In Wake of Coup, Should Brazil's Olympics Be Moved or Become a Site of Protest?

June 01, 2016


Jules Boykoff

author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. He teaches political science at Pacific University in Oregon.

Dave Zirin

sports editor for The Nation magazine. The updated version of his book is out this week: Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy.

In early August, more than 10,000 athletes across the world will convene in Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic City for one of the most widely watched sporting events of the year. This comes as Brazil is battling an economic recession, a massive Zika outbreak and its worst political crisis in over two decades. Protesters have vowed to flood the streets during the Olympics, using the global spotlight to highlight a raft of domestic grievances including threats to social services, police violence, forced displacement and the recent ouster of democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff. We speak to Dave Zirin, author of the book "Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy," and Jules Boykoff, author of "Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil. In early August, more than 10,000 athletes across the world will convene in Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic City for one of the most widely watched sporting events of the year. This comes as Brazil is battling an economic recession, a massive Zika outbreak and the recent ouster of its democratically elected president, Dilma Rousseff. Last month, the president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, Carlos Nuzman, insisted Brazil is ready to host the games.

CARLOS NUZMAN: [translated] The Olympic Games belong to Brazil. They belong to Rio de Janeiro and to all Brazilian people. I am certain that we are going to have spectacular games and participation of all involved.

AMY GOODMAN: The Olympics are estimated to cost Brazil a staggering $10 billion at a time when Brazil is suffering its worst recession since the '30s. Hospitals have been shuttered. The interim president, Michel Temer, has proposed a new round of austerity measures that include slashing education funds and abolishing pensions. Many supporters of the ousted President Rousseff fear the Olympics could cement control of the new government. In anticipation of the Olympics, Brazil plans to roll out a massive security operation involving 85,000 officials, twice as many as the 2012 London Games and just over half the number of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq at the war's peak. Meanwhile, some 77,000 people have been displaced from their homes.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Dave Zirin is sports editor for The Nation magazine. His recent article is called "Don’t Move the Olympics, Protest Them." He’s also the host of Edge of Sports podcast. This week he’s debuting an updated version of his book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. And we are joined by Jules Boykoff, who is the author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. He teaches political science at Pacific University in Oregon, a Fulbright scholar—a Fulbright research fellow in Rio de Janeiro in fall 2015. In the ’80s and ’90s, he represented the U.S. Olympic soccer team in international competition.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dave, start off by talking about the significance of these Olympics in Brazil. Do you think they should be moved?

DAVE ZIRIN: No, I don’t think the Olympics should be moved, partially because I have already just come back from Rio and talked to dozens and dozens of people who are looking forward to using the Olympics as a way to spotlight their grievances, whether it’s grievances over the coup—and I would also call it a coup—of President Dilma Rousseff, whether it’s to speak about substandard health or education. When I was there, almost 100 schools in the state of Rio were occupied by students and teachers to protest education cuts as a result of the economic contraction, or just the priorities that you discussed. Ten billion dollars is one price tag we’re hearing for the Olympics. You’re also hearing that it could be as much as $20 billion. And to have that take place at a time when education, healthcare are being cut in Rio, I mean, people are like, "OK, the money’s been spent. Let’s use this international spotlight as a way to pull some of these criminals out of their corners, so we can actually talk about the issues that we’re facing."

AMY GOODMAN: Jules Boykoff, can you talk about the police violence and the hypersecurity situation around the Olympics?

JULES BOYKOFF: Absolutely. Eighty-five thousand security officials will descend on Rio. That’s double the number of the London Olympics just four years ago. And there was a really important report from Amnesty International recently that found that one in five homicides is carried out by such security officials.


JULES BOYKOFF: So it’s actually reason for pause, having that many people on board to police the games. Second, it’s, of course, attacking young people, young men of color, by a large majority, these police. So, it’s not exactly something we can just feel good about and relax. It’s actually a question of who’s going to watch the watchers in Rio.

DAVE ZIRIN: And frighteningly, I was down there speaking to people in the favelas and even political officials; they said that the uptick in police murders is actually a function of the economic crisis, because they’ve had to cut the numbers of police officers. And what they’re doing—and one of them said to me, he said, "Bullets are less expensive than boots on the ground." So they go into communities. They’re willing to kill somebody to scare people, because the idea of community policing is just not cost-effective in the climate right now.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the major sports stories you’re covering, Jules Boykoff, you yourself an elite athlete who was involved in previous Olympics?

JULES BOYKOFF: I’m really interested in Marcus Vinicius D’Almeida. He’s known as the Neymar of Brazilian archery. And I’m interested in him because he actually went to meet with indigenous peoples. There was a program in Brazil to help indigenous archers develop their skills with these kind of professional bows that they use for the Olympics. And he was really great about that. Unfortunately, none of those indigenous participants will make the squad in Rio, but he had really smart things to say, so I’m keeping an eye on him.

One other athlete that I’m really excited about is Laurence Halsted. He’s qualified for Team GB, Team Great Britain. He’ll be participating in fencing. And he had a really smart essay the other day in The Guardian newspaper that suggested that athletes should absolutely be speaking out in Rio, where the chasm between the promises on the front end and the follow-through on the back end are absolutely abhorrent. So I’m going to be rooting for him, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote about Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games.


AMY GOODMAN: Yet you were a contender yourself.

JULES BOYKOFF: Absolutely. Well, you know, I think we need not devote ourselves to the death of complexity. We can both appreciate the athletes and support them, especially when they have the courage to speak out in a progressive manner, but also we can at the same time critique the games ferociously when needed.

DAVE ZIRIN: Watch the Olympics, but watch them with your eyes open.


AMY GOODMAN: Now, you brought in a postcard, Dave.

DAVE ZIRIN: I did. And I’ll describe it for radio listeners, as well. This is an anti-postcard at an anti-souvenir shop that was put on by a political artist in Rio. His name is Rafucko. And this particular postcard is a postcard of a community called Vila Autodromo that’s been effectively torn down to the ground for the Olympic Park, which is adjacent to it. It really didn’t need to be torn down. It was torn down to create more of a security perimeter, for goodness’ sakes. It’s gone from 800 families to 24. And this is a little piece right here on the top of Vila Autodromo, a little piece of somebody’s home. And, Amy, you and your listeners will appreciate this. This luxurious building that’s behind Vila Autodromo is a condominium built up, part of the Olympic gentrification, and the top floor will be the Olympic Media Center. So, literally, the international media will be looking down on the wreckages of the Olympics.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, it’s not as if protests weren’t happening under Dilma Rousseff.


AMY GOODMAN: You were certainly there last time. Can you talk about, though, what you feel might happen with these Olympics being held in Brazil?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, there’s a great deal of anger, of course, because of what’s taken place to Dilma, and that immediately activates another sector of society that perhaps wasn’t protesting around the World Cup in 2014, because they felt like to do so would destabilize the Workers’ Party government. So, you’re seeing this kind of expand, to a degree. And also what you’re seeing in Brazil, which is, I think, really interesting, is the emergence of black consciousness in a way that we haven’t seen before. There was never a civil rights movement in Brazil. There was never Jim Crow segregation in Brazil. Yet it does have this extensive legacy of slavery and racism. And you’re starting to see that actually be very influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement here in the United States. And I saw several young anti-racist protests from folks who said they would be on the streets during the games.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the Zika virus? I mean, that’s what’s being raised in the corporate media. Can these athletes go down there?

JULES BOYKOFF: Absolutely. Well, I’m a political scientist, not a medical scientist, so I will not weigh in on the medical side of it. But I will say that I’m on my guard a little bit when I hear people start to talk about Zika, because what usually they’re talking about is First World tourists who have the option or not to go to Rio. And what’s all too often lost in this equation when we start talking about Zika is everyday people in the Olympic City who are going to be affected no matter what and don’t have the option to leave. I think athletes, individually, have to face this choice, especially people who are thinking about pregnancy.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, you recently wrote about the majority of the members of Brazil’s Congress under investigation—


AMY GOODMAN: —for corruption. The Olympics are known for corruption. Talk about that and your interview with the—with Rio’s mayor, Paes.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, is going to be the political face of these Olympics, and he belongs to the same political party of Michel Temer, who has now taken over the presidency. And it is the worst-kept secret in Rio that Paes has designs on the presidency. He’s actually going to come here to New York City to teach at Columbia for a year—that’s his plan—and then return. So maybe he could come on Democracy Now!, and we could both talk to him. But I really do think that there’s a fight right now in Rio for the narrative of what the Olympics are doing, because I sat down with Paes, and I raised things like 77,000 people have been displaced. And he looked right at me and said, "It’s just not true. Nobody has been displaced." I raised with him the idea of this bike path that was destroyed by a wave, sending—

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

DAVE ZIRIN: —killing three people. And he said, "No, that wasn’t an Olympic project." So we have a fight for the narrative at play.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re going to continue this conversation and post it at Special thanks to Dave Zirin, author of Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy, and Jules Boykoff. His new book, Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.

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