Structural challenges in Brazilian sports: How to empower athletes?

This text aims at discussing and analysing the repositioning of athletes in the Olympic Movement based on Brazilian Olympic athletes’ biographical narratives and on guidelines issued by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the document called “Olympic Agenda 2020” with strategic recommendations for the future of the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Games.

By Katia Rubio, Universidade de São Paulo

Excerpt of article from ICSSPE’s Bulletin no. 70/2016 – see further reference at the bottom of the page.

One hundred and twenty years after the first Olympic Games held in the Modern Era, the search for an ideal to keep the ethereal “Olympic spirit” alive can be observed. The adjective ethereal has been used because, in the 20th century, a deep and abrupt change happened in what was originally called Olympism, mainly after the 1980s, when a wave of professionalism and commercial interests rose towards the greatest show on Earth, the Olympic Games.

It has been observed that, in the Olympic history, sports managers have not only got the power and dictated the rules of the Games and the Olympic Movement – even though not all of them were athletes or competitive sportspersons – but also defined and limited the actions and the lives of those who are the reason of the Olympic Games, the athletes.

In more than a century of troubled history, marked by great social events on the planet, many have insisted that sports and politics do not mix. However, there are policies, issued by managers of the Olympic structure, that imprison and gag athletes and that do not differ much from despotic and authoritarian structures of centralizing governments (Rubio, 2010).

This model seems to have reached its exhaustion, due to either the frequent changes which the Olympic Movement has gone through in the last two decades, or the repositioning of the athlete-citizen in his/her country and in the international geopolitics.

In the specific case of the Brazilian Olympic athlete, public policies on sports have not been well-defined, a fact that points out the need for the professionalization of both the institutional structure and the athlete. This process has only happened regularly in relation to professional soccer players, rather than other Olympic athletes. The lack of full acknowledgement of the Brazilian athlete’s professional activity has contributed to the disarticulation of groups that are interested in the organization of elite sport. It also keeps delaying the necessary structuring of the whole development of a promising economic field.

Agenda 2020 and the Exhaustion of the Sports Model
Jacques Rogge’s term as President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from 2001-2013 was marked by institutional stagnation after some hectic years at the end of the 1990s with numerous cases of corruption related to the selection of Olympic cities for the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, to the increase in doping scandals and to the loss of meaning of one of the most widely recognized symbols in the world: the Olympic Rings and the philosophy called Olympism they represent.

Rogge’s task was to preside over the reforms adopted shortly before his election, and it is clear that the changing agent was not the original Olympic values but the possibility of losing all commercial and financial deals which derive from one of the greatest media business on Earth.

The search for the end of the corruption scandals and of other disarrays in the Olympic Movement has made the current IOC president, the German Thomas Bach, called on the Olympic community to order and search for solutions for the deadlock created by a new load of denunciations. Right after his inauguration, Bach headed a one-year survey that collected more than 40,000 suggestions from the sports movement and its stakeholders, systematized in 1,200 proposals, which were taken to the 127th IOC Session in December 2014 by the presidents of 14 work teams. This meeting resulted in 40 recommendations – the so-called “Agenda 2020” – which are considered strategic for the future of the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Games.

The main themes of this programme include the fight against corruption in the Olympic environment, control of the huge growth of the Olympic Games, gender equality, doping control and athletes’ empowerment (IOC, 2016).

The search for the debate about these issues reflects not only new political directions for the Olympic Movement which in the last century were conducted with the arrogance of an isolated and independent organism regarding major issues in the international society. Openness to themes which were neglected in the past shows true concern for the fact that discrimination, prejudice and disrespect have led to increasing lack of interest in the greatest sports show on earth. Among the major themes previously mentioned, this study focuses on the athlete and the role s/he plays in the Olympic structure.

The Athlete as the Greatest Olympic Legacy
As I have stated in previous studies (Machado & Rubio, 2013; Rubio, 2014; Rubio & Machado, 2007), I believe that discussions on the impact of large sports events may actually advance if the role and the importance of the athlete in the sports structure is also discussed. As the protagonist of the show, s/he is the reason why Olympic Games are held. Even though this statement may seem obvious, there are very few studies which discuss this issue vertically in the sports literature. To understand this subject’s social role and the changes that happened in the development of her/his identity in the last century may help explain the IOC’s current concern for the protection of clean athletes’ integrity and the application of justice to those who do not comply with Fundamental Principle no. 6 of the Olympic Charter, i. e.: Belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter and recognition by the IOC.

In the 20th century, the Olympic Games became a privileged field to display heroic attitudes. Outstanding human beings have been able to perform above average and accomplish what is uncommon for average individuals. Before television, their prowess was narrated in newspapers or by radio waves spread all over the world. Heroic narratives got special touches due to the voice or texts written by enthusiasts of achievements carried out by athletes who overcame, in their ways and pace, limitations imposed by their countries and social origins. Television changed the construction of the narrative radically since it started showing, in real time, the aesthetics of the perfect movement which cannot be accomplished by the general public. Thus, the heroic myth, which had already been developed in the past, was strengthened and, now, deeply explored by the sense of sight.

In a previous study (Rubio, 2001), I stated that the hero cult has been necessary because of the characteristics heroism carries; they are analogous to the virtues that are needed to triumph over chaos. Victory over oneself is the major trigger of the hero of all time. From this perspective, a hero may be seen as a mould that structures an attitude pattern, rather than being a mere character. Unlike athletes in the Ancient Games whose training aimed at warlike goals, athletes in the contemporary world have got attached to the show and leisure. Their deeds are able to take crowds to sports arenas for shows and cause commotion and pain in case of accidents or death.

The dynamics of the Olympic Movement have also directly interfered in the construction of this representation. During the amateur phase of the Olympic sports which stretched from the end of the 19th century to the 1980s, an athlete’s development and social role used to focus mainly on training and competition whose objective was to get an Olympic medal or the status of world champion.

In Brazil, where most sports practices happened in private clubs or in army headquarters, the constructed imaginary about the athlete and the Olympic sports was connected to a kind of class privilege. Some outstanding athletes, such as Melânia, Benedita, Wanda dos Santos, Aída dos Santos and Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, have broken this barrier and conquered the respect of coaches and managers. Even though Adhemar had overcome the fact that he was black and poor to become an Olympic champion twice, he did not get privileges an athlete with his status would have had in another country (Rubio, 2007).

Brazilian athletes were almost considered bums in the 1950s. The situation would even be crueller with women since they faced three-fold discrimination for being women, athletes and, in some cases, black. Besides, they had to face legal regulations to practice sports, mainly soccer, martial arts, boxing, wrestling, water polo, polo and weight lifting. Due to these restrictions, few opportunities were considered really exciting and desirable by girls of that generation (Rubio, 2015).

This dynamic started to undergo deep changes with real time broadcasting of sports competitions all over the world after the athletes’ prowess did not need to be re-created by a radio broadcaster’s or a writer’s narrative. The image of the perfect movement can be immediately watched and replayed for many generations. The image of the ones who innovate by creating a new technical feature or an overwhelming victory, showing exceptionality on the podium – where the best ones are hallowed –, reinforces the contemporary athlete’s heroic mythic condition. If sports were once associated with amateur activities, with no commercial interest, in a certain historical moment, what can be perceived after the 1980s is the expectation of associating this successful image with products that wish to have their trademarks connected to the uniqueness of that mythic being, the successful athlete.

The beginning of the participation of multinational companies and sponsors marked a period, called professionalization, in Brazilian sports. It was characterized by an increase in the funds granted to teams and clubs, but it did not necessarily lead to competent management of institutions and athletes’ careers (Almeida & Marchi Jr., 2011; Vlastuin, Almeida, & Marchi Jr., 2008; Vaz, 2008).

In this new phase, Brazilian athletes did not need to sign the so-called “contracts-in-the-drawer” (Angelo, 2014; Giglio, 2013) anymore. These were unofficial documents which were not registered in the sports confederations (national sports organisations in Brazil are called confederations and composed by federations from each of country’s 27 provincial states) but were mainly used by clubs to prevent athletes from changing clubs in case they got an advantageous proposal.

Another strategy was to register the athlete as a worker in the company which sponsored the club or the team. In these conditions, the athlete was an employee in that company even though s/he did not carry out any task, besides practicing the sport with the logo of the company on her/his uniform.

This movement started in the 1980s and the sport that first adapted to this model was volleyball (Vlastuin, Almeida, & Marchi Jr., 2008). According to the authors, CBV developed an organizational structurewith structural and material conditions so that sports activities would have maximum productivity and reach increasingly more successful results (p. 17).

The policy which aimed at transforming sports into a big business made that generation of athletes, as well as others, relate to sports in a professional way and dedicate themselves to daily physical and technical preparation in search for results, the main reason of sports from that moment on. In this new scenario, an athlete was not the one who “did it out of love” (etymology of the word amateur) anymore; s/he became a “sports worker”, in the logic of the market in which the athlete started to sell her/his labour to those who explore sports businesses.

Following international trends, the Brazilian athlete became more and more tied to contracts and obligations which involved not only results in competitions but also her/his private image; thus, s/he is the prisoner of a system that imposes what s/he has to do and say, besides limiting her/his full exercise of citizenship to the contract signed in that season. Pushed by these limitations, athletes have had fewer opportunities to express opinions about general issues, or even about the sports they practice, a fact that restricts their capacity of mobilization to fight for their rights, both in sports and in politics.

According to Angelo (2014), Olympic athletes are not considered sports professionals - unlike soccer athletes, who got some rights when the so-called Law Zico was issued in 1993, and later replaced by Law Pelé (1998) and Law Agnelo/Piva (2001),. Since many Brazilian athletes start practicing when they are very young and unaware of the need to study, they dedicate themselves to their careers and reach the top in a moment of life in which few of them are worried about the future. They focus on training and winning competitions, and, in some cases, they even make some money, but then they have to face the moment to leave the athletic career to start a new phase in life. It usually happens when people of the same age have already reached the apogee of their professional lives.

In many cases, at that moment, athletes perceive the consequences of restrictions they experience in their professional activity and citizenship. To debate, to express opinions, to think and to disagree are activities that must be found in any healthy professional and social environment. Few Brazilian Olympic athletes have developed these abilities along their sports careers as a result of the historical moment they went through and, nowadays, due to contracts and regulations of competitions which punish public comments about the performance of managers, referees, audiences and any other person involved in the sports show, whose protagonist is the athlete.

Narratives of young Brazilian Olympic athletes have pointed out a concern not only for themselves but mainly for new generations. The desire to buy and accumulate material assets threatens the development of medium and long term goals, an indispensable condition to construct an Olympic project which demands from 8 to 12 years to be accomplished. When excellence and triumph is no longer the ultimate goal in the construction of an athlete’s career, this also interferes with the maintenance of the current heroic sports imaginary.

Brazilian athletes, as well as most athletes worldwide, live by strict and restrictive rules. A sharp fall in the number of people who practice this kind of sports activity has led authorities to issue an alert. Besides, guidelines of the “Agenda 2020” regarding athletes’ protection show the same concern. Athletes must be protected. Clean athletes, who are not involved in doping, must be honoured and strengthened; otherwise, the whole system runs the risk of failure. The debate about sports facilities and the infrastructure of the Olympic Games should not be the central issue anymore, but give way for a focus on the necessary humanization of the show.

Final Remarks
Sport, a millennial practice which has created rituals and joined the world of symbols and archetypes of the collective unconscious, introduces athletes to the public – that watches the show – as divinities. Therefore, there is the configuration of a form of myth, which is seen as an agent that promotes identification for children, adolescents and adults. On the other hand, this mythical persona lives in a common ego-citizen who mingles with the character and is also confused by the public that watches her/him. Overcoming this dynamics may lead to the comprehension of a set of meanings which compose the imaginary of the young athlete and determine several social practices along her/his adulthood.

The implementation of the Agenda 2020 guidelines, issued by the IOC, points out changes in the athlete’s social role. S/he becomes the core figure in the Olympic Movement, rather than the executor of skilful gestures in the sports show. By adopting this attitude, the IOC starts to value the athletes’ experience as the core of the Olympic Games and brings it back to the Olympic values, facts that have become increasingly abstract to the society. In other words, everything indicates that there will be more investment in supporting athletes in and out of the game. Respect also seems evident when clean athletes are honoured by getting back their places after other athletes involved in doping have lost their rankings. So far, when doping was confirmed, the medal used to be given to the athlete and s/he was immediately included in the ranking, but without the usual pomp and circumstance seen at the Olympic Games. Agenda 20 + 20 guidelines recommend that formal ceremonies should be held in order to hand Olympic medals to athletes who get them after a competitor is disqualified and that it should be communicated to all people involved in the event.

It is clear that the Olympic Movement has worked to regain the respect and dignity which were lost along an obscure period stained by abuse and corruption. Dialogue with the contemporary society has begun in search for solutions for the impasse resulting from the withdrawal of basic Olympic values. It aims at keeping a dialogue which was not very common in the past and at showing that Olympism goes beyond the borders of the Olympic Movement so that the historical role of sports is maintained in society.

Epilogue: The Athletes and the Torch
For 15 years I have studied the life history of Brazilian Olympians. Since last year I have attentively followed the efforts of sponsors and the organizing committee with regard to recruiting bearers of the Olympic torch. As might be expected, most Olympic athletes missed out. Even after searching for key people within the Olympic organization, my proposal to include more athletes was not accepted.

Last April 25, after returning from the lighting ceremony of the Olympic flame in Olympia in Greece, and seeing how significant that moment was, I started a campaign via Facebook, with the athlete's name, sports discipline and year of Olympic participation via #todoatletaolimpicodeveconduziratocha.

Within hours many athletes come to me and the campaign got a viral effect. On the 27 April the Games Organizing Committee contacted me saying it would be very difficult at this point to call new bearers because everything was already planned. I made some suggestions as to call Olympic groups to run or honour them in some way. Given the membership and visibility that the campaign achieved, a communication line was released with athletes ( for all Olympic athletes to send their messages and become invited for the tour of the torch. A few dozen athletes to this day have been summoned and still continue to seek others so that, after "48 minutes of the second half", they can participate in this unique moment instead of being already forgotten in Olympic history.

The athletes won this round!

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