation, let alone one still struggling to grow its economy.

Four years into preparations and just over two years out from the Games, in an interview with the Associated Press, IOC Vice President John Coates described Rio's preparations bluntly as "the worst I have ever experienced." 

This was in April 2014, just two months before Brazil would play host to another mega-event: the World Cup.

Not only were the IOC and the world watching Brazil lag behind in its Olympic plans and promises, but they were also watching as the promises of new hotels, stadiums and other forms of World Cup infrastructure failed to reach fruition in a timely manner or in some cases at all. 

According to Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, the case of Brazil is not unique. In fact, it fits the pattern now for taking on the responsibility of hosting mega-events like the World Cup and the Olympics.

"It means that they're on the world stage and they have to do it right, and in order to do it right they have to spend a lot of money," Zimbalist said. "These days it seems to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 to $50 billion if you're a developed country - and considerably more than that if you're a less developed country."

Brazil, like the country that hosted the World Cup before it, South Africa, and the country hosting the event next, Russia, is a member of the BRICS group of nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). They are associated due to their character as emerging national economies.

It's not an accident that four out of five of these countries staged mega-events in the past 10 years, and three are scheduled to play host again in the next 10 years. The idea is that elevating these countries on the world stage as the hosts of mega-events will hasten their rise and accelerate nation-building. The logic behind IOC selections works like this: As the nations strengthen their infrastructures, unify their people in events evoking national pride and increase their prominence on the global stage, their economies will benefit as well.

According to Zimbalist, this sort of plan for the 2014 World Cup was never going to work in Brazil.

"That was fantasy," he said.

The price of the World Cup proved to be steep. Brazil spent close to $20 billion - about three times the $6 billion South Africa spent for the previous World Cup. Zimbalist estimates Brazil made about $500 million in tourist spending. With that price tag, and for those benefits, he said, the idea that an international soccer tournament could push Brazil from "emerging" to "emerged" can seem unbelievable.

"Just because soccer is a big sport in Brazil doesn't mean hosting the World Cup is going to be positive for the country, especially when you have to spend sums of money that they were called upon to spend," said Zimbalist.

The more the Brazilian people learned about the spending and other costs of hosting the tournament, the more it became clear that not even Brazil's famous love for soccer and parties would unify its people behind the cause of a Brazilian World Cup and Olympics.

When the World Cup began, the world's attention turned toward soccer. But when the final goal was scored, it wasn't the historically dramatic defeat the Brazilian soccer team suffered in the semi-finals that left behind a disillusioned Brazil.

It was more than that, more than disenchanted fans. After the protests, the spending, the political upheaval, the hope, the humiliating defeat, the World Cup left Brazil with big, billion-dollar stadiums, some with no teams to fill them. It also left the country with questions about the unfinished projects for an Olympic Games just two years away.

Once the torch is lit

Filthy water, forced evictions, slow construction projects and now the Zika virus are common themes popping up in most media coverage of the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The most common question the world seems to be asking: "Is Rio Ready?"

It's a complicated question. For the people living in the next Olympic host city, the more knowing question is "What part of Rio will be ready?" In this city of divisions, most are confident that the Olympics will happen. Whether the Games meet the IOC's expectations for a global spectacle is another matter.

Debora Pio, an editor for Viva Favela, said she's certain the spotlight the Games will cast on Rio this summer will shed more light on the city's attributes rather than its flaws.

"I think the image that will go out to the outside world is that everything is beautiful, everything is working," she said. "It's going to be fine."

She isn't trying to sound optimistic. For a human rights leader like Pio, the concern is whether the media will move beyond the glamorous scenes and promotional images. She focuses less on how Rio will perform as host and more on how the world's media will perform as they converge on the city.

Pio does believe the one positive effect of the Olympics will be the increased media attention She says she expects most reports and commentary will be about the sports or the polluted bay or the parties or the virus. But if even a fraction of the reporting brings up human rights, she says, those issues will gain more pubic attention than they normally receive.

"We'll have a lot of media here," she said. "I think it will create a space for people to speak well of problems to the world outside Brazil. We will be able to discuss issues that we can't discuss usually because we have no one to listen."

As it is preparing for these Games, the state of Rio is much as Sports Illustrated reporter Alexander Wolff describes: "The wide shots will be jaw dropping. But this is a city not quite ready for its close-up."

It's this view that Pio hopes to use to Viva Favela's advantage.

"By having a lot of people out here and much more attention in the city maybe we can get acquainted with more people, with more authorities to come out about our problems, about our issues," Pio said.

The Olympics seen through the eyes of the favelas

Getting and keeping that attention is on de Oliveira's mind as well as he makes his lengthy journey from Rocinha to his office in Gloria to work at his most recent job: a community correspondent for Viva Favela.

While not directly affected by the Olympics or in direct view of any venues, Rocinha, like other favelas is paradoxically being ignored and drawing in attention because of the upcoming Games.

The favelas feel ignored by their city as development projects surrounding the Games tend to favor communities outside of the favela. A point made clear by the fact that the 10 mile commute up town that de Oliveira has to make every time he goes to work can take almost two hours. Despite the fact that Rio has invested heavily in developing public transportation before the Olympics, there is still no one form of public transportation that can take him from Rocinha to the Central Zone quickly. Instead he has to take a bus to the metro to work costing him about R$14.20 or about $3.55 for each round trip. It's a cost that can add up quickly making transportation yet another for residents seeking a way out of favela life and poverty.

Yet, while the Games are bringing in thousands of journalists and other media professionals to cover one side of Rio, they seem to be drawn to the unavoidable hillside communities that represent the other side. de Oliveira isn't letting this opportunity go to waste. He says he never passes up a chance to speak to international media.

"This led to several interviews here in Brazil, and I would say, 'Ah, you only want to hear because the outside world is listening to me,'" he said.

Besides the increased attention, though, de Oliveira doesn't see much of a benefit to the Olympics.

"I think the Olympics, will leave a legacy," he said. "Now what we wanted more from this legacy was that favelas, the communities, they could be the priorities. The government's priority would be the implementation of public services."

As the preparations continue and the Games draw closer, these hopeful ideals have shriveled into disappointment. Now all people like de Oliveira are hoping for is that the new and expensive stadiums won't go to waste like the other modern ruins from recent Brazilian mega events.

"My concern with the Olympics, as was with the World Cup, is what will happen with the venues. Because the venues of the [Pan American Games] in 2007, none of them will be used for the Olympics. Now many are broken down. It is waste of public money."

It's a waste that's difficult to comprehend in favelas like Rocinha where the innovation of spaces is limited only by resources, not the desire to use them.

For de Oliveira, the relationship between him, Rocinha and Brazil remains complicated. While he's glad his home is getting more attention from both international and local media, he says there needs to be a greater effort to understand these favelas instead of simply taking a tour or just remembering to look up at them from the bottom of the hill.

"The favela is exciting but it's one thing to visit. It's another thing to live"