Activism in Rio’s Olympic Spotlight

By Adam Talbot

talb 1.pngActivists protest outside the Olympic Park. Photo Credit: Rio 2016 – Os Jogos da Exclusão

This summer, a whopping 30,000 journalists have descended on the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. While many have come to cover the world’s largest sporting event, thousands more are combing the city for stories about what life is really like for Cariocas, as Rio’s residents are known. These residents know they are living under the glare of the world’s media, and political activists have tried to direct global attention towards their causes. This isn’t new for the Olympics – it would have been hard to watch the last Games in Sochi without hearing anything about Russia’s controversial ‘anti-gay’ laws, or watch Beijing 2008 and not learn something of the Chinese government’s poor human rights record.

Yet the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has always tried to keep politics out of it’s precious tournament, famously and disgracefully going as far as removing John Carlos and Tommie Smith from the 1968 Olympics for performing the black power salute. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, the document which is the basis for the host city contract, dictates that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”. As a result, Brazil has passed legislation in anticipation of the Games which prohibits protest activity in Olympic areas. Brazil has also beefed up its security, not only deployed 85,000 personnel to Rio to guard the five-ring party, but also passing new anti-terrorism legislation which is broad enough to define political activism as terrorism.

Yet despite these new laws, Brazilians have still tried to use the Olympic spotlight to highlight their grievances. At the forefront of this has been Interim President Michel Temer, who many in Brazil see as leading a coup against the democratically elected Dilma Rousseff. Thousands gathered in Copacabana the morning before the opening ceremony, where many activists had included references to the Olympics in their banners, as well as translations of the slogan “Fora Temer” in nine different languages (including the English, “Fuck Off Temer”), in the hope of gaining international press attention. It seemed to work, the protests were well covered internationally, with reports from NBC News and the Washington Post, among others. Temer himself was booed during the ceremony as he opened the Games, and people have continued to risk expulsion by holding up signs criticising the Interim President at Olympic events – although a judge did step in to rule that expelling spectators for this was unconstitutional.

talb 2.pngA protestor holds his version of the Olympic rings in front of Copacabana Palace, alleging that Michel Temer has led a coup. Photo Credit: Adam Talbot

Greater coverage was given to a smaller demonstration however, which took place close to the iconic Maracanã stadium, just before the Olympic opening ceremony. Organised by the Popular Committee for the World Cup and the Olympics along with other groups, this protest of just under a thousand people didn’t try to gain attention by using the Olympics – these activists were firmly against the Olympics themselves. Various reasons brought people to the streets, including over 2,500 killed by police and over 77,000 evicted since Rio won the right to host the Games. The high cost of the Games, the utter lack of any positive environmental legacy, and the further marginalisation of the city’s poor through Olympic restructuring all contributed to public anger. This protest was treated very differently, with a heavy police presence lining the march, and the event ending with tear gas and stun grenades used in a park where children were playing. Because of the repression, this protest gained significant media attention, with coverage by ABC News, Euronews, and The Independent. Looking deeper however, this coverage tended to focus on the firing of tear gas by police, and skimmed over the issues activists wanted to address. Despite this heavy coverage, the global media event of the Olympic opening ceremony later that day will have limited the impact of these protests around the world.

But many of the activists who marched against the Olympics near the Maracanã know that media attention can be an effective tool in their resistance. The Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics has supported favela communities which faced threats of eviction. One such community, Vila Autódromo, gained massive media coverage, due to its location adjacent to the main Olympic park and the strong resistance of residents there. International media attention has been a deliberate part of the strategy for the residents who resisted eviction there, welcoming press from all over the world to their community as part of a long-running campaign to save their homes.

talb 3.pngResidents of Vila Autódromo protest before their residents’ association (the building behind them) is demolished. Photo Credit: Adam Talbot

This campaign was been aided by local activist groups, who held regular events in Vila Autódromo to show their support. NGO’s such as Catalytic Communities also contributed, by helping journalists produce reports by providing background information, contacts, photos, and translation assistance, as well as providing detailed updates on the community’s struggle through their news site RioOnWatch.org. Helped by heavy coverage by the international press, twenty families (of the original 600) were able to stay on their land in government built houses. Vila Autódromo’s successful struggle has become symbolic, and other favelas facing removal have sought to use the same tactics – Horto, a favela close to Rio’s botanical gardens, was given a 90-day eviction notice during the Olympics. Drawing inspiration from Vila Autódromo, residents have tried to attract international press attention to their situation, although with limited success.

Of course, there are problems with this approach. The international press does not cover everything evenly, it depends on who is involved and what the issue is. The massive news coverage given to Ryan Lochte’s ‘robbery’ shows just how desperate many journalists were to write an ‘Olympian gets robbed in Rio’ story. While many news outlets covered the violence which is an everyday fact of life in Rio’s favelas in the lead up to the Games, the quality of this coverage, from an activist perspective, is limited. While some journalists provided excellent coverage of activist concerns about police violence, many were sensationalist and served to legitimise damaging policies of government neglect, suggesting favelas are dangerous areas which cannot be entered safely. During the Olympics, community journalist platforms told stories of daily police operations which left residents as young as 14 dead – as depicted in the photo below. Yet somehow this massacre was drowned out by the cheers in the stadiums nearby.

talb 4.pngBlood runs in the streets during the Olympics. Photo Credit: Carlos Coutinho / Coletivo Papo Reto

Press coverage has always been a useful method for activists to gain further support for their cause. The massive press coverage brought by an Olympic Games can help local activists, especially where they are being directly affected by the Games. But this can only have limited success – the Olympic Games remain a juggernaut that destroys (almost) everything in its path. The editorial lines of mainstream media cannot be set by activists, and journalists set out to report the news, not to help activists. Beyond this, repressive laws encouraged by the IOC mean political activism at the Olympic Games can be violently repressed. All this means that using the Olympic spotlight as a site of political struggle remains problematic, but for 20 families living in Vila Autódromo, it made the world of difference.

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Filed under Activism in Latin America, Uncategorized

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