Danger and the Rio Olympics

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Kristen Drybread.]

The 2016 Olympics in Rio are fast approaching. For the past two months, people I haven’t seen in years—and people I have never even met—have been emailing to ask if I can help them find an affordable and, above all, safe place to stay during the Games. Never mind that I haven’t been to Rio for four years. Never mind that “affordable” and “safe” are relative terms. The assumption is that, having spent several years conducting fieldwork in northeastern Brazilian prisons (most recently in 2014-2015), I’m a better guide to Rio than the Lonely Planet.

While I do know of an inexpensive pension house in Humaitá where an order of Catholic nuns hosts unaccompanied women who don’t mind a 10 p.m. curfew, I can’t provide much information about lodgings. What I can offer is a nuanced perspective on safety—one that is informed by the study of the historical relationships, public institutions, and cultural logics that have contributed to making Rio (and other Brazilian cities) seem so dangerous. But the people who have contacted me to find out if Rio is safe don’t seem to want that. They want me to reassure them that their (mostly) white skin and their easy access to American and European consular services will insulate them from the threats they’ve read about online and in the news. 

Olimpíadas Para Quem
Who are the Olympics for?

As the guest blogger at Savage Minds in the month leading up to the Rio Olympics, I will be thinking about relationships between privilege, ethnographic practice, and fear. Some of my thoughts have been inspired by the Decolonizing Anthropology series on this blog. Others have been spurred by recent media events, like the Stanford rape case. The rest of the thoughts I will be sharing come from either the intellectual and ethical puzzles I’ve been confronted with while conducting ethnographic research in Brazilian prisons, or they are my immediate response to all the people who have wanted me to tell them that, this August, they will be safe in Rio.
To the those people, I’ve pointed out that, statistically speaking, Olympic spectators have little to fear—especially if they stay inside the territory covered by their guidebooks. Just look at what happened during the 2014 World Cup: according to the Institute of Public Security, during the two calendar months in which Brazil hosted the soccer extravaganza (which was four weeks long), there were 237 homicides in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Three of these occurred in the beachfront areas most frequented by tourists. Of the 234 people murdered elsewhere in the city, 39 were killed in confrontations with the police. These figures suggest that despite concerns about tourist safety that have inundated international media coverage of Rio’s preparations for the 2016 Games, the people most likely to suffer violence during the 17 days of competition are poor black youths who live in the city’s favelas.
Yet, the dominant narrative about Olympic security is that the Brazilian police are struggling to contain the threats posed to foreign visitors by the city’s racially and economically marginalized masses. As media coverage of the dangers these favela residents threaten escalates, the police presence in their communities intensifies. The proliferation of uniformed police officers wielding powerful weapons to “contain” threatening favela residents fuels discourse about the dangers these marginalized cariocas (residents of Rio de Janeiro) represent, at the same time that it reassures foreign visitors and spectators that the violence Rio threatens is more spectacular than real.
Media accounts of the potential violence that awaits Olympic spectators are arguably part of what makes Rio such a compelling destination. Almost everyone who has wanted me to reassure them that, as long as they keep their iPhone in their pocket, they can safely stroll the sidewalks of Copacabana during the Games has also sought my opinion on the best favela tour.
Why would those eager to escape violence in Rio’s Olympic Village also want to flock to the communities where most of the violence that will take place this coming August is likely to occur? Because, as Erika Robb Larkins (2015) has perceptively pointed out, for foreign tourists, favela violence is at once a threat to be feared and an experience to be consumed.
What are the Olympics for?
The Olympics are for the wealthy to watch and politicians to profit.

Favela tourism is a business that, in general, generates revenue for entrepreneurs who live outside of favelas at the expense of the men, women, and children who call the favela home. But tour operators do not merely profit from the misery of the communities they put on display.  They also perpetuate violence against residents by romanticizing—and normalizing—the physical and structural forms of violence that favela residents endure. In paying to physically experience the dangerous favela landscape, tourists perpetuate both forms of violence against residents.
That tourists might contribute to, rather than only suffer from, the violence that surrounds Rio’s Olympics has not occurred to any of the people who have contacted me for help in planning their trips. While I haven’t been able to give these Olympic goers much practical advice, I hope that I’ve encouraged them to think about the larger structures of commodification, inequality, and violence that will shape their experience in Rio. Whether or not they decide to take a favela tour, at least they will have considered some of the ways that tourists might end up exacerbating the violence they seek to shield themselves from.


Caldeira, Teresa Pires. City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Larkins, Erika Mary Robb. The Spectacular Favela: Violence in Modern Brazil.Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.

Penglase, R. Ben. Living with Insecurity in a Brazilian Favela: Urban Violence and Daily Life. New Brunswick, NJ:Rutgers University Press, 2014.


I am a cultural anthropologist and professional fact-checker. My research examines the causes and the consequences of youth violence in Brazil. Specifically, work is concerned with understanding how institutions and policies that have been created to curb youth violence can ramp-up its practice.