The best part of this year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics took place several days before the opening ceremony. On 27 July the Olympic torch relay was held up by a demonstration at Angra dos Reis, near Rio. Teachers, who had not been paid for months, blocked the road and one protester extinguished the flame.
This was a superbly symbolic act, which produced a predictable screech of outrage from right-wing media outlets around the world. It represented the culmination of three years of protests in Brazil against the obscene amounts of public money being lavished on staging such sporting events.
Dave Zirin has set out to explain the roots and nature of these protests, which began with opposition to the Confederations Cup in 2013, followed by the World Cup in 2014 and finally this year’s Rio Olympics and Paralympics.
Zirin paints a vivid picture of what some observers call “celebration capitalism”. This refers to the corporate feeding frenzy that occurs around major sporting and cultural occasions.
Brazil is a typical example. Facilities are built with public money, the poor and unsightly are shifted out and laws are changed or suspended to allow the security forces complete freedom. Private companies snap up the lucrative contracts and the local public are left to pick up the bill, often for years to come.
The particular tragedy for Brazil is that all this has occurred under a nominally left wing government. The Workers’ Party held the post of president from 2003 to 2016. In that time it oversaw some benefits for the poor of Brazil, but this went alongside an increasing accommodation to neoliberalism. Many former supporters have lost faith, enabling the right to remove Workers’ Party president Dilma Rousseff in August on charges of illegally manipulating the budget.
This book is as much about the history and politics of Brazil as it is about football and the Olympic Games. There are a number of interviews and encounters with residents of Rio’s favelas, the informal settlements on the hills that surround the city. These are home to nearly a quarter of the city’s population and often occupy land that is highly sought by developers. As such, there was a push to clear the favelas in the run up to the Olympics.
Zirin is at great pains not to romanticise favela life. However he makes clear that there are nonetheless proud traditions of community and solidarity to be found there. This balance is in keeping with the rest of his story, which is a great read, whether you are a sports fan or not.