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Dave Zirin: Protests by Athletes and Displaced Rio Residents Accompany Opening of 2016 Olympic Games

StoryAugust 05, 2016
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Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine, says protests highlighting racial and economic injustice are expected from athletes attending the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, such as tennis champion Serena Williams and players from the NBA, WNBA and other countries. Polls show more than 60 percent of Brazilians think hosting the Games will hurt their country. He says that ahead of today’s opening ceremony, residents of heavily policed and displaced neighborhoods plan a major march to Rio’s “Olympic City.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the American tennis star Serena Williams, who just arrived in Rio and was asked about the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

SERENA WILLIAMS: I am—I don’t involve myself in politics. I think it’s really important for me to really pass the message of love and unity across all nations. Doesn’t matter what race. Obviously, with me being African-American, I’m very sensitive over a lot of things. But I think it’s important that, you know, we should pass a message of love as opposed to hate.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, talk about the significance of Serena Williams speaking out.

DAVE ZIRIN: I mean, I think for her to say, “I don’t talk about politics, but I believe in love over hate,” I mean, that just says something about these elections, that to say I’m for love over hate is actually a political message. Like, what in previous election cycles might sound like a Hallmark card, tragically, is, in 2016, a cry of resistance, because Donald Trump actually does represent that kind of organized hate.

And Serena Williams, also, she makes that statement with a kind of—with a background, if you will, with a legacy that she’s built over the last couple of years of being someone who has strongly spoken out against the extrajudicial killings of young black men and women, and someone who has linked her career to raising funds for the Equal Justice Initiative, which is a tremendous organization that does work in terms of fighting the new Jim Crow and mass incarceration. So, everything that Serena Williams says, I think, is just fraught with meaning. And it really—seriously, it doesn’t take an advanced American studies degree from a university to read between the lines in terms of what she’s saying there.

But if people want more explicit political talk at these Olympics, please keep a close eye at Ibtihaj Muhammad. She is a U.S. fencer, and she is the first U.S. athlete to ever compete wearing a hijab. And she has already been explicit in her condemnation of Donald Trump, and so proud of the fact that she is a Muslim representing the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and come back to this discussion. We’re talking to Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine. He’s headed to Rio, and we’re going to be talking to him there, but getting a preview as the Rio Olympics are about to begin. His latest book—”The Last Dance: On Heading to Olympic Rio,” his latest piece. His book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Funeral do Lavrador,” “Funeral of a Worker,” by Zélia Barbosa. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we talk to Dave Zirin about the opening of the Olympics.

Talk about other athletes you’re following, but start off by talking about what’s happening with Russia right now. How many Russian athletes have been banned? Is it something like 118?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. And each federation now gets to judge which Russian athletes get to compete and which Russian athletes don’t get to compete. And this is so interesting, because it’s very difficult to separate what’s happening right now with Russia in the Olympics with a lot of the anti-Putin, anti-Russia hysteria that’s become so linked with Donald Trump in these elections. I mean, you look at the coverage, and if you look at the pressure that was put on the International Olympic Committee by the West to ban Russia wholesale and just not even have their flag fly at the Olympic Games—and it is because there is credible evidence that Russia ran an entire state-run doping operation.

But the problem of what this has exposed is that the International Olympic Committee is an utterly untransparent cartel. I mean, it is a 19th century organization in a WikiLeaks world. And that’s just not going to be acceptable going forward. So they have produced this report where Russia has no rights to appeal, no rights to even look at the evidence that’s been presented, and it’s presented as fiat for the judgment of Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee. And what Bach has said is, he’s delivered an opinion that’s the equivalent of “It tastes like chicken,” like it doesn’t really satisfy anybody, because what it’s done is it’s effectively put a scarlet S on the chests of all Russian athletes, and, at the end, it’s banned all of the Russian officials from even coming to the Olympics, but at the same time, it didn’t—he didn’t do the kind of wholesale ban, the wholesale nationwide condemnation, because he said that collective punishment is against the Olympic ethos.

And so, now we have situations where, in some events, there will be Russian participation, like in swimming; in other events, like the entire Paralympics, there will be no Russian participation. And it’s been left up, really, to the political intricacies of every individual federation themselves as they govern their sport. And, by the way, they’re trying to figure all of this out in real time, as I’m talking to you, Amy. Like these decisions haven’t been made yet, and the Olympics are already officially underway. So it is a mess, and it’s exposing that the IOC has no consistent policy on performance-enhancing drugs, no way to control them and no way to really resist the kinds of broader geopolitical pressures that are put on the Olympic movement.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there are 118 Russian athletes banned, but there are over, what, 400 Russian athletes, so most will be in the Olympics.

DAVE ZIRIN: Right, but there’s no real way of understanding how many of the ones that are competing might be competing clean or how many of the ones banned might actually have been clean, as well. And that’s part of the problem, is that each of these federations are governed by their own politics, their own infighting, and it creates a situation where nobody really knows what the results are going to be. And so, this isn’t just about like we’re seeing how the sausage is made. I mean, this is about, I mean, actually being inside the sausage factory and being so repulsed, that the sausage itself becomes irrelevant.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Venus and Serena Williams—Serena, who has spoken out against Donald Trump—are in Rio to play tennis. Explain.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah. I mean, they’re part of the Olympic team. I mean, this is part of what they’re there to do. And unlike some of the athletes who are concerned about issues like Zika—and I think that they’re not going to be the only athletes who have something to say about Trump when they’re down there. I think that we, I think, can expect this to be one of the more political Olympics that we’ve seen since 1968. I already know of athletes who plan on making political stands while they’re down there, whether those stands are connected to Black Lives Matter and police, or whether those stances are directly related to the U.S. elections and a feeling like they have a moral obligation to stand up to Donald Trump. Those are the general things I’m hearing.

And I think that’s going to be a very interesting challenge for the International Olympic Committee, because they have rules against athletes speaking out politically. And they say there is no politics that belongs on the Olympic field. Of course, they allow sponsors that are incredibly political, like Bechtel and whatnot, like companies that have incredibly politicized agendas. And, of course, the Olympics themselves are a deeply politicized spectacle of nationalism and whatnot, and, of course, the mere fact that there’s going to be something like 45 heads of states at the opening ceremonies. I mean, this is a political operation in so many respects. The only people who aren’t allowed to be political are the athletes, other than wearing their sponsors’ brands.

And it’s going to—and I think this is the year, though, where we’re going to see that crack. There were suspicions that it would crack around Sochi around LGBT rights, but it really didn’t, except for a couple of quick things. I think this is going to be the one where athletes are going to be more outspoken, and they’re going to feel a need to say something, whether that something is about the situation in Brazil itself or whether it’s U.S. athletes or athletes in Western Europe saying something for the rights of migrants.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, do you—can you give us a preview, what you’ve heard, who might be speaking out, who has spoken out in a big way before going?

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, yeah. I mean, first of all, you’ve got the whole basketball teams from the United States. I mean, the women’s basketball team has several players on it who were making political stands in the WNBA, standing for Black Lives Matter. Now they’re bringing all of that to Rio, to an international stage. They stood up to their own league, the WNBA, who tried to fine them. They resisted those fines and said, “No, we dare you to fine us and keep fining us.” And they had—they turned it into a big public spectacle. And the WNBA—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain why they were being fined.

DAVE ZIRIN: They were being fined because they were wearing shirts in pre-game that said “Black Lives Matter,” that said the names Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, but also said “Dallas 5” for the five police officers killed in Dallas. And the WNBA said, “If you keep wearing those shirts, we will fine you.” And the fines actually—they really bit, because WNBA players do not make a lot of money. Average salary is about 50 grand a year. And so, they said, “No, we’re going to keep wearing them, and we refuse to talk to the media about anything except Black Lives Matter issues,” which was really powerful. So they weren’t cooperating with the media afterwards, except to talk about these politics. And the WNBA rescinded. They blinked. They backed off. And it’s going to be very interesting to see if they bring that to Rio.

Now, one player in the NBA expressed his explicit solidarity with the WNBA players, and that is Carmelo Anthony. And Carmelo Anthony is on the men’s U.S.A. basketball team. And he is the elder statesman and de facto leader of that team, and he is down there in Rio, as well. It would not surprise me at all if Carmelo Anthony had something to say.

And then there are the lesser-known athletes. A name for folks to think about is a guy named Laurence Halsted, who’s a fencer for Great Britain. I mean, he is somebody who—he has a Twitter feed, Olympians’ Voice. And he has been actively trying to fight and resist the idea that Olympians have no right to speak out. And he plans to test the elasticity, or lack thereof, of the bonds that keep Olympic athletes from speaking out.

And then, of course, there’s the specter of the fact that the Olympics are actually sponsoring an all-refugee team this year. And these are world-class athletes who come from Syria and South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And they are going to be competing in Olympic events. And they’re going to be arriving not under any national flag, but under the Olympic flag. And the whole point of it is to raise consciousness and humanity about refugee issues. But the—and this is kind of like the IOC is using this as a form of public relations, like “Look how great the Olympics is: We even support the refugee crisis that’s happening globally.” And yet, that could easily spiral to somewhere politically that they don’t want it to go, particularly if the refugees have criticisms of some of the countries that expelled them or did not play a role in helping them or their families. And—and this is the trickiest part, is—what about the internally displaced people or internal refugees inside Rio, the 77,000 people who were displaced in the eight years to make way for the Olympic Games? That will be very difficult, if Thomas Bach or anyone in the IOC is asked, “Gee, so you have this refugee team, but what about all the homeless people in Rio?”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to Rio. In May, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, unveiled a new terminal at Rio’s international airport. It’s expected to receive one-and-a-half million passengers during the Olympics, cost an estimated $500 million. Speaking at a news conference, he stressed the importance of the legacy following the game.

MAYOR EDUARDO PAES: [translated] The Olympics is an event which lasts 17 or 18 days, with a more intense impact over one or two months. The real reason for bringing the Olympics to a country or a city is what we can leave that country or city afterwards—a physical, tangible and objective legacy. I think it is becoming increasingly clear the amount of things that have been done because of Olympic inspiration, which are not necessarily for the Olympics.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about that, Dave, and Mayor Eduardo Paes’s comments.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, I interviewed Eduardo Paes face to face for about 45 minutes in May. And let’s just put it like this: I was interviewing him in a nonsmoking government building, and the man’s ashtrays were overflowing. I mean, because—partly because of the crisis that’s taken place in Brasília with Dilma and the impeachment and the fact that her replacement, Michel Temer, is such a train wreck, Eduardo Paes is basically the political face of these Olympics. He’s also bilingual. He has huge aspirations to become the president of the country. And the Olympics coming off without a hitch is a huge part of it. And what you just heard him doing, Amy, is him spinning the fact that so many of the Olympic legacy promises that were made when Brazil was enjoying 9 percent annual growth rates are not going to come to pass. They’re just not. And so, now it’s “Hey, you know, what about things inspired by the Olympics?” Like, you know—and it’s a way of trying to say that we’ll be ready, we’ll figure it out, and if it’s not great, just remember that we did our best. And I think—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine. His recent article, “The Last Dance: On Heading to Olympic Rio.” He’s also the author of Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. Dave, you mentioned displacement, the displacement of people in the area. There’s a few figures that are interesting. Nearly two-thirds of Brazilians, 63 percent, think hosting the Olympics will hurt Brazil. According to a recent study, only 16 percent said they’re enthusiastic about the Games; 51 percent, they said they have no interest in the Games. But talk about the turmoil in the area, the people we won’t see interviewed when the networks are down there.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah. I mean, the people who won’t be interviewed are going to be protesting today. There’s a large protest planned in Rio for today. And these are the people who have been displaced. These are the people who have been the victims of police violence. And these are the people who the Olympic monolith has basically landed on top of over the last eight years. And these are also the folks who feel lied to, because when the Olympics came in, they were brought in with a promise that they would be used as a tool to tackle inequality inside of Rio, and the opposite has taken place. As one councilman said to me, Rio is now a more unequal place than it was before the Olympics came. Now, some of that is due to the economic crisis, but people, I think, have to understand that the Olympics do not exist on a parallel realm to the economic crisis in Rio. They have been an aggravator of that very crisis, because they’ve taken out infrastructure funds at a moment when people need them desperately, particularly around issues of health and education.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave, I want to thank you for being with us, and look forward to talking to you in Rio. Dave Zirin is sports editor for The Nation magazine. His recent article is called “The Last Dance: On Heading to Olympic Rio.” Author of Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. He’s host of Edge of Sports.

And that does it for our show. We have two job openings: development manager and senior video producer. Check our website at for details.

And a belated fond farewell to our producer Amy Littlefield, whose commitment to social justice reporting is unparalleled. Amy, we wish you all the best in the future.

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