Rio Olympics 2016: Sports, Medals, and…Protests?

Have you been keeping up with the summer Olympics in Rio this year? They have only begun recently, but we have been hearing about them in news coverage for many months now. Perhaps it began with hearing about the Zika virus issues in Brazil that prompted so many athletes to drop out of the games over health concerns. Then we heard of doping scandals among several athletes, which makes us question the integrity of sports and athleticism. More recently we began hearing of the unsafe waters in Brazil that could potentially cause stomach flus and illnesses among the athletes who drink it.

Doping, Zika, and dangerous water aside, the host nation is also known for its citizen protests. What could they be protesting about? Their country is on display at the world stage, for everyone to witness the diversity, hospitality, bright colors, and beauty that Brazil is known for. Unfortunately, it is only those aspects that are displayed on the stage: the protesters know of an uglier side to Brazil hosting the summer Olympics this year.

Outside of the opening ceremony in Maracana Stadium that was held this past Friday, thousands of protesters were demonstrating their frustrations over the games. Brazil’s political and economical structures have not been faring well for many years, so unsurprisingly, many questioned the decision for Brazil to be hosting the games. Many local citizens are devastated that the country would be using its limited resources and capacities towards hosting expensive sports games, while issues like poverty, crime, drug abuse, disease, and infrastructure problems have not been given adequate attention. Not to mention that all this money is being spent during Brazil’s worst recession in recent years. Rio on Watch reports that cost estimates are conservative, at R$40 billion (or US$12 billion), and this has brought public services to a halt, including cuts to health care and education, forcing the closures of some hospitals and schools.

Several protests broke out on Friday in various areas, and just two hours before the games officially began, police were using tear gas and stun grenades to break up a protest in the Pena Square area. Among those protesting outside Maracana Stadium before the opening ceremony were also anti-government protesters who were furious at the presence of Brazil’s acting president Michel Temer. Other ways of showing frustration were seen inside the stadium, where less than two-thirds of the 80,000-seat stadium was occupied, as some people refused to buy tickets, leaving many seats empty.

Violence was the solution that police sought to break up protesters: tear gas, grenades, pepper spray, tackling, punching, etc. Some protesters sustained injuries, while one was seen coughing up tear gas via livestream of the protests on Facebook. According to Rio on Watch, over 2,500 citizens have been killed by police in Rio since it won the host title of the Games in 2009.

Protesting expensive Olympic games is not new — going back to as early as 1932– and Rio protesters join a history of protesting the Games because of their costs to local citizens pre- and post-Games. The TV viewers, tourists, and foreign attendants do not see it, because they get to go home after the Games are over; but almost everywhere the Olympics have occured, there has been left a trail of corruption, lies and mess for locals to deal with: Gentrification, environmental destruction, indigenous rights, homeless rights, rights for the poor, and so on.

Why are protests now synonymous with the Olympics? It may be a sign for us to wake up and reimagine these age-old Games and the consequences they leave behind. Let’s ask ourselves: What have the Olympics become?