Olympics In A Time Of Crisis

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 Summer Games, seven years ago, president Lula said that the world had recognized the social transformations taking place in Brazil, such as poverty reduction and its new international status as a rising power. The situation is very different now, with Lula charged of corruption and obstruction of justice, his successor Dilma Rousseff facing an impeachment trial and the country in the middle of a political crisis and the worst economic recession in 25 years. The impacts on the Olympics have been strong, and the games are happening among protests, unrest and bitter debates.

The opening ceremony was a beautiful overview of Brazilian history and culture - a tour de force conducted by movie director Fernando Meirelles ("City of God", "The Constant Gardener") with just 10% of the budget of the same initiative in the 2012 London Olympics. However, the consequences of the political turmoil were clear. Just 18 chiefs of government and state attended the event - well below the 45 expected by the authorities, not to mention the 95 that took part in the British games. Interim president Michel Temer changed the protocol and did not have his name announced, for fear of the reactions of the audience. It did not work: he was heavily booed in spite of speaking just for a few seconds. Lula and Rousseff were not present.

Support for the Olympics fell among Brazilians, following the onset of the political and economic crisis. Two thirds of the population believe that the games will generate negative results to the country. Many are questioning the huge expenses with stadiums and other sport infrastructure in a time when the government of Rio de Janeiro does not have enough money even to pay the salaries of police officers, teachers and doctors. These problems raise concerns about security in the city, in terms of both ordinary crimes and the risk of terrorist attacks. Others complain about the social impacts, such as the evictions of tens of thousands poor residents of slums, under the pretext that these measures were necessary for the preparations of the games.

The focus of most of the anger in on interim president Temer. Although a majority of Brazilians support the impeachment of Rousseff (the final vote will probably take place by the end of August, just after the Olympics), he is almost as unpopular as her. A veteran Congressman more skilled in backstage deals than in charismatic leadership, he formed an all-white male cabinet and announced austerity measures for the population - such as budget cuts in health and education - but a huge pay rise for the upper echelons of the civil service. "Out with Temer" became a common slogan in anti-Olympic demonstrations, as well as in banners, placards and even tattoos.

However, the police is expelling from the sport venues protesters against Temer, claiming to follow the controversial article 50 of the IOC Charter and the Brazilian Olympic law. There is a strong debate in Brazil about these decisions, since its Constitution ensures freedom of expression. Respected scholars, such as former Supreme Court chief justice Ayres Britto, said this is political repression, a violation of civil rights.

The attempt to curb the demonstrations may be not only because of the international visibility of the Olympics, but also because Temer is being accused of corruption by Marcelo Odebrecht. He is the CEO of Odebrecht, the biggest Brazilian building company, and is in jail since June 2015. Arrested in the big anti-corruption investigation, Operation Car Wash, he is negotiating a plea bargain with the authorities, and the press is reporting that the businessman will implicate Rousseff, Temer and many other important politicians. The interim foreign minister, José Serra, as also accused of corruption by executives of the same company.

What are the lessons of the Brazilian crisis for the Olympic movement? For the IOC, they are pretty clear: never again host the games in a country torn apart by recession and political unrest. In a meeting in Rio de Janeiro, the international sports authorities are discussing means to reduce the huge costs of the events - for example, use more of the existing infrastructure and not go on a spending spree of stadium and other buildings. These have been constant complaints about the games. The IOC is also facing some hard truths: is much easier to deal with controversial issues when the hosts are authoritarian governments (China, Russia) for in a democracy the politicians are accountable to their people, who may have different ideas about mega events.

That can be the greatest Brazilian gift to the Olympic movement: stimulate a global democratic conversation on the social costs and impacts of the current model of the games.