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5 Lessons in Olympic Resistance from Rio

Vila Autódromo residents receive keys to new homes. Photo from Museu de Remoções Facebook page

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The Olympics are a globetrotting behemoth that leave a trail of destruction in their wake. The problems associated with the event are not isolated cases of poor governance and mismanagement as they are often portrayed. The model itself is broken. Yet the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has shown little appetite for change, its piecemeal Agenda 2020 reforms dismissed by Olympics scholar Jules Boykoff as “baby steps where bold strides are required.”

In response to the lethargy of the authorities, citizens in host cities have stepped up to the task. From as early as 1932, local social movements have protested against the Olympic Games taking over their cities. In recent years, this has become the norm, with protest in host cities a regular feature of the Games. Naturally, this activism focuses on the specific impacts and issues associated with each event, from human rights at Beijing 2008, environmental damage at Vancouver 2010, gentrification at London 2012, and corruption at Sochi 2014, to police violence and evictions at Rio 2016, to name but a few points of contention.


Occurring in a different city every two years, the context of these protests differs wildly, limiting the opportunities to build an international coalition and learn from each event. However, despite the challenges, a nascent movement against the Olympics is growing. In this article, I will draw on interviews conducted with several key figures in the coalition which contested the impacts of mega-events in Rio de Janeiro to illustrate some key lessons that may be of use for activists in future host cities. They were asked what advice they’d give and the common themes of their responses are described below.

1. Embrace a Diversity of Tactics

Several of these activists noted the usefulness of building on the lessons and experiences of activists in host cities. Orlando Alves dos Santos Júnior, a member of the Popular Committee on the World Cup and Olympics (which brought together a wide range of civil society actors to address the impacts of the Olympic Games), stressed that “the experience of Rio de Janeiro already learned from other previous experiences,” citing London, Vancouver, and South Africa, as well as the work of scholars like Jules Boykoff. In particular, many activists emphasized the importance of an approach involving a diversity of tactics, something learned from activists in Vancouver.

In his 2014 book Activism and the Olympics, Boykoff explains the importance of this diversity of tactics approach, which “allows protestors with diverging styles and preferred methods to make a pact to support each other—or at least not publicly denigrate each other—during an episode of contention.” In short, the diversity of tactics approach helps create unity among a diversity of groups campaigning in different ways on different issues, fitting this diversity into a wider strategy of activism. As Santos says, Rio’s Popular Committee was “a practical experience of tactical divergence and strategic convergence.”

2. Work Together to Show the ‘Recipe for Destruction’

One of the most common threads among the activists interviewed was the importance of forming links among a wide range of groups. The Olympics are an all-encompassing beast that touch on all areas of urban life in host cities, from housing to policing, economics to ecology. Following this divergence of tactics approach, it is important to build a coalition of a wide range of civil society actors. As Theresa Williamson, executive director of favela advocacy nonprofit Catalytic Communities,* said: “The first thing is to make sure that you have a good network of civil society actors… the more diverse that network the better,” including social movements, NGOs, local neighborhood groups, universities, and others. In particular, she stressed that this network should involve the people who will be directly affected by the mega-event.

Giselle Tanaka, another member of the Popular Committee, emphasized the importance of “being able to see and treat the impacts as common, as linked… the Olympics brings together housing, major construction, public transit, issues of public space, the repression of social movements.” Bringing together all these different interests and building an effective coalition rests on understanding that the Olympic Games are not about sport, as Vancouver activist Chris Shaw plainly writes—they are about real estate.

As Santos, who is also a professor of urban planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), explains, the Olympics “impact the entire city, to satisfy certain economic interests… The only thing that justifies the current model of mega-events is that they are linked to three processes: the spreading of neoliberal reforms, the financialization of cities, and large-scale urban transformation.” The problem with the Olympics isn’t about sports—it’s what this event does to host cities. As Luiz Claudio da Silva, a resident of the Vila Autódromo favela whose home was destroyed for the Olympic Park, says, the event “is a recipe for destruction.”

3. Data is Your Friend

The good news is that evidence and experience both suggest that the more people know about the impacts these events have, the less likely they are to support the event. This points to the importance of providing concrete information demonstrating the impacts mega-events have, as well as making the links between those impacts clear. Building a clear counter-narrative, as Santos put it, should be based on this evidence of negative impacts.

This won’t be easy. Normally, in the mega-event build-up phase, publicly available data will disappear from government websites. Processes that should be transparent will become opaque. A range of powerful interests, including local governments and the world’s most powerful corporations have an interest in this information remaining hidden. As Tanaka explained, “they try to hide even the data so nobody ever sees it like this—they hide the negative impacts.”

One of the strategies used by the Popular Committee in Rio to combat this was to collate the available data and publish it themselves in dossiers of human rights abuses. These documents helped track what was happening in the city, providing clear data that could be used by others. In particular, the total number of people evicted in preparation for the Olympics as calculated in the final dossier—77,206—was widely quoted in reporting on Rio 2016.

It is important to recognize that many media organizations also have a vested interest in not criticizing the Games. As Silva explained, “the media camouflages, it hides; the mainstream media is always with the system.” For this reason, he emphasized the importance of other kinds of media, such as alternative media, as well as the work of academics and international journalists. RioOnWatch played an important role in highlighting “misrepresentations of pre-Olympic transformations in official and mainstream media,” according to former editor Cerianne Robertson.

4. Internationalize

There is space and demand for such critical coverage, and at times the foreign press corps may play an important role in disseminating counter-narratives. As Williamson suggests, “take advantage, because the global press is going to be there.” This provides an avenue to generate more visibility for the negative impacts of the event and, as Thainã de Medeiros, a media activist based in the favelas of Complexo do Alemão, said, “visibility is a right which spreads other rights.” With the world watching, violating human rights becomes harder. For example, the presence of a CNN photographer forced the city to increase the compensation offered to favela residents in Largo do Tanque whose homes were earmarked for demolition by over 600% in just one day.

An important aspect of working with international journalists is how you frame your struggle. While being explicitly anti-Olympics will attract the attention of journalists, as the experience of the Popular Committee showed, there are also advantages to not being labeled as such. Catalytic Communities worked with many international journalists to help them report on favelas in the lead up to Rio’s Olympics, and part of their attraction to journalists was that they didn’t focus on taking a side with regard to the Olympics. As Williamson explained, “if you introduce yourself to them as anti-Olympics, you may not be as effective. They will definitely talk to you because they’re going to be interested in that perspective, but what is the reason you’re anti-Olympics?” She argues that organizing around several specific issues can enable activists to offer perspectives as local experts, not as Olympic partisan actors, and therefore gain more credibility for their causes. She also emphasized the importance of RioOnWatch’s English reporting on developments, noting that “the translation aspect of RioOnWatch has been the easiest to engage volunteers in because people see you’re producing useful content and they can do something helpful from home: there are large numbers of people who speak English and whatever [local] language.” RioOnWatch’s translations rely on a group of volunteers, organized through Facebook, giving their time when they can to translate articles.

All the activists agreed that the international aspect of their struggle was important. Tanaka said that “it made all the difference,” while Santos noted that the Popular Committee became “a reference for so many academic studies as well as the international press.” For Silva, the challenge is overcoming the bias of the mainstream media. Speaking about his community’s fight against eviction he notes that “this information, this struggle of resistance in Vila Autódromo, it doesn’t reach everyone.” For this, the international press has a role, but so do others: academics, alternative media, artists, documentary makers, and human rights organizations. Tanaka talked explicitly about the importance of human rights groups, and the United Nations, as important forums where their work, particularly the Popular Committee’s dossiers, could find an international audience.

All of this international visibility and support served, as Tanaka explained, “to put more effective pressure on the government and even to protect people.” The Olympics, for many local politicians, are an opportunity to project an idealized image of their city to the world, while burnishing their own political credentials, often with ambition for higher office. Disrupting that image, therefore, provides an effective avenue for pressure, as nobody wants a reputation for disregarding human rights and privileging an international elite ahead of their own people, especially if they have plans to run for higher office in the future.

5. Support Those Who Suffer the Impacts

One point that Luiz Cláudio Silva and his wife Maria da Penha both stressed was the need to support those who, as Silva put it, “suffer [the impacts] in their skin.” In the face of eviction by the City, their community was supported by a wide range of activists, which encouraged them to keep fighting. As Penha explained: “I saw solidarity working in this fight because people came from all over the world. Each from their place and from my own country, because often we just say people don’t pay attention. But it’s not true, there are lots of good people still. The love isn’t finished, hope still stays strong in many hearts and this was fundamental. It’s love, solidarity, without preconditions. You can’t put a price on that.”

While this wide range of support gave residents in Vila Autódromo courage, their knowledge about their rights was crucial. As Silva explained, “one of the things that strengthened us a lot, to which the Mayor gave no attention, but one of the things that defended us was that we knew we had the right, we had land titles from the government.” While this knowledge came in part from previous struggles against evictions, it was supported by meetings with public defenders and academics at local universities engaging with the community to support their rights.

Fundamentally, as Tanaka points out, it is in this area that progress can be made. By supporting those directly threatened by the impacts of mega-events, activists in Rio were able to lessen some of those impacts. Talking about the case of Vila Autódromo, Tanaka explains that in this emblematic case “in some moments a lot of people thought it was impossible to reverse that eviction. In the end, it happened, but some of the groups that were involved, all the people that stayed there were very important. It was important for the community.” While 97% of the community was removed, it matters that 3% stayed. As Medeiros explained, “working with human rights you have large chances of losing all the time… but look at Vila Autódromo, I know only three percent survived, it’s sad, but three percent are still there… still fighting for the pride of saying that ‘I live in Vila Autódromo,’ you know? That’s very gratifying.”

Conclusions

To conclude, it is worth emphasizing Medeiros’ response to the question “what advice would you give to people in future host cities?” His simple response was “definitely don’t trust the IOC!” They have different interests to the people who live in host cities—interests aligned, as Santos points out, with “neoliberal reforms… the financialization of the city and the actual restructuring of urban space.” With these interests holding the ear of local government, normal processes of governance change and information that is usually easily available disappears.

Mega-events like the Olympics have a profound, transformational impact across all aspects of urban life. As activists, it’s important to bring in as wide-ranging a network of civil society groups as possible to track and challenge the impacts of these events. Getting networked will help build cooperation and a diversity of tactics across civil society to support those living the impacts of these events. Succeeding against the Olympic juggernaut may seeming daunting, impossible even, but little victories are possible. Indeed, the Olympics present local civil society groups with a unique opportunity to draw global attention to local issues in your city. If you plan carefully and focus this attention on long-standing issues linked to the Games (such as favela evictions in Rio), it may even be possible to use the event to make genuine progress. Good luck!

Adam Talbot is a lecturer in the sociology of sport at Abertay University who specializes in protest against the Olympic Games. His current research, including the translation of this article, is supported by the Carnegie Trust.

If this article has affected your approach to activism in any way, please let Dr. Talbot know about it here. Also check out the translations of this article in French and in Japanese and share widely! We encourage republishing this piece in accordance with our Creative Commons license.

*RioOnWatch is a project of the NGO Catalytic Communities