Olimpíadas pra Quem? – Olympics for whom?

Ignatius J. O’Reilly writes from Rio about how the Olympics were experienced by the people of Brasil and the protests that resulted

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There is an irony to the use of Olimpíadas, the alternative term for the ‘Jogos Olímpicos’ (Olympic Games), as they are called in Português. With the simple omission of a pen stroke, one can change the ending of the word to ‘Olimpiada’. The word ‘Olimpíadas’ (Olympics) thus becomes ‘Olimpiadas’, the word ‘piada’ in Português meaning a joke.

Unfortunately, for many millions suffering the financial and administrative crisis (almost perpetually) going on here in Brasil, the Olympics, and the vast expense and organisation entailed, are no joke at all. In fact they are from it.

They are no joke for the thousands forcibly removed from their homes and communities of many years and generations, such as Vila Autodrómo, to make way for the construction and development of the new stadia and accommodation necessary to host the games. There are absolutely no concrete guarantees of their being able to return to the newly built athlete’s villages that now stand where their homes once did. The likelihood is that most of these will be sold off after the games, to property developers for sale to the lucky few that are able to afford such exclusive locations and properties, in order to ‘offset’ some of the underestimated overheads of the entire Olympic project.

They are certainly no joke to the thousands of of residents of the ‘comunidades’ or communities (more popularly known as ‘favelas’). They have seen an increase in militarised police presence since Rio won the Olympic bid, for the official purpose of ‘pacifying’ the drug and crime related problems that often do exist. Problems that on the one hand are tolerated or accommodated by the authorities as well as the residents; but on the other hand are simply used as an excuse to subjugate the residents to a more overt form of ‘police state’ than the one that already casually exists throughout much of the country.

No joke either to the demonstrators of the different types of protest that have spread throughout the country this year. Protests in the light of various high level corruption exposures and demands for and against impeachment of the now suspended Presidenta Dilma Rousseff and members of congress and corporate business on all sides of the political divides nationwide. Demonstrators who cannot understand or refuse to believe the logic of investing billions on such a short lived sporting event, when at the end of the day, the citizens of Rio and the rest of the country, will be left to foot the bill of a spectacle that has run completely over budget, as such events always seem to do. Especially when the whole country, like many others worldwide are struggling in a climate of cuts to investment and social services all in the now very familiar name of austerity.

And sadly no joke to the millions of residents of the city and country who, not in their wildest dreams, would ever be able to afford the entry cost for even the cheapest of tickets at this once in a lifetime local but worldwide event. For they, like millions of others around the planet, will only be able to enjoy the Olympics with friends and family on one of the millions of TVs that are ever present these days in the living rooms, bars, restaurants, etc. up and down the city and country itself. For the lucky few thousand though, they will at least be able to enjoy a hillside view of the opening and closing ceremonies afforded by their residency of one of the favelas that look down on the city, and sometimes over and above the main venues that will be host to one of these exceptional occasions. Every one of them a modern Cinderella, but unfortunately with no fairy godmother to get them into the ball.

This year’s Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro have come to serve as a focal point or opportunity to demonstrate the increasing dissatisfaction of the majority with the unpopular politics and endemic corruption that appear to pervade every aspect of business and government in this extraordinarily creative and vibrant, resource rich part of the world. They know the world is watching Rio and many have done everything possible, within sociable reason, to draw the world’s attention to their grievances. These protests, both collective and individual, have unfortunately all but been suppressed by the authorities and/or ignored by the world’s mainstream media.

The more direct and collective protests, such as outside and around the Maracaná stadium on the opening night, have been met with the use of tear gas and percussion grenades by the police. The more individual and discreet, such as the wearing of political t-shirts or use of banners inside the stadium, has resulted in the forced removal of the participants.

In fact, the Olympic Torch and it’s traditional procession throughout the host nation of the games, has been a particular focus of protest. Almost a game to some, in that there have been many attempts to extinguish the torch and/or derail it from its intended route, including riding into the procession by motorbike, building materials being dropped onto the procession and numerous attempts, one even successful, to extinguish the torch with water projectiles. Even one of the torch bearers himself protested by removing his trousers upon receipt of the famous flame, and dancing and exposing his buttocks to the world with words ‘Fora Temer’ (Out with President Temer) written upon them before being carried away and arrested. Unfortunately in some cases, and in certain locales, the authorities employed some extremely strong arm methods to prevent protest. With the use of the police or military to protect the procession, reminiscent of some biblical scene with the soldiers going before the celebrated entry of some official or other, slashing with their swords to encourage the plebs out of the way and remind them of their place in society. Again many of these attempts, and the occurrence and popularity of them, went largely unreported in the mainstream media.

In the main, these protests can be summed up with the aforementioned two words ‘Fora Temer’, in relation to the the acting President Temer in the absence of the currently suspended from public office, President Dilma Rousseff. There is a  ‘pair of words protest’ ongoing nationwide: the mantra ‘Fora Dilma’, as advocated by generally the more affluent classes of Brasillian society, who are demanding her immediate impeachment for ‘financial irregularities’ with the nation’s budget, ostensibly in order to win re-election back in 2014. The other side argue that this is a total fit up and is only to punish her for having instigated an investigation into corruption at the highest level in the country in the first place. The outcome of the Senate’s discussion is something else for the nation to look forward to in the coming weeks as their hangovers wear off from the Olympic party and the profits and losses of the past few weeks/months/years are calculated, and will no doubt result in further demonstrations up and down the country, particularly in the generally more educated and politically conscious urban areas.

As a what-is-known-as a Gringo in these parts, and currently attempting to live and work out here, albeit with an ‘irregular’ visa status now, I have kept a low profile in these domestic (although I feel international) matters and have acted discreetly at any protests that I have personally attended. I have avoided any direct involvement and any troublesome situations that have occurred, it not being in my interest to draw attention to myself, or worse still, risk arrest by the authorities, as I would undoubtedly find myself on the first plane home with a heavy fine or worse.

Despite everything going down here, even and especially the impending economic collapse that will probably happen not too long after the present Olympic circus has moved on, I would like to stay and enjoy more of this remarkably familiar, but altogether different, culture and its people. But undoubtedly there are many here, who would jump at the opportunity of trying to earn a living in a more politically stable and egalitarian society, somewhere they believe would offer them a better standard of living and opportunity than the one they currently experience.

Perhaps something like this was what was in Juma the unfortunate Jaguar’s mind as she made her bid for freedom back in June earlier this year. Having been exploited for her worth, and paraded for the world’s cameras at an Olympic Torch event in the former rubber wealthy northern city of Manaus, she escaped her enclosure and, although sedated, was shot dead as she was apparently presenting a danger to the soldiers trying to recapture her. Another tragic and terrible episode, in an otherwise wonderful spectacle of athletic excellence and achievement by perhaps some of the better examples of human potential and endeavour. Yet perhaps also another irony of the whole Olympic story of Rio and Brasil, especially considering that this year’s well loved Olympics team mascot for Brasil was also a jaguar, a cartoon version by the name of Ginga. A tragic and terrible irony for all concerned indeed.

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