Brazil World Cup tension reminds of Beijing Olympics
Loads of protests. Small, but incisive and insistent ones. Grumpy policemen. National pride at stake. International media all over the place. Authorities tuned in 24 hours a day. Anyone staying for a couple of days could cut the tension in the air with a knife. After all, the country was kind of new in the big sporting events business. It was both exciting and scary. What if someone takes me to jail? What if I get caught up in the middle of a fight? Can I just be invisible for for a while?
These are the feelings many visitors have had in the run-up to the Brazil World Cup, which kicks off on June 12. These are also the feelings visitors had when they went to Beijing for the Summer Olympics in 2008. Organized for different reasons, protests related to the two events were key to reduce the excitement during preparation stage. In China they eventually died out. We are still to see what happens in Brazil, but the prospects could be similar.
Let’s go back in history for a while.
China decided to have the biggest torch relay ever. It went on for more than 120 days, parading through all six continents. From day one it was trouble: freedom of speech activists protested with black flags in Greece. Boycott the Olympics couldn’t be a hashtag — Twitter wasn’t that popular — but it was a big message everywhere the Olympic flame went to. In Paris, demonstrators managed to extinguish he fire. Human rights, Tibetan freedom, democracy…
Brazil has different issues. Faulty public services, corruption and lack of accountability, excessive spending with the World Cup… Unlike China, the South American nation is being embarrassed as an accident waiting to happen because of the tournament organization. That mood has put expectations so low that it now seems impossible for convince visitors they will have a good experience. Yet less engage protesters so they don’t make it even worse — although a recent poll shows 73% of Brazilians in São Paulo believe protesting does more harm than good.
But that sourness is not very different from six years ago (and social media didn’t have such a big role then).
In the run-up to the 2008 Summer Games, usually gentle Chinese changed their attitude towards foreigners. More prohibitions appeared, people were denied visas probably because they were journalists or linked to the Buddhist religion, scary paramilitary were out with pride. Local media used their best spin to insist that internationals protested not against human rights violations in China, but against the very fact they had become a superpower.
Chinese bitterness (hidden in defiance) wasn’t very different when Tibetans rioted in Lhasa, in March that year. Or when activists got vocal against Beijing’s role in the Darfur crisis. It was “us against them”. That comes across in a poll suggesting 80% of locals blaming Western media for a vicious campaign. Despite all their enthusiasm in defending China from alleged foreign aggression, the atmosphere in the country wasn’t exciting at all before the Olympics.
It was just tense.
There were also the daily deportations of protesters as soon as the Olympics were on the corner. Chinese authorities never published their figures for 2008, but it is reasonable to think it was more than the 200 they admitted sending back in 2013. All you needed before August 8 in that year was to show up at Tienanmen Square or some Olympic venue. There was a reasonable chance of hearing “free Tibet”, police coming over and the demonstrator soon gone. No wonder why the Chinese were so tense before the Games.
Now it is the Brazilians who are jumpy. Sometimes for the right reasons. Others, not exactly.
A recent report by Amnesty International showed 80% of Brazilians fear being tortured by the police — it was police violence that triggered the massive wave of protests June last year. Citizens are also afraid of violent protesters. They are scared of a collapse in security (which isn’t great anyway), a terrorist attack, action by crime gangs. No wonder why few Brazilians have shown great enthusiasm for the World Cup until now. But the future can be different.
In China’s case I couldn’t see a single protest after the cauldron was lit in the magnificent Bird’s Nest (at least that’s what the government said and I couldn’t witness any demonstrations myself after August 8). The three areas that Beijing opened for demonstrations, surprise, were completely empty during the 17 days of competition. Football-crazy Brazil might walk the same path as soon as the first goal is scored in the World Cup (unless it is a Croatian one).
I arrived in China more than a month before the Olympics. I had no accreditation to get to the venues, so all I could report on were incidents in the city. During the four weeks before August 8, it was sensational for any reporter — probably not for many Chinese. I had news every single day. Diplomatic incidents, censorship, racism, protests. There was even a boycott to Carrefour stores because the torch relay was severely affected in Paris.
In the run-up to Beijing-2008, the Chinese looked at foreigners with suspicion. I reckon the older ones thought of the 1968 Cultural Revolution every time I walked around, since I was based at a friend’s house in a not very international area. Deep inside I knew I was safer there than in many violent parts of Brazil, but, as any foreigner, I didn’t feel as confident since I couldn’t speak the language. What could I expect in a place where McDonald’s are called Maidanglao?
In that run-up to the Olympics, the world was really sour on China. Their grievances were being watched as never before. All the kids who die of malnutrition, the Great Firewall of China, the ruthless evictions of people so they could build a new subway station… That was the price to pay for an event supposed to be the biggest ever. That was the price to pay since the communist regime wanted to show their country. It is indeed an important part of the world.
But then came the Opening Ceremony. A dazzling one.
On August 9, some said there were some in protests on Tienanmen Square. I wasn’t there to report. It ended quickly, no one was arrested. Not that anyone else cared; there was sport on TV all day long, in multiple channels. After a few days, they only other issue worth reporting was censorship. Not that many people cared.
After all, Chinese grievances had been properly addressed. When the Olympic flame was lit, the issues left center stage to the event everyone wanted to see. The emotions that came afterwards made most people forget how difficult the previous months had been for China. There were even terrorist attacks in far away Xinjiang as the Games went on in Beijing. (Forgetting screw ups happens at every Olympics. Who but the British remember the G4S security mess and the empty seats during the events?)
I can’t help but feeling in 2008 when I prepare for my first World Cup coverage. The tension is the same, the promise for daily mayhem too. The nationwide protests last week, the strikes and the criticism for preparations have uniquely Brazilian characteristics, but the overview is the same.
Brazil surely wants to be like China in some areas, such as the economy. It wants to be very different in others, like free speech. But they seem to share the same burden of being seen as countries not to be trusted with a major world event. The Chinese could only prove the world wrong by hosting unforgettable Olympic Games. Brazil will have to work on that.
Brazil might tame protesters and unrest during the World Cup itself. But the way the country will be remembered for a while depends heavily on how well things unravel between June 12 and July 13. Whatever happened before is going to matter a lot to Brazilians, a little to the rest of the world. But there is no doubt that until kick off, Brazil will be more scary than exciting.