I write this en route to Rio, site of the 2016 Summer Olympics. I am traveling to Brazil to examine the bumps in the road that always accompany those last 100 breakneck days before the Summer Games. No matter the host country, the standard modus operandi includes debt, displacement, and the militarization of public space. Brazil, as I saw in the lead-up to another sporting mega-event, the 2014 World Cup, is no different.
But the situation in Rio is unraveling more than in any Olympics in recent memory. A financial crisis is causing the economy to shrink by an estimated 4 percent in 2016. The Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes, is ravaging the country, feeding fears that the 200,000 people who will visit Rio during the Olympics will become carriers of Zika when they return home. And roiling beneath it all is the nation’s deepest political crisis in decades.
Hosting the Olympics was supposed to be the crowning glory of the Workers’ Party, which has ruled Brazil for the last twelve years. Instead, it may become the backdrop for the coronation of a new, far more rightwing government. President Dilma Rousseff has been impeached by Brazil’s lower house. That decision was overturned due to procedural flaws, but the process will likely restart.
Ironically, in a political system rife with corruption, Dilma might have the cleanest hands in the room. Of the 594 members of Brazil’s Congress, coming from a wide variety of political parties, more than half are either facing charges or under some cloud of investigation.
No such allegations have been made against President Rousseff. In this stew of graft, she is being impeached simply because of how she chose to measure economic growth. Dilma—as she is popularly known—fudged the numbers the way every Brazilian leader has fudged the numbers. The difference between her and her predecessors is that she faces a rabid rightwing media, an economic crisis, and dauntingly low approval ratings.
There are now pitched battles in the streets as supporters of the Workers’ Party see the goings-on as little more than a bloodless coup. Yet now there is this little thing called the Olympics that needs to be pulled off amidst all of this chaos and uncertainty. As Chris Gaffney, who taught in Rio and has written extensively about the boondoggles created by the modern Olympics, said to me, “The wheels are coming off well before the Games, [International Olympic Committee] President Thomas Bach is going to be dragging his chariot through scorched earth.”
And that is why I am traveling to Rio. We are less than 100 days away from the Olympic games. The political and economic instability might make the people of Rio—the Cariocas—more willing to resist the big budget infrastructure projects that go nowhere, the coming of the Brazilian army for “security,” and their very displacement. But there also may be a deflating pall of defeat amongst Rio’s social movements.
The Workers’ Party had long since surrendered its grassroots support because of its endless deal- making with Brazil’s oligarchy. But now that oligarchy has emerged, the wolf in the henhouse, to destroy the Workers’ Party from the inside. Vice President Michel Temer, who is from a competing political party but brought in after the last elections as a demonstration of “national unity,” was found to be practicing his inaugural address as Dilma was still fighting off impeachment votes in the lower house.
If Dilma is impeached, Temer will replace her for 180 days as her trial begins, and will succeed her if she is removed from office.
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” might be a great line in a movie, but as a governing philosophy, it may have sealed Dilma’s fate. Now the Rio Olympics will no longer be the Workers’ Party’s shining glory but a scene that sanctifies a political coup. The athletes deserve better than to be props for this madness, and the people of Brazil deserve better than this usurping of democracy. ω
Dave Zirin is the host of the popular Edge of Sports podcast and the sports editor of The Nation. His latest book is Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.
From the June issue of the magazine.