Rio Olympics: Games offer platform to highlight change, push for progress

Amid all the focus on Rio's woes, the 2016 Games have also started good conversations – including, for example, around the national embrace of an Afro-Brazilian gold medalist.

Markus Schreiber/AP
Brazil's Rafaela Silva celebrates Aug. 8, 2016 after winning the Olympic gold medal in the women's 125-lb judo competition. Ms. Silva's from a poor, gritty favela in Rio, and said if not for the sport that helped her climb up and out, “I could still be living in City of God now.”

When Rafaela Silva won Brazil’s first gold medal of the Olympic Games this week competing in judo, the cheers reverberating around Brazil were about more than just national pride.

Ms. Silva is Afro-Brazilian and grew up poor in the infamous favela City of God. For many, her accomplishment (and tearful interviews immediately following her match) spoke to the racial and economic divides that trouble the nation. And it created a sense of awareness around seeing such an unlikely profile rise up to become the poster child of Brazilian Olympic accomplishment.

Her victory highlights that although Rio and Olympic organizers have come under fire for missing the mark on many planning goals – from helping improve living standards in favelas to cleaning up long-polluted waterways – there are still plenty of opportunities to underscore progress and spark important conversations at home and internationally as an Olympic host.

It’s not just moments of sports victory that are garnering attention. From an opening ceremony that accentuated gender and racial diversity in the aftermath of Brazil’s interim president appointing an all-male, all-white cabinet, to the on-air marriage proposal between a Brazilian women’s rugby player and her girlfriend in a country where same-sex marriage is legal, but far from widely accepted: The Rio Olympics are serving as a platform to highlight changing mores and possibly confront some of the social ills many here hoped the Games could begin to resolve.

“In a sense, the Games themselves have called attention to inequalities in Brazil in somewhat remarkable ways,” says Thomas Trebat, the director of Columbia University’s Global Center in Rio de Janeiro.

Moments like Silva’s victory “certainly have caused Brazil to look inward a bit. No one in Brazil could miss the symbolism…. She’s a hero today,” he says. But Brazilians are noting the disconnect between that and the “typical” attitudes here toward poor, black communities, which send a message that “whatever health care and education we give you should be enough.” 

A full pivot from 2012

This wasn’t Silva’s first Olympic match. In 2012, she was disqualified early on in London after performing a recently banned move. The reaction from social media-loving Brazil was swift – and ugly. Tweets and online posts excoriated her using overtly racist language.

“I insisted judo is my life” after the 2012 Games, Silva said in a press conference this week. “People told me: ‘The place for you is as a monkey in a cage,’ but my place is in sports, in judo.”

Today, the social media reaction is much different, with even suspended President Dilma Rousseff tweeting, “It’s a great joy to see that the first gold for Brazil in #Rio2016 was won by a black woman.”

Brazil often presents itself as a harmonious melting pot, with the majority of the country identifying as black or mixed race. But between 2010 and 2013, 80 percent of all homicides at the hands of police​ in Rio​ were Brazilians of African decent. And poor neighborhoods of Rio are disproportionately made up of non-white citizens.

"In Brazil, race and poverty are interwoven; you cannot separate them," says Gustavo Proença da Silva Mendonça, a lawyer and professor in Rio who focuses on minority rights. "One prejudice feeds the other prejudice.”

Following Silva’s victory this week, there’s more recognition of the extreme swing that public attention has taken between 2012 and 2016, from racism to love – and the odds many poor, black Brazilians face in moving ahead.

"I think [my win] can serve as an example to children from poor communities, where you feel discriminated just for being black," Silva said Tuesday. "This now shows that a child from the favela with no hope, who started judo for fun at the age of five, can end up somewhere."

Discussions around Brazil's attitudes toward gay rights also came to the fore with "the first Olympic marriage proposal" of the 2016 Games, which followed Brazil's 9th place finish at the women's rugby sevens. Gay marriage is legal in Brazil, but it was a top down change from the Supreme Court, which means public opinion hasn't necessarily caught up with the law in all corners of South America's largest and most populace nation. Hate crimes are still a reality, and last year, then-president of the Chamber of Deputies proposed to increasingly conservative lawmakers a day to celebrate heterosexuality in the country.

The marriage proposal, combined with very intentional decisions like including at least one transgender person among the brigade of bicycle riders leading teams from around the world into the Maracanã Stadium during Opening Ceremonies, are other small ways that the Games have given Brazil the opportunity to make visible issues that it and many nations around the world are still struggling to accept. 

“Maybe [these events] won’t be next week’s news, but it has people talking, and the Games have already offered a number of opportunities” for discussion, Mr. Trebat says. “Rio made a bet that there would be an Olympic legacy that would diminish inequality in the city,” he says.

It’s something many have already labeled a failure, given deserted promises to formalize favelas and perceptions of prioritizing wealthy parts of the city over the poor.

But, Trebat says, maybe it’s worth reserving judgment. Very concrete changes spurred by the Games, like the creation of a bus rapid transit system that better connects poorer neighborhoods with the city's center, could create an economic legacy for Rio's poor, even if it isn't a social policy, he says.

And, "a major legacy of the Olympics will be changing the way the ... rest of world sees Rio," and possibly how Rio sees itself, Trebat says. “Much of what I see as the legacy of the Games will play out over time.” 

- Jonathan Gilbert contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.

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