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Terrestrial olympus

By interviewing athletes, a study draws a picture of the image of the Brazilian Olympic Games

cobScenes from the 2004 Olympic games in Athens: the media has made athletes fight less for the sport and more for money and famecob

Every two years Brecht’s phrase, “pity the country that needs heroes”, loses its validity. Between World Cups and Olympic Games, sport reigns sovereign and athletes turn themselves into the protagonists of one of the major social spectacles of the contemporary world, exhibited as with magnificent heroes, capable of feats vetoed to the common mortals who see them on the TV. In Brazil, the country of the anti-hero, this heroic condition of the sportsman and sportswoman has taken on its own configurations.

“For the poor and for the blacks, the practice of sport has allowed them to conquer their freedom that they would probably not have had in other activities. In Brazil, through the influence of the media, the population has gone on to believe in sporting victory as an affirmation of national identity of equality or superiority, in the face of those who hold back hegemony by force and by economic power”, explains Kátia Rubio, whose thesis for her associate professorship Do atleta à instituição esportiva: o imaginário esportivo brasileiro [from the athlete to the sports institution: Brazilian sport image] (funded by FAPESP), maps the image of the national Olympics starting from the histories of the athletes’ lives, according to the author, “a mosaic of memories and images, which aims to represent the meaning that Olympic participation can have for a competitive athlete.”

Indeed, the researcher went in search of those responsible for the sixty-seven Brazilian Olympic medals, the first of them conquered in 1920 by Guilherme Parense, in Antwerp, in the sport of shooting. Curiously enough, only five of these medals were gained in a collective sport. “This is an indication of how national sport has survived at the cost of individual efforts, since the process of the formation of teams is complex and involves more than the sum of individual values”, Kátia observes. “Hence the importance of the registration of individual memory as a form of preserving not only the memories of peoples’ conquests, but by way of them, recovering the memory of Brazilian sport”, the author evaluates.

Historically, Brazil and the Brazilian relationship has closely followed the middle class trajectory of the modern era of European sport, in which the practice of a sport was an elite activity of those who could afford  to practice a sport as an amateur, a preconceived virtue of the Olympic movement born through Baron de Coubertin. “It wasn’t by chance that the first Brazilian participant on the International Olympic Committee, in 1919, was a diplomat, Raul do Rio Branco (son of  Baron do Rio Branco), a descendant of the exclusive Brazilian aristocracy, in the same way that the athletes who made their debut at the Antwerp Olympic Games belonged to the middle classes of urban centers”, observes Kátia. The sons of the São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro aristocracy went to Europe to study and returned “impregnated” with European sport, national enthusiasm that was added to that of the immigrants which, in Brazil, reproduced a culture of the movement of their countries of origin.

This culture preached the sport was a civilizing impulse, even though, in almost all of the civilized countries, its practice was associated with the process of the affirmation of nationality and the preparation for a war and the defense of the State. Baron de Coubertin wanted to reform this state of things by creating an Olympic movement based on social reform through education and sport, seen from a pacifist and internationalist perspective. However, a good son of the 19th century, the incipient Olympic movement brought traps for the entry of the working masses into the Games. The “noble” sport should be an activity of the few for the few.

The impediments were amateurism (“the practice of sport for pleasure, without material gain of any nature”) and fair play, sporting gentlemanly behavior that vetted the athlete from exploring the limit of possibilities within competition, in the name of good manners. “Amateurism was little by little forgotten as one of the fundamental elements of the Olympic spirit during the decade of the 70’s, when a movement of disguising the athletes as employees of companies so as to escape from the condition of professional sportsmen emerged  This effort was substituted, successfully, by contracts from sponsors, creating o other types of problem”, the researcher explained.

From 1960 on, in the Rome Olympic Games, the media entered the stadiums and the Olympic spirit, no longer interested in Baron de Coubertin’ ideas, transformed itself into a million dollar business.  If in 1980 the television companies paid US$ 100 million for the transmission of the Games, in 2008 this value will reach US$ 1.7 billion. “Sport as a spectacle, worked up by the media, represents for society a type of target of social projection, because anonymous people gain stardom and highlight themselves in a particular sport, conquering million dollar contracts and world fame. Today, many youngsters do not desire to be marvelous football players, but a Ronaldo, with his contracts, women and fame”, Kátia notes. “For a person with skill, sport has now become one of the few opportunities for social ascension in the contemporary world”, she adds.

In Brazil, nevertheless, it is necessary to overcome the difficult access to public and private equipment, ideal locations for the development of sporting activities. “It’s not really strange that in track and fields, the sporting activity that doesn’t require any special type of equipment, the group of individuals of the humblest origins are concentrated and they have also brought the greatest number of metals for the country.” The entrance of major sponsoring companies has widened the condition of the spectacle of the Games, and here it became a model quickly assimilated by volleyball. “For other types of sport this model is still looking for solutions and identity, amateurish practice in the management of these sports still prevails, which has led to improvisation and to fantasy beliefs during the moments that precede the major competitions”, says professor Kátia. Or that is to say, in Brazil there is a lack of long term planning, fundamental for creating athletes in Brazilian sport.

For years, this lack of organization has reflected itself in the incapacity of making the Brazilian Olympic sport popular with the public. “Although sports such as male basketball, which was champion twice over during the decade of the 60, conquered three Olympic bronze medals and was the second most practiced and prestigious sport in Brazil, institutional policies and the incapacity to manage have stopped the Brazilian team from participating in the last two Olympic Games”, the researcher observes. “This scares the media, which no longer gives prestige to the sport, which stops being publicized, and shortly afterwards has fewer people interested in it, forming an inverted spiral.”

In this way, Kátia notes, Brazilian sport survives more from individual efforts than from policies that favor the coming forward and the sustaining of victorious athletes. “For this reason, the sponsoring companies are today a necessary evil for sport. The problem is the limit to which this relationship can go. There are cases in which there’s no clear line as to how far the coach dominates or the company rules. We watch competitions with game times and schedules that are unacceptable from the athletes’ physiological point of view, but highly profitable for the companies”, she says. “It’s time not only for a technical re-evaluation of this situation, but also an ethical one about the sporting spectacle.”

Amid all of this, the athlete has also got to endure the stigma of defeat. “Although this is one of the conditions of sport and an inevitable situation for the sports person, defeat in the western world has gone on to represent not being at the top, the position of greatest highlight, on projection for other leaps. Or that is to say, it is a reflection of contemporary society”, she observes. “The consequences of this attitude lead to extreme situations in which results worthy of being highlighted are minimized by those who know their worth. This is the case of silver and bronze medals that lose their value since they are considered as losses and not conquests. The medal becomes the affirmation of impotence, although it is the privilege of an extremely restrictive group of people who inhabit the planet.” But there are always the Vanderlei Cordeiros. For them a silver or bronze is worth gold.

The project
From the athlete to the sporting institution: the picture of Brazilian sport image (nº 01/14054-8); Modality Regular line of research assistance; Coodinator Kátia Rubio – EEFE/USP; Investment R$ 60,450.03 (FAPESP)