Is There a Place for Capoeira in the Olympics?

With the Rio de Janeiro Olympics fast approaching, many capoeira devotees believe their sport, and the Afro-Brazilian heritage it represents, deserves an even bigger audience.

by James Young
Feb 4 2016, 2:25pm

Photo by Ali Haider/EPA

"Some people think you choose capoeira, but capoeira chose me. I used to spend all my time in the streets, but when I discovered capoeira I changed," said Joselio Lima de Oliveira, a capoeira mestre at Luta Pela Paz (Fight for Peace), an NGO aimed at helping young people through martial arts in the vast and violent Rio de Janeiro favela complex of Maré. In the main hall of the project building, a group of local youngsters had just finished a training session in this beguiling, quintessentially Brazilian mix of dance, music, and martial art. "I owe everything," Lima de Oliveira said, "to capoeira."

Capoeira's roots lie in Africa, and it emerged in colonial Brazil, where it became a clandestine symbol of identity as well as a method of self-defense among African slaves, who would practice it surreptitiously on the sugar plantations of the northeast of the country. Since then, the sport has become a symbol not just of Brazilian culture but also an emblem of the country's African heritage and Afro-Brazilian community.

Read More: Fighting for Legitimacy: The Afro-Brazilian Art of Capoeira

Now, with the Rio de Janeiro Olympics fast approaching, many capoeira devotees believe their sport deserves an even bigger audience—as a future Olympic event. "Like other sports, capoeira deserves a chance to show its worth," Joselio Lima told VICE Sports on the rooftop terrace of Luta Pela Paz.

His 18-year-old student Genilson Jose do Nascimento agreed. "It would be maneira if capoeira was in the Olympics," he said, using the typically carioca (a Rio de Janeiro resident) word for cool. "It would be a way to spread the word about capoeira, not just to foreigners but also to Brazilians," he continued, his eyes sparkling with excitement. "There are lots of people who don't know how great a sport it is."

Not every capoeirista is in favor of an Olympic event, however, and opinions can vary according to which form—Regional or Angola—they practice. "Capoeira Regional is closer to fighting, or sport. They're more enthusiastic about capoeira being in the Olympics. The more traditionalist capoeiristas, who perform a purer type of capoeira, are against the idea. I'm not in favor," said Celio Luis de Paula Gomes, a mestre at the Fundição Progresso cultural center in downtown Rio de Janeiro.

For Gomes, capoeira, which includes music and chanting and does not declare winners or losers, is a cultural rather than a sporting event. "You would take away its tradition and it wouldn't be the same," he explained. "Capoeira isn't a sport. Sport has a referee, someone who limits what you can do. It has winners and losers. Capoeira doesn't need this. Would I have to take out my dreadlocks, or wear a helmet? Would we be able to sing?"

Capoeira on the streets of Sao Paulo. — Photo by Marius Becker/EPA

Capoeira faces many other challenges if it is to be accepted as an official Olympic event, including its fight to be respected within Brazil.

That struggle is over a century old. Historians have described how, prior to Brazil's abolition of slavery in 1888, capoeira was an invaluable weapon for the country's escaped slave communities, known as quilombos, when defending themselves against attacks from government troops. The sport was even banned by law at the turn of the century, and carried a prison sentence of two to six months.

Today, the Brazilian tourism industry makes frequent use of capoeira's striking visual images, but the day-to-day reality of life for many in the capoeira community is not as glossy, especially in a country as wracked by racial and social inequality as Brazil. A recent report published by the government statistics unit IBGE found that the earnings of black Brazilians are just 59 percent of those of their white counterparts. Last year an Amnesty International report stated that 77 percent of murder victims aged 15 to 29 years old are black.

"Capoeira is part of the history of Brazil," said Gomes. "It's one of the foundations of Brazilian culture. And it's part of Afro-Brazilian identity. It gives us strength and makes us aware of our African roots. Brazil owes Africa, and its African descendants, a large debt. But Brazil doesn't value capoeira. I have friends who make good money teaching capoeira in New York. When they come back to Salvador"—a city in the northeast of Brazil and the center of the country's Afro-Brazilian culture—"they have to work for change, washing cars."

"Lots of people think capoeira is macumba," said Joselio Lima, the Maré mestre, using a generic term for Afro-Brazilian religions. "Sometimes I have to explain to the parents of my students that it's not about religion."

While capoeira devotees may hope that a platform as large as the Olympics could raise the profile of their sport, not one of the gaggle of Brazilian and international capoeira associations has yet made a formal bid for inclusion in the Games. The process would involve becoming an official IOC recognized sport and requires an international federation that complies with the Olympic Charter and the World Anti-Doping code. "To date, no capoeira organization has applied to become an IOC Recognized International Federation," an IOC spokesperson told VICE Sports.

"There has to be an agreement between the confederations, like in ju-jitsu or judo," said Joselio Lima.

There was, however, an effort last year to make capoeira an Olympic demonstration sport. In October, the Institute of Racial Advocacy (IARA), a non-profit organization that campaigns for the legal rights of the Afro-Brazilian community, brought a legal challenge against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, and Rio mayor Eduardo da Costa Paes, arguing that the authorities had a duty to apply a policy of affirmative action to guarantee the ethnic diversity of the Olympics. In effect, the group argued that capoeira should be included in the Games to ensure the participation of Afro-descendant and indigenous Brazilians.

"Capoeira, which has already been recognized as a global cultural heritage, is a reminder of our African roots, of our ancestry. At the World Cup, we saw none of that. There was no capoeira, no samba, there weren't even any black people in the stands," Humberto Adami Santos, Jr., one of the lawyers behind the petition, told Brazilian media. The Brazilian Supreme Court ruled against the case, arguing that the Brazilian authorities cited did not have the power to force the inclusion of a sport in the Olympics.

For now, it appears that capoeiristas will have to wait to see their sport included in the Games. Joselio Lima, among others, thinks that's a shame. "People are ignorant about capoeira, but ignorance only exists in people who don't know the sport," he said. "The Olympics could educate both Brazilians and foreigners about capoeira."