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Saturday, March 28, 2015
- With three years to go to the 2016 Olympic Games, hundreds of athletes in the Brazilian city that will host the games were evicted from the only public track field, and have had nowhere to train for the past six months.
The mega-construction projects underway to provide Rio de Janeiro with the infrastructure needed to host the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games have even affected athletes who aspire to compete in 2016.
“They decided to demolish the only public athletics stadium in the state of Rio de Janeiro. And the sports community was not even given advance notice,” the president of the state athletics federation, Carlos Alberto Lancetta, told IPS.
The stadium he was referring to, the Célio de Barros arena, was built in the 1970s as part of the Maracaná sports complex, which was inaugurated for the 1950 world football championship.
The iconic Maracaná stadium, a symbol of Rio, is undergoing a privatisation process, and its administration will be granted in concession to a consortium of private companies for 35 years.
The Célio de Barros athletics arena, covering 25,000 square metres, had a capacity for 9,000 spectators and a track that was upgraded for the 2007 Pan American Games.
The 800 athletes and students who worked out every day at the complex now have nowhere to train, because the concession involves the demolition of the track, the Olympic swimming pool and even a public school that operates within the complex.
Several athletes with Olympic aspirations had to abandon the complex to train in public parks and military installations, Lancetta complained.
“The Olympic city is losing its athletes. The situation is chaotic; Brazil’s track and field discipline is dying,” he said.
Lancetta, who has been in the field of athletics since 1962, is a former coach who now presides over the Rio de Janeiro federation. He says the discipline has never faced such bad conditions in Brazil as it does today.
Of the 600 athletes who used to train in the stadium, 150 were high performance and several competed in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, he said.
The consortium that won the concession plans to build a new athletics arena and Olympic swimming pool. Meanwhile, the athletes were transferred to the João Havelange Olympic Stadium, popularly known as Engenhão, which opened in 2007 and was leased for 20 years to the Botafogo football club.
But in March, the authorities temporarily shut down Engenhão because of structural flaws in the roof.
The improvised solution found for the athletes was to send them to train in public parks and military installations.
Lancetta said the Célio de Barros stadium should not have been closed down until a new Olympic arena and pool had been built.
But they are not set to be completed until a month ahead of the Olympic Games, and 30 months after the bidding opens in August.
This is “genocide against Olympic sports, and we can’t do anything to stop it. The Olympic Games aren’t doing Brazil’s athletes any favours,” said Lancetta.
Jan. 9 was a day that many track and field athletes and coaches will never forget, because when they showed up at the Maracaná complex, they found that the doors were closed.
Former athlete and coach Edneida Freire was not even able to get inside to collect the materials she uses in the activities she carries out with children, adolescents and the disabled, partly with the aim of discovering new talent.
“They evicted us,” Freire told IPS. “They didn’t even give us any notice; we just got here one day and the gate was closed.”
She feels she is in mourning because many of her students can no longer attend the classes she now gives in public squares, because of the lack of safety.
“Many of them showed promise,” she said. “The great majority were boys and girls from the favelas (shantytowns), and some had problems with the law, and they were practicing sports as a socio-educational activity. All of that is at risk today.”
But Freire still hopes to return someday to Célio de Barros, after the new complex is built. “We couldn’t be any worse off than we are now; we have nowhere to train and compete,” she said.
The “people’s World Cup and Olympics committee”, which groups some 50 social movements, NGOs and trade unions, as well as academics, believes there is still time to turn the situation around, at least partly.
“They’re going to build a parking lot and shopping centre there. They want to boost property values in the area. They announced that they would build another building, but they won’t. It’s all just empty promises,” Committee member Marcelo Edmundo told IPS.
Top school to be closed
The 350 students at a public school that has functioned in the Maracaná complex for nearly 50 years are also facing imminent eviction.
The Friedenreich municipal school – named after football player Arthur Friedenreich (1892-1969) – is ranked the fourth best public school in the state.
It is not clear where the students and teachers are to go. They have to be off the school premises by year-end.
“We will go when the company granted the concession builds us a new school. They want to drag us to another school,” said Carlos Ehlers, a representative of the school’s committee of parents, students and alumni.
Ehlers said one of the biggest problems is that the school has a classroom for students with disabilities.
There is a lack of dialogue with the construction company, he said. “The concessionaire has already decided that we have to go. They said there was no chance of us staying here. But today, I think we have a 50 percent probability of avoiding eviction.”
The conditions of the concession, presented in November 2012, stated that the company that won the bid was to invest 210 million dollars in the complex by 2016, including the demolition and reconstruction of the pool, the Célio de Barros track and gymnasium, and the school.
The bidding process, which was won by a consortium made up of the Brazilian companies IMX, Odebrecht and AEG Administração de Estádios, was challenged in court.
The prosecutor’s office argued that there were irregularities in the plans for the administration of the complex, and questioned the need to demolish the existing installations.