Why Brazilians' Skepticism Of The Olympics Was Good News

Students protest against the money spent on the Rio 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016. Demonstra
Students protest against the money spent on the Rio 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016. Demonstrators are demanding answers about what will be the legacy the Rio 2016 summer games for the poor, security and education. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

On Friday, August 5th in the afternoon I heard a friend say she'd watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. It was a reminder of a fact I had unconsciously tried to forget: We were about to host one of the largest sporting events in history, in the midst of the worst recession our country has ever witnessed. While the early days of the Games generated some excitement, nobody could deny that skepticism and wariness vis-a-vis the event prevailed in Brazilian society until the end. The political and economic crisis eroded the dream that was still alive in 2009, when Rio de Janeiro was chosen, that Brazil was a country on the rise. And yet, while many lament the widespread pessimism in Brazil about the Olympics and their long-term consequences, it is often overlooked that there is something fundamentally positive and heartening about it.

To understand why, we need to go back to June 2013, when massive protests shook the country that unleashed intense political participation on both the left and the right. Irrespective of their ideological positions, citizens began to express their frustration with politics more openly -- something Brazil had not seen since the movement to impeach President Collor in the early 1990s. The demand for better public services, a more efficient fight against corruption, intolerance with nepotism and a rejection of the entire political class showed that Brazilian society was embracing a key trend of the 21st century democracy: the vote alone is no longer sufficient to effectively integrate citizens in political decision-making processes. The young are the key driver of this trend. Research we conducted in 2014, soon after the protests, showed that 61 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 32 would like to be politically active but 33 percent did not believe in the current way politics works and 45 percent would increase their interest if the political processes were trustworthy and transparent.

Today, the young are in the streets seeking to participate and influence political decision-making processes like never before. A great example are the protests of the secondary school students in São Paulo which forced Governor Geraldo Alckmim to cancel a controversial project to reduce spending on the public school system without consulting students and to start a parliamentary investigation into corruption related to school lunches. This is just one of many examples of why Brazilians would not be swayed by a month of Olympic festivities that drains the public coffers -- a strategy we call "Panem et Circensus" in Brazil. That is just not working anymore.

Since the World Cup and now with the Olympic Games, Brazilians have started to use these events to show the world that they are dissatisfied with national politics. Protests during the 2014 World Cup were still connected to the events in 2013, decrying bad public services and corruption. Spurred by these protests, in February 2016, Dilma Rousseff approved an anti-terror law on the pretext that the Olympic Games faced an acute terrorism threat. In fact, however, the new law allows the government to criminalize political protests.

When the Olympic Games are over, Brazil will be left with an anti-democratic legacy that limits Brazilians' rights to fully exercise their citizenship. Ironically, the law, ratified by Rousseff, benefits her political enemy and current President Temer. During the first days, spectators held up placards protesting against the government, or wrote protest slogans on their clothes, and were initially expelled from the stadium -- an example of how the new law can curtail freedom of speech, and be used for political repression. After a public outcry, a judge in Rio de Janeiro issued an injunction and ordered the organizers to immediately refrain from expelling "politicized spectators", saying that the law was being used wrongfully.

Brazilians' decision to articulate their political fears and dreams during these events, when the world is watching the country, shows that the world's fourth largest democracy is today is ever more politically engaged. Brazilian democracy is coming of age that would have been unimaginable for me at any time before 2013. Before, the national feeling of hosting big events was largely one-dimensional, usually of pride and the desire to be recognized as a "serious country", as President Lula said back in 2009.

Today, the general sentiment is far more subtle and sophisticated, allowing Brazilians to use such mega events for political purposes -- generating an embarrassment for the Olympic Committee, which operates far from democratically. When, pointing to political protests, officials called it "the most difficult Games in history", I realized we contributed to a much-needed debate about the future of the Olympics. Well done, Brazilians!

Skepticism about the Olympics is part of an arduous and often frustrating process towards more political engagement and an ever more vibrant democracy, requiring stakeholders to rethink the way to organize political life in Brazil. Considering the profound changes in Brazilian society and technological advances, democratic practices have to adapt to new realities in the 21st century, allowing for participation between citizens and government that goes beyond regular elections. In Brazil, as in all of Latin America, we are witnessing the emergence of a remarkable environment for political innovation born out of an ever more engaged civil society. South American democracies are young, but still facing multiple challenges, and its hyper connected citizens are forcing institutions to adapt to citizens' needs. Therefore, in my opinion, the pessimism about the Olympics and the protests that occurred during the event is an unambiguously positive sign. They are proof that Brazilian society is ever more politically mature, and that this maturity is here to stay.

Beatriz Pedreira is an political activist and researcher on political behavior. She's the co-founder of Update -- an organization that seeks to strengthen political innovation in Latin America.