There is political capital to be had from the successful organisation of the Olympics – and the torch relay is particularly significant in this context.
As President Dilma Rousseff lit the Olympic Torch in Brasilia on May 3, a fire raged in Brazil. The embattled head of state is facing a serious threat of impeachment. The country’s head of state has now been suspended and faces an impeachment trial. The start of the Olympic Torch Relay is usually a ceremonial event but the unusual political situation in the country ensured that Rousseff could not ignore it when she welcomed the Flame. She was mindful of reminding her country’s citizens and the world of the possible ramifications for the Rio de Janeiro Games.
“I am certain that a country whose people know how to fight for their rights and to protect their democracy is a country where the Olympics will have great success in the coming months,” she was reported as saying by Reuters. The message was clear; political instability could boil over to the organisation of an event that was supposed to establish Brazil as an emerging world power.
When Rio was awarded the hosting rights for the Games in 2009, the country saw it as a sign of great things to come. The then President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva was enjoying immense popularity as he oversaw the second term of his tenure. The optimism in his voice is a far cry from the mood brought by a corruption scandal that has implicated politicians on both sides of the divide. His words upon winning the bid reflected the positivity.
“Today is the day that Brazil gained its international citizenship. Today is the day that we have overcome the last vestiges of prejudice against us. I think this is the day to celebrate because Brazil has left behind the level of second-class countries and entered the ranks of first-class countries. Today we earned respect. The world has finally recognized that this is Brazil’s time.”
But which Brazil’s time is it now? As the country battles a political crisis, who is it that stands to gain from the hosting of the Olympics? The Workers’ Party (PT), which assisted Rio’s successful bid but is likely to be out of power by the time the Games begin? Or is it the opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) whose politicians Eduardo Paes and Luiz Fernando Pezao are Rio’s Mayor and Governor, respectively?
The hosting of the games themselves is not under doubt. But the political wrangling has severely impacted the mood ahead of the Olympics. As Dave Zirin wrote for The Nation earlier this week, there’s muted hype around the Olympics in Rio with less than three months to go. When democracy itself is at stake in the country, people could be forgiven for taking their eyes off a sporting spectacle – even if it’s the Olympics. In this case, sport cannot be the opium of the people.
Yet, there is political capital to be had from the successful organisation of the Olympics. The torch relay is particularly significant in this context. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) views excellence, friendship and respect as integral components of Olympism. The Olympic Games stand for a world that brings people together in peaceful harmony. The values of the Olympic movement, however, would seem to hold little water in the current scenario.
The essentialist conception of Olympism is misguided too. Professor Kevin Wamsley at the Western University (Canada) was much closer to the truth when he wrote that the Olympic ideology is a, “metaphorical empty flask to be filled by the next political, economic, educational opportunist.”
The opportunism inherent within the Olympic movement can be seen in the origins of the Olympic Torch. To draw a mythical connection with the Ancient Olympic Games, the Torch is lit in Olympia (Greece) before travelling to the host country. However, the flame did not make its first appearance until the 1936 Games in Berlin. The German dictator Adolf Hitler’s belief in the Greek lineage of the pure Aryan race led him to present a connection to the land of the modern Olympics when he oversaw the hosting of the Games. The propaganda at the Games was geared to establish the legitimacy of Hitler’s dictatorship and the Olympic Torch proved to be a convenient symbol.
Nazi propagandist and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl also appropriated the flame in her 1938 film Olympia, as she engaged in the promotion of Aryan sportspersons. Since, the torch has been a worthy object for advancing political interests. For example, Australia’s attempt to right the historical marginalisation of the Aboriginal community found an expression in Cathy Freeman lighting the torch at the 2000 Sydney Games Opening Ceremony.
But as the flame goes on a 94-day relay throughout Brazil, what is the message that it could possibly carry? In a country deeply divided politically, economically and socially, how do the Olympic values of friendship and respect survive? Although the Olympic movement emphasises peace and reconciliation, how does that become possible when a president stands on the brink of impeachment, the country is experiencing its worst economic downturn for decades and the rich engage in corrupt means to enlarge their wealth and influence?
Olympic values cannot provide the answer. In fact, they are part of the problem. The media-corporate nexus that drives the Olympic movement has also chosen to attack the Workers’ Party selectively for its part in the corruption scandal. As it has turned out, those trying to wrest power are not squeaky clean. Sample this: the current vice-president, Michel Temer, from the opposition PMDB is the elites’ choice for replacing Rousseff. But he could be the subject of an impeachment process too as he’s implicated in the Petrobras scandal. This is not about corruption. This is a coup.
The Olympics are implicated in this fight for power as Brazil wants to be seen as pro-business and market friendly to the global stakeholders. The media-corporate nexus sees this as in opportunity to push its agenda and the corruption scandal was there to be exploited. However there is a concerted effort to keep the Olympics ‘out of it’ while attempts are made to oust a legitimately elected government.
This can be particularly seen in the case of Marcelo Odebrecht, who was sentenced for 19 years in jail two months ago. Odebrecht’s eponymous construction company was responsible for the building of multiple 2014 World Cup and the Rio Games venues. But he was jailed for his involvement in the Petrobras scandal alone. To this day, his dealings in the Olympics construction business remain unscrutinised. The media itself has kept mum on the nature of the dealings.
This is not to claim that Odebrecht’s business activities for the Olympic venues definitely involved criminal actions. But it seems rather remarkable, as Zirin noted, that the construction magnate has escaped scrutiny over this. The special significance of the Olympics to Brazil has probably meant that any dealing involved with the Games is not worthy of investigation.
But as the elites seek to displace the elected government, they recognise an opportunity to celebrate the new dispensation when the Olympics begin. It will be an occasion to present a ‘new Brazil’. Whether the new Brazil will be true to the ethos of democracy is seemingly a minor concern. In the name of fighting corruption and promoting business interests, a whole set of other dangers are set to engulf Brazilians.
Surely, the IOC would like to ensure that its marquee event is not beholden to games of political trickery? However, it has maintained in public that these issues would not affect the Rio Games. In fact, it could be argued that the various corporate sponsors stand to gain from the elites seizing power in Brazil. The IOC has equated its objectives with those of its sponsors in the past. Therefore, it would benefit from the establishment of a government that prioritises business interests.
A Reuters report recently revealed that the government tourism department that is responsible for the overseas promotion of the Rio Games has seen three different heads in the last month or so. Of course, the directionless planning has ensured that the buzz around the Games has been relatively underwhelming. Furthermore, the flame relay has been going on for over a week but the media reaction to it remains surprisingly low-key.
This is remarkably different from the media coverage of the protests that took place ahead of the FIFA Confederations Cup when people took to the streets in order to protest against corruption and poor delivery of public services. The IOC would of course prefer to garner more positive interest. But a more serious issue is up for debate now and the Olympics are being deliberately distanced from it.
In this scenario, it is useful to question why the media and corporate industry continue to underplay the impact of the current crisis on the Olympics. Rousseff remained steadfastly clear on the need for political stability and democracy if the Games were to go ahead smoothly. But those on the other side of the political divide, while themselves battling allegations of corruption, are on the path to remove an elected government by underhand means just a few months before the biggest sporting spectacle in the world.
One fears the meaning the Olympics will be given, now that the coup has almost come to fruition. Till now, it has been seen as separate from the political sphere. It is meant to be a spectacle that brings Brazilians together in a celebration of their country’s values. But the likelier outcome, considering the current scenario, looks to be heading in an altogether different direction.
The Olympics will probably be held successfully and the current opposition will use it to justify its actions. It will not be a celebration of the Olympic Games and its values. Rather, it is likely to a celebration of a ‘new’ Brazil. A new Brazil where democracy will be much weaker than before. A new Brazil where excellence, friendship and respect might be hard to come by.
Note: This article was updated on May 13 to include the latest political developments in Brazil.
Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.