The Wild Cards
Aug 10 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – The Rio Olympics began with the signature fanfare that accompanies the Games every four years. However, unlike every year, the nature and size of the spectacle, the synchronised dancers, over-the-top fireworks and the millions spent brought a new set of disappointments with them.
Brazil is one of the BRICS nations, the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa constellation that is supposed to represent the hope of the global south — a discourse of globalism not centred on the West, standing up to the colonial underpinnings of so much of the world order.
Yet, if you were holding your breath to see any of this reflected in the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics, you waited in vain. True, the indigenous tribes of the country, disenfranchised, marginalised and fetishised, were included in the ceremony; but they were forced into the same round of antics and acrobatics that could have belonged in any nation with less of an anti-colonial agenda. If anything, the tributes to all things specifically Brazilian melded in with the general rituals of pomp and pageantry.
A better Olympics, one that is not exploitative, may simply not be possible.
It is not Brazil’s fault and, in a sense, Brazil’s failure underlines the elusiveness of a decolonial discourse that recognises histories of oppression and exclusion, and yet imagines and believes in the possibility of participating in global discourse. Take, for instance, the parade of nations. Out of the 206 nations participating in the Rio Olympics, 75 have never won a medal. The meaning of this statistic is that for the vast majority of participants, this parade at the beginning of the Games was the single moment in which their participation and their nation had a fleeting moment of recognition.
In Rio this year, this moment was even more fleeting. In a noble effort to thumb their nose at the dominance of English, which can in some rough approximation be equivocated with the omniscience of the colonial worldview, this parade was held in the order prescribed by the Portuguese and not the English alphabet.
It was a great idea, one no doubt adding to what the local organisers may have deemed their moment of anti-colonial independence. Its actual consequence, sadly, was rather dismal. Many countries that do not speak Portuguese but may have had some bare familiarity with the English alphabet (admittedly only owing to the colonial excesses of the British) waited in vain and then abandoned altogether their wait for their nation’s moment.
Brazil’s use of the Portuguese alphabet may have been successful in thumbing its nose at America, but it also ended up excluding several hundreds of millions of others who could make little sense of the means via which the parade of nations was being conducted (not to mention that the Portuguese themselves were colonists, their language an export to Brazil).
The case of Brazil and the Rio Olympics, then, represents the larger problem inherent in decolonisation: the efforts of emerging powers to have it both ways. In this case, Brazil wants millions to watch and the millions spent on the opening ceremony are evidence of that. Millions earned, pro-Olympic Brazilians could argue, means more available to solve the problems of inflation, homelessness, epidemic diseases and all the rest that plague Brazil in its Olympic moment.
It is possibly because of just this that the general framework of Olympic largesse was replicated with such a lack of originality, such a seeming concern toward staying close to what has been done before.
This, it was probably estimated, would ensure an audience and, with the revenue from advertising and endorsements, guarantee the avalanche of cash that all Olympic host nations await. Homage to the uniqueness of Brazil, its efforts to recapture a pre-colonial past, to restore the dignity of its own indigenous people and to present the possibility of a discourse not dominated by imperial erasures, were to be fitted into the details.
The middle ground — a more cheerful anti-colonialism that courts capitalist spending while showing off its local colour, reclaims pre-colonial history without bitterness, shakes hands with former oppressors only to spit behind their backs — is rather marshy and inhospitable. In this sense, the tenacious protesters that picketed outside the selfie-ridden enforced cheer of the inside of the stadium are probably correct; there can be no “moderate exploitation of the poor” and no “thoughtful presentation of over-the-top spending”.
It is perhaps the very framework of the Games, their crucial reliance on inducing awe in the onlooker, an effect that in turn relies essentially on power fitfully and thoughtlessly paraded, that is flawed. A better Olympics, one that is not exploitative, that truly respects and reifies marginalised narratives, may simply not be possible.
While it may not have been intentional, Pakistan’s minimal participation can be justified on the basis of these noble reasons, a disavowal of the Games as showcasing the rich and powerful and their attendant advantages. Pakistan sent perhaps its smallest Olympic squad ever to Rio, a majority of the members of its delegation participating only as wild-card entries. In reality, the small size of the delegation was a product of inattention to procedures: some athletes could not participate because they did not apply for Brazilian visas far enough in advance. This detail is admittedly the fault and product of the neglect-afflicted ranks of Pakistani sports (other than cricket), so commonplace and unsurprising that they no longer make the news.
If Brazil was in search of a real post-colonial gesture, it could have considered loosening its ever-tight visa regime to permit more athletes from poor countries to attend without being subject to the inefficiencies of their nation’s bureaucrats. Unlike white and wealthy others, these left-out athletes would not have worried about the Zika virus or the size of their quarters, relishing instead the very opportunity to compete. Brazil did not choose to follow this path and so the Olympic Games in Rio are a disappointment — a dimmer, more budget-conscious, more mosquito-infested, replication of Olympics past.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2016
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan