Rio 2016: Human Rights And Sustainability After The Olympics Party

By Jorge Knijnik

Being a host of the Olympics brings in an opportunity of diverse communities’ social engagement. With the help of friends,1 the author discusses the Olympics’ implications for Brazil’s human rights development and its most vulnerable communities.

A bankrupt city.2 Broken environmental promises.3 Street violence.4 Zika. Faulty venues. Poor public transport. As the Rio 2016 Olympics approached, dark clouds surrounded the mega event, casting shadows on the feasibility of the summer competitions.

As the Games began and the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) powerful media army started to promote the amazing performances of top level sportspeople, immunity from their images’ “narcotic” effects was no longer possible. Billions of people around the world watched the competitions in real time. In Rio, if you didn’t call a “favela” (slum in Brazil within urban areas) home, living under the National Forces occupation and having your basic human rights violated on a daily basis; if you had not been evicted from your precarious home to make way for the Olympic circus; and if you had the means to attend the Games, you could be among the Olympic crowds, cheering and partying on the stands.

Despite the human rights violations, as paradoxical as this can be, the sports competitions were also an arena for genuine demonstrations of national culture and pride, community resilience, political protests and the hope of peace.5

Sports mega events, such as the Olympics, are a contradictory and complex phenomena that affect countries, cities, and their citizens’ social lives in multiple ways. Focused political, cultural, economic and environmental questions are necessary to achieve a broader and sustainable6 understanding of these events.7 In this article I address the implications of the Games for the human rights agenda in Brazil, outlining the post-Games political consequences for the most vulnerable Brazilian communities.

Considering Brazil’s MERCOSUL (the sub-regional South American countries’ bloc) leadership in the past decade, and taking into account Brazil’s role as an active leader and the largest advanced democracy within the BRICS8 – the geopolitical bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – have the Games marked the beginning, or the end, of a more democratic era for Brazilian citizens?

In spite of its, so-called, political neutrality, the Olympic Movement has always been surrounded by political controversies: boycotts by groups of countries, religious polemics, civil rights protests, gender issues, just to cite a few. Remarkably, though, the Olympic Movement brings, ingrained in its fundamental principles, the promotion of a “peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”;9 the same human dignity that appears in the very first article of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”). The connection is clear: the human rights civil agenda is embedded in the Olympic Games political sustainability; the Games should be more than branding, and actively promote human rights. The Olympic Charter states that, “practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind… such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.

Reality is more ambiguous than the best intents of the Olympic charter. The obscure aspects of sports mega events — power struggles, money disputes, corruption in upper echelons — have been well researched;10 so too, have the atrocities these events bring to host cities, by stimulating child prostitution11 and evicting people from their houses.

Examples of these disruptions could be seen during prelude to the Rio Games, when thousands were evicted from their homes (conservatively estimated at 77,000), to make room for the 2016 Olympic circus and the construction of new sports venues and accommodation.12 In clear contempt for human dignity, and the housing rights of the most vulnerable populations, the Games’ organisers expelled them from their already poor housing conditions under physical, moral and political violence. Some communities like the Vila Autodromo tried to resist through self-organisation and to fight the Olympic city plans, and violence towards them.13

Questions remain. Why the IOC, an organisation that makes billions of dollars with their mega events, has not acted to mitigate these communities’ suffering, negotiating with them or at least offering them decent new housing? Or is the “dignity” in the Olympic Charter just another variant of “greenwashing” by the Olympic Movement regarding the “sustainable” environmental principles of the IOC?14

These violent acts not only contradict the Olympic Charter, they deepen the social divide of a city that has been historically marked by social exclusion.

In 2009 Rio de Janeiro was finally rewarded with the Olympic and Paralympic Games, after hosting the 2007 Pan American and Para Pan American Games. Rio became the first South American city to host the world’s largest multisport event. Although the key for Rio’s successful Olympic bid, the Pan Games were marked by controversies: budgetary concerns regarding wasted sport facilities and construction equipment; widening Rio’s social divide; and gentrification and privatisation of Rio’s heritage areas.15

Notwithstanding these human rights violations and political abuse of vulnerable communities – which must not be condoned – Brazil’s political aims in hosting these mega events must also be viewed through the lens of its growing global ambitions and influence in the past decade, with connections to the BRICS’ goals too. This geopolitical transnational bloc has been a protagonist of the most recent moves that have placed sports mega events at the centre of the global power chess game. As the BRICS countries sought renewed spaces for their diplomatic and economic ventures, these events became one of the most powerful strategies to attract global attention, to propagate their political ambitions, social achievements, and to reach new markets. Hence BRICS countries have hosted several sports mega events in a ten-year period: Beijing 2008; Delhi 2010; South Africa, 2010; Sochi, 2014; Russia, 2018; Brazil, 2013 and 2014; and, of course Rio 2007 and Rio 2016.

Rio presented its bid to host the 2016 Games in 2007, just after the Pan-American Games. It was the third time that the city bid for the Olympics, but that was a different moment in time; Brazil enjoyed constant economic growth; its social policies (such as the “Bolsa Familia” program)16 drew international acclaim; progressive strategies were being developed to address Brazil’s 1988 democratic Constitution requirements, and to expand economic, political and social rights to further social inclusion of marginalised communities. The country’s social advancements, its growing global influence, and its leadership in the MERCOSUL and BRICS were crowned by its hosting of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Brazil was at the centre of the sports world.

These social and political changes were not universally accepted by several and conflicting social actors, both within and outside the country. On the one hand, international competitors17 were not positive about Brazil’s growth; on the other, and despite the tireless work of several official governmental human rights boards such as the National Truth Commission,18 the political and judicial system of the country failed to incriminate and prosecute those involved with the systematic kidnapping, torturing and killing of opponents during the military dictatorship (1964-1985).19 Failure to effectively ban these repressive forces from society meant that they started to regroup with conservatives, and supported by international interests, aimed to block the social advancements. Clashes with social progressives wanting more expansion in marginalised groups’ recently acquired social rights, were inevitable.

As the economic bonanza, that was Brazil in the past decade, started to decline, and the sports mega events were underway, the country became immersed in continuing political turmoil. It began prior to the 2013 Confederations Cup with daily street demonstrations in the main cities, continued through the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2014 Brazil’s federal elections, and culminated in the elected President Dilma Roussef being ousted from office between the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games. The legally dubious process of Roussef’s impeachment was internationally acknowledged as a soft coup d’état.20

With ongoing internal crises, the approach to the Rio 2016 Games saw many people around the globe, and most of all IOC officers, very concerned about the ability of Rio and Brazil to successfully host the mega event, and achieve a model for future sustainable Games. Brazilians were apprehensive that failure in the Games organisation would humiliate them on the world stage. International media broadcasts enhanced those fears as a global audience anticipated the Games Opening Ceremony.

Nevertheless, the Rio Games did take place and insiders’ reports are nearly unanimous in saying that they achieved much more than was expected.

Brazilians who attended both the Rio Olympics and Paralympics were not only relieved, they were genuinely proud of their country’s achievements in the international arena. They were pleased by Brazil’s capacity to deliver, well-organised, very entertaining and festive mega events. The opening and closing ceremonies, the parties in the stands and on Rio’s streets, were evidence, in Brazilians’ eyes, that the country can compete, on an international level, and even better other 1st World contenders for international events. As well, the Rio Paralympic Games placed a strong spotlight upon the needs of those with a disability, and the quest for accessibility and inclusion, for nearly a quarter of Brazil’s population.21

Where to from here for Brazil? As stated before, the Rio Olympics and Paralympics were symbolically associated with extraordinary progress in terms of human rights and social development in Brazil – the Bolsa Familia program had allowed 40 million people to step little farther away from the poverty line. What has not been considered is that human rights violations cannot be erased from history. The denial of the housing rights of thousands of vulnerable people during the Games’ preparations, and the reality that Brazil, during its short social advancements period, could not prosecute and jail the perpetrators of the horrendous crimes of the military dictatorship, came at a price. It signalled the conservative political forces that they could regroup, destabilise the incipient social improvements in the country, and finally oust the democratically elected president.

The outcomes of this abrupt process are already seen everywhere in Brazil. The new federal government has moved quickly: to close federal units that represented the vulnerable groups like the ministries for women’s rights and social inclusion; to implement severe attacks on workers’ rights’ legislation; to suspend, for several decades, the funding of public education and health; and, most of all, to increase the neoliberal agenda of privatisation of public assets. This is a conservative agenda that will see human rights’ decline across the country in the next few years. Hence, the Rio Olympics that was to be the peak of a social advancement process for the country, became, for Brazilians, the end of an era of democratisation and growing social and political rights.

The prospects for human rights and social inclusion for the country in the post-Olympics are not bright but there are some encouraging signs. One of the most important political outcomes of the Games was the enhanced visibility that Brazilian sports communities and sport culture enjoyed: the attentions were on top athletes and para-athletes, but the great work of social projects, that have sports as their catalyst, including sports for people with disabilities, was very well acknowledged during the Olympics and Paralympics. These social projects were driven by Brazilians who, as shown by the Vila Autodromo community resistance against the Olympic eviction, have already demonstrated their incredible resilience. This may be the only way forward for them in the face of the sustained attack on human rights. Brazilians need to harness the creativity, the power to fight back, and the skills to self-organise, of the culturally diverse communities across the country.

The parallel between the Olympic Games and Brazil’s historical process is clear: it is not possible to “greenwash” history and sweep it under the carpet. The IOC must develop not only clear guidelines but it must also act to effectively guarantee the dignity for every community involved in the games, especially the vulnerable populations; Brazil must face its violent past if the country wants to build an authentic and sustainable democracy, where human rights are a priority for the whole political and social system.

Só a luta muda a vida.

Featured Image courtesy: Sonya Christian’s Blog

About the Author

Dr. Jorge Knijnik (@JorgeKni) was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He will launch in 2017 his monograph World Cup Chronicles: 31 Days that Rocked Brazil (Commonground) and he has recently published Embodied Masculinities in Global Sport (FIT, with Daryl Adair) and Gender and Equestrian Sports: Riding around the World (Springer, with Miriam Adelman). Dr. Knijnik was presented with the ‘Building the Gender Equality’ prize by the Brazilian Research Council and UNESCO. He is currently with the Centre for Educational Research and the Institute for Culture & Society at Western Sydney University (NSW, Australia). His written works can be accessed at Author’s photo courtesy of: Sally Tsoutas.


1. With thanks to Marilia Carvalho and Jane Gibbs.
2. Wortstall, Tim. “Hosting Olympics Bankrupts Another Place: Rio De Janeiro Declares Financial Disaster”. Forbes, 18th June 2016
3. Brokes, Brad and Barchfield, Jenny. “Olympic Teams to Swin, Boat in Rio’s Filth’. Associated Press, 30th July 2015.
4. ‘The deadly side of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games’, available at
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7. Sustainability that actually is essential for the IOC’s Agenda 2020, that aims to support “Olympic Games organisers to integrate and implement sustainability measures that encompass economic, social and environmental spheres” in their bids. Despite its concerns about economic and social aspects of the event, environment remains as the Agenda 2020’s main focus.
8. Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill coined the term BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) in 2001 to the group the countries that he predicted would be the economic powers by 2050. Later on the S was added for South Africa. In 2015, though, he retracted to his thesis stating that these countries would not form a group of powerhouses in 2019, mainly due to the fall of Brazil and Russia.
9. International Olympic Committee, Olympic Charter, 2 August 2016.
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17. Nassif, Luis. Xadrez da teoria do golpe e do capitalism de desastre. Jornal GNN, 26/09/2016
18. This Commission has been diligently working in reparation for the victims of the dictatorship and their families as well as in unveiling clandestine cemeteries across Brazil where the repressive forces buried the corpses of their victims.
19. Dassin, J. (1998). Torture in Brazil: A Shocking Report on the Pervasive Use of Torture by Brazilian Military Governments, 1964-1979, Secretly Prepared by the Archiodese of São Paulo. University of Texas Press.
20. Greenwald, Glen. “Is It A Coup? What Is Happening in Brazil is Much Worse than Donald Trump”. Democracy Now, March 2016.
21. Tracey Dickson, Jorge Knijnik and Simon Darcy. ‘Grotesque spectacle’? Rio has a long way to go to become more accessible. The Conversation, 19/9/2016

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.