To Understand Olympics Protests, Look to the Past

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When Brazilian protestors extinguished the Olympic flame last week, they provided another reminder that the Rio de Janeiro games will take place in a country wracked by crisis: the problems of a host city on the verge of bankruptcy, ongoing impeachment proceedings against president Dilma Rousseff, and the Zika virus emergency have been exacerbated by protests by millions who have taken to the streets of Rio and other major cities to target government corruption and ingrained social inequalities worsened by a brutal recession.

Critics of the Brazilian status quo know that because the world is watching authorities feel compelled to pay attention to their concerns. To understand the approach adopted by protest groups like Olimpíadas Para Quem? (Whose Olympics are these?) we must also turn to Brazil’s history. For generations, politicians and other leaders have used sports—especially soccer—to articulate their ideas about the nation and to advance nation building programs.

The founders of the Brazilian republic in 1889 attempted to modernize the country along European lines, and their cultural partners saw the athleticism, rules, and self-sacrifice required by team sports as a useful means of teaching Brazilians how to be productive workers, good citizens, and faithful soldiers. Mid-century populists advertised the success of white and black Brazilian soccer players as proof of the country’s racial democracy and annexed the game to their program of nationalism and development. The military dictatorship which ruled the country from 1964 to 1985 exploited the successes of Pelé and the country’s Golden Generation to gain political support, but it also attempted to transform Brazilian sports into a more disciplined spectacle; dribbling, according to the army officer who served as coach of the national team, was “a waste of time and proof of our weakness.” It was thus no surprise that the leaders who helped restore democracy made their case in part by championing a return to the “beautiful game” of joy and of creativity, against a regime that seemed to value only order and control.

When FIFA awarded Brazil the right to host the 2014 World Cup in 2007, and, two years later, the IOC announced that the 2016 Olympics would take place in Rio de Janeiro, leaders depicted the events as proof of the world’s acceptance of their vision of the nation: relevant, powerful, one of the handful of countries that would lead the world in the twenty-first century.

Protestors, however, have appropriated the lexicon of sports to articulate their own view of the nation, one they say has been revealed by the World Cup and Olympics. The Brazil they describe is not one of joy and equality, as advertising campaigns would have it, but one of exclusion, of inequality, and of corruption. They point out that FIFA and the IOC and their business partners seem to have more power and influence than average Brazilian citizens, who have been priced out of the events they are hosting. Some promised infrastructure improvements have failed to materialize, while others have seen cost overruns, industrial accidents, and thousands displaced to make way for venues which threaten to become white elephants. Evidence of corruption in the awarding of contracts has come to light. And measures designed to guarantee security for the events have resulted in serious rights abuses.

Surprising many, protestors have even argued that Brazil should not have hosted the events. Motivated by anger at how the World Cup and Olympics have been managed and convinced that the events show that the country requires far-reaching change, they have begun to say what once seemed unthinkable: that sports are too important in Brazil, that Brazil should build hospitals and schools, not stadiums, that doctors and teachers are more important than soccer players.

For more than a century, sports in Brazil have been more than a national pastime or even a national passion. Brazilians have used them as a way to understand their country and politicians and intellectuals have used them to imagine Brazil as they would like it to be. Brazilians continue to use sports in this way in 2016. What’s new is that increasing numbers of Brazilians are increasingly vocal in rejecting the notion that their leaders should control the story of what it means to be Brazilian. They have laid claim to the story of Brazilian sports, and therefore to Brazil itself.

Gregg Bocketti is the author of The Invention of the Beautiful Game: Football and the Making of Modern Brazil (University Press of Florida, 2016).

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