Brazilians Are Talking Politics, Not Olympics, and That Could Be a Problem

With President Dilma Rousseff on the brink of impeachment, among other crises, organizers of this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro could be forgiven for feeling a little nervous.

by James Young
Apr 18 2016, 4:00pm

Photo by EPA

With Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on the brink of being suspended from office after a dramatic congressional impeachment vote on Sunday, and an increasingly toxic mood between government supporters and those demanding her removal, the organizers of this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro could be forgiven for feeling a little nervous.

"Society is very polarized at the moment, people are not reading the same newspapers or watching the same TV shows, friends are fighting with friends, relatives are fighting with relatives," said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and international relations professor at Rio de Janeiro State University. "It's very unusual for Brazil."

Read More: "No Teachers, No Doctors," and More Police Violence: How the Rio Olympics May Victimize Street Children

The turbulent situation is in some ways a reminder of the enormous demonstrations that surrounded the Confederations Cup in 2013, just twelve months before Brazil hosted the World Cup. At their peak, the rallies, which targeted everything from FIFA to political corruption to poor public services, drew over a million protesters, and frequently descended into violent clashes between black-bloc-style groups and thuggish police.

According to Santoro, however, large-scale violent protests against the Olympics are unlikely, largely because the event, which is hosted by a single city, has not generated the same anger as the country-wide, far more expensive World Cup.

"There was a lot of polarization about the World Cup, with some groups opposing it and taking to the streets to protest against it, which was surprising, because soccer is like a religion for Brazil ... we saw lots of people demonstrating against the tournament, even during the games," he told VICE Sports. "I don't see the same thing happening at the Olympics."

These Brazilians are cheering for impeachment, not a sports team. Photo by EPA

Santoro does not believe that the current political unrest will explode into widespread violence, and a recent series of large rallies passed relatively peacefully. But there have been increasing reports of attacks on individuals, mainly against government supporters, and Santoro thinks that is likely to continue.

"We will see examples of political violence, for example somebody being attacked in the street for wearing a red shirt, that kind of thing, which is happening a lot here," he said. "It's not mass violence but it's a serious problem."

Gustavo Ribeiro, a Brazilian journalist, believes this is one of the key differences between today's Brazil and the protests of 2013.

"The 2013 protests started with students protesting against bus fare increases, and then the violent police reaction gave the demonstrations another dimension, and brought people together," he told VICE Sports. "It's not like that today."

The Brazilian government has also been optimistic, at least outwardly. "I don't imagine there will be public demonstrations like in 2013 and at the World Cup. The Olympics will take place in a much calmer atmosphere," Minister of Defense Aldo Rebelo said at a recent press conference.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff speaks during her visit to the Aquatic Olympic Stadium earlier this month. Photo by EPA

Instead of popular opposition or violent protests, then, the main threat to the success of the Rio Olympics is likely to be something just as damaging to a major sports event—apathy.

In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup, Brazilian TV screens were awash with coverage of the preparations for the event, from discussion of potential squad selections to worries over the often sluggish progress of the infrastructure and stadium building process.

In 2016, however, it is the political crisis is dominating the headlines and news programs. The Olympics, by comparison, have hardly warranted a mention.

"The most amazing thing is that nobody's talking about the Olympics," Santoro said. "We're going to host the Games in a few weeks from now and it feels like they're going to be in Beijing, or somewhere else."

To date, only 50 percent of tickets for the Games have been sold, and the situation is even gloomier for the Paralympics, for which around 90 percent of tickets remain unsold.

In a recent interview with the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, Sports Minister Ricardo Leyser admitted that "Brazilians hadn't woken up to the Games yet," and, according to the paper, said that the government would consider buying tickets and distributing them in schools.

The country's bitter economic recession has undoubtedly affected ticket sales: Brazil shed over a million jobs in 2015, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has said that it expects the economy to shrink by four percent this year.

In addition, some argue that unlike where the World Cup is concerned, Brazilians have little inherent interest in Olympic sports. Compared to its all-conquering national soccer team, Brazil has had little success at past Games.

"One of the problems with the Olympics is that Brazilians aren't really sports fans," Ribeiro said. "We just like to win. People will think, 'why go to watch the gymnastics if we're going to come fourth? If it's not gold, it's not worth it.' And Brazil hasn't won much at the Olympics in the past."

Brazil's Zika virus outbreak is another threat to the upcoming Rio Olympics. Photo by EPA

Other factors may explain the low ticket sales. Some potential foreign visitors may have been scared away by Brazil's Zika virus outbreak; US, Canada, and EU health agencies have issued warnings saying pregnant women should avoid traveling to the country.

"The way the authorities have dealt with the Zika crisis hasn't been reassuring at all, especially for foreign visitors," Ribeiro said.

And the recent attacks in Brussels have also increased fears of a potential terrorist strike at the Games. "Since the Olympics in Munich in 1972, the concern (of a terrorist attack) exists," Defense Minister Aldo Rebelo has said. "There was an attack in Atlanta 1996 too. There are many examples in the past." Brazil plans to use 85,000 soldiers and police officers to provide security at the Games.

Brazil's interest levels in the Olympics may yet pick up, with relentless TV coverage and increased publicity creating a spike in interest as the Games grow closer. Most ordinary Brazilians, however, are likely to be more concerned with the political drama being played out nightly on their TV screens, as gripping as any novela. The Olympics, like the World Cup and other major sporting events, will exist in a bubble, barely touching the lives of ordinary people.

"I heard the janitor in my apartment building talking the other day," Santoro said. "He's an old man, a very quiet guy, but he said he was praying for rain during the Olympics, to spoil their party. He felt that it wasn't his party, it was somebody else's–perhaps the government's, or the mayor's."