Back in 2009, when Rio bidders floated their plans to the International Olympic Committee, they boasted, “Freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, is highly valued in Brazilian society and is protected by a range of laws” as well as the Brazilian Constitution. As the 2016 Summer Olympics approach, political activists in Rio de Janeiro are revving up to exercise their democratic freedoms on a range of issues. Protests have been organized across Brazil in the days leading up to the opening ceremony, which will take place on Friday.
Olympic luminaries have long claimed that the Games should be a space devoid of politics, let alone protest. The French aristocrat who founded the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, once fretted, “Today, politics is making its way into the heart of every issue. How can we expect athletics, the culture of the muscles, and Olympism itself to be immune?” He went on to contend that “the ravages that this phenomenon can cause” did not besmirch the “soul” of Olympism, which “remains as steadfast as the principles on which the institution is based” and sealed off from fractious politics. Ironically, the Baron stated this just ahead of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin—also known as the “Nazi Games”—which were buzzing with political import.
Decades later, IOC President Avery Brundage riffed from Coubertin’s script, suggesting, “The Olympic Movement appears as a ray of sunshine through clouds of racial animosity, religious bigotry, and political chicanery.” Brundage, the Chicago business tycoon who commanded (some would say commandeered) the Games from 1952 to 1972, often championed, “the necessity of preventing the Olympic Movement from being used as a tool or weapon for other causes.” Olympic officials have even enshrined a principle in their Charter that states, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
But outlawing activism has proved moot. And the claim that politics and the Olympics don’t mix has shown itself to be wishful compartmentalization. As sociologist Ben Carrington has noted, sport is “a contested terrain wherein competing ideologies of domination and resistance can be traced.” The Olympics are one such “contested terrain” where activists can shimmy beneath the global media spotlight to draw attention to important political issues.
Turns out, the Olympic Games have a long history of jumpstarting political dissent. Ahead of the 1908 Olympics in London, feminist activists like Emmeline Pankhurst used the Games as a platform for suffrage, vowing to interrupt the Olympics if organizers refused to allow women to participate. They used guerrilla tactics like shoveling up golf courses and leaving behind messages like “No Votes, No Golf.”
Years later, South African activists used the Olympics as a lever for changing the country’s racist apartheid policies. In 1962, creative dissidents founded a strategically named group: the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC). On the surface, the acronym sounded a whole lot like the official South African National Olympic Committee (SANOC). SANROC carried out an innovative, multi-faceted campaign that implored the IOC and powerful international sport federations to live up to the anti-racist principles embedded in their own charters.
South African officials and IOC members chastised SANROC for blending politics and sports. Red-baiting was rampant. Repression was intense. SANROC went underground in 1965, re-emerging in London in 1966. The group linked with sympathetic anti-apartheid networks as far away as New Zealand, and worked with the United Nations International Committee Against Apartheid Sport. SANROC also bombarded IOC officials with letters reinforcing their anti-apartheid position and requesting to be treated like a National Olympic Committee. Their persistence paid off. South Africa was excluded from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and was only readmitted in the post-apartheid era for the 1992 Barcelona Games. To be sure, the pressure of nation-states played an important role—numerous countries supported a boycott of South Africa because of apartheid—but savvy activists showed that the Olympics could be an effective way to press for wider social change.
In the spring of 1970, the International Olympic Committee selected Denver, Colorado to host the 1976 Winter Olympics. However, political activists in Colorado organized a campaign against the Games, emphasizing the ecological destruction that carving ski runs into pristine mountains could cause. Protesters bombarded the IOC with missives imploring officials to relocate the Games. Environmentalists teamed up with fiscal-minded conservatives to place a state bond referendum up for popular vote in which voters ultimately rejected funding for the Olympics. The IOC had no choice but to change course, ultimately moving the Games to Innsbruck, Austria. This made Denver the first and only city to reject the Olympics after being selected by the IOC.
Activists challenging the 2000 Sydney Summer Games picked up on Denver’s environmental critiques. Protesters highlighted the fact that the cleanup of the Homebush area industrial zone for conversion into an Olympic site was done at public expense instead of deploying a “polluter pays” principle. Plus, the beach volleyball competition was staged at Bondi Beach, an ecologically sensitive spot along the Pacific Ocean. Direct-action demonstrators put their bodies on the line to prevent bulldozing but were repressed by security officials. The Games went on.
During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, activists fused together a spirited, effective alliance of direct-action-istas, NGOs, lawyers, civil libertarians, anarchists, and poets. First Nations activists played a vital role, pointing out that the Olympics were being staged on unceded Coast Salish land. Activists also challenged the misuse of taxpayer funds and the violation of basic freedoms by ramped-up security forces. Protesters carried out numerous actions before and during the Games, garnering significant media attention.
As with Vancouver, where locally specific issues spurred dissent, a repressive anti-gay law passed in Russia ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games generated fierce fightback. Transnational organizations like Athlete Ally and All Out lobbied the IOC to live up to the anti-discrimination “Principle 6” of its own Charter. Numerous athletes from around the world publicly derided the anti-gay law. During the Games, the art and activism collective Pussy Riot staged demonstrations, which were met by repressive police responses, including whip-wielding Cossacks. Additionally, Circassian activists coalesced around the globe to protest the stark fact that the Olympics were transpiring on the very land where their ancestors experienced genocide 150 years earlier at the hands of Tsarist forces.
The Rio 2016 Summer Games may well present the perfect conditions for mass protest. The Brazilian Senate could find President Dilma Rousseff guilty in her impeachment hearings during the Olympics, which would likely trigger widespread demonstrations across the country. In the year leading up to the Olympics, more protesters took to the streets in Brazil than in the rest of the world combined, so a seasoned set of activists waits in the wings. Olympic organizers have beseeched the Senate to stave off voting on impeachment until after the Games, but when it comes to Brazilian national politics, anything is possible.
Plus, a recent poll from Datafolha in Brazil found that nearly two-thirds believe the Rio 2016 Games will bring “more harm than benefit.” The Olympics provide numerous reasons to dissent. Some 77,000 Rio residents have been evicted from their homes since the city won the right to host the Games back in 2009. More than 85,000 security officials will inundate Rio (more than double the number present at the London 2012 Games), militarizing public space and raising questions about a security force with a violent track record. Beyond this, many cariocas are questioning the government’s spending priorities, with billions spent on Olympics while hospitals are being shuttered and social services are being dialed back after the state of Rio de Janeiro declared a “state of public calamity in financial administration” in June 2016.
The Olympics will provide Brazilian activists of all political stripes with another prime opportunity to voice their grievances. On the flip side, Brazil has passed wide-ranging anti-terrorism laws in advance of the Games that civil libertarians argue could squelch the same “freedom of expression” that was so vaunted in Rio 2016 bid materials. All this will take place beneath the hot glare of the international media spotlight, which will shine bright in Rio this August. Let the democratic games begin.