The Olympics have often been a stage upon which issues of race play out. Think Jesse Owens and his four gold medals in 1936, obliterating Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. Think Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists on the medals podium in 1968.
And now, think Rio.
What will the story line of these Games be? To what extent will race be a part of that narrative?
For the Race/Related newsletter (sign up here), I called Simon Romero, The Times’s correspondent in Rio de Janeiro, to get a better sense of how race and the colossal spectacle of the Games are intersecting. His insights on Brazil, and the comparisons between Brazil and the United States, provide a certain depth and context you might not be getting from your binge-watching of Simone Biles.
Q. The opening ceremony included an acknowledgment of slavery (as captured in the photo above). How would you interpret what was going on there?
A. I thought it was really significant that the slave trade was not just mentioned but portrayed in movement and dance in the way that it was. It’s not quite a taboo subject, but it’s something that is still not widely discussed or widely studied in Brazil, which received far more slaves than any other place in the Americas — more than 10 times the amount of slaves that went into North America.
Rio was the epicenter of this trade, and even within Brazil there is a misconception about how it functioned; many people here still think Salvador in the northeast received far more slaves when that just wasn’t the case.
Rio was the economic heart of Brazil at that time and then it was the seat of the empire. It was this linchpin of just a really brutal period in the country’s history. So I think it’s contributing to greater awareness and more discussion about the origins of the country.
Somewhat symbolically, the first gold medal winner for Brazil, Rafaela Silva, was also this incredibly gifted competitor in judo and she grew up very poor — she’s Afro-Brazilian, and she grew up very poor in Cidade de Deus, the City of God, the huge favela where Fernando Meirelles, the director of the opening ceremony, made his film of the same name. And her victory really resonated with a lot of people in Brazil, including in the favela where she was raised.
Because back in 2012 when she lost in London, many of Brazil’s sort of more uglier aspects in the debate over race and ethnicity surfaced; she suffered this torrent of abuse on Twitter. One person even called her a monkey. It was really painful to see that tension exploded in that way. She responded to people who were attacking her; her family felt really wounded and insulted.
Then when she won her medal, her mom remarked that it was just a real victory for her and her family after everything that had happened.
So this tension is bubbling to the surface in different ways in the country in a really interesting fashion.
On a related note, Brazil’s indigenous peoples were also portrayed during the opening ceremony, with dances that were similar to what you’d see in the Amazon.
But at the same time, there was no mention of the incredible indignities and suffering that indigenous peoples have had to endure in Brazil over the last five centuries, including genocide.
There are these stunning discoveries that have been made about how complex societies were across Brazil before the European conquest and little was really made of that, so indigenous leaders are calling attention to that omission and questioning why they’re being left out.
Q. Do we know how much of a role the government played in shaping that message?
A. The short answer is I really don’t know. But this clearly fits into a tradition in Brazil where thinkers and intellectuals and artists often describe a country where different races get along very well, where there is a lot of harmony, that might stand in contrast to a lot of other countries around the world that are more torn apart by racial strife.
There is a long tradition of this in Brazil going back at least to when the U.S. was segregated, of course, but Brazil was not.
At the same time, it’s still clear that racism persists in many ways. This is a country that is majority black and mixed race, according to the latest census figures, and yet if you walked into any corporate board room, or now into the ministry for Brazil’s interim president, you’re not going to find any Afro-Brazilians there. It’s very rare to have Afro-Brazilians in positions of power in the country. It’s just this incredible disconnect.
Q. The Olympics seem to reflect that as well; there’s been a fair amount of commentary about the fact that the people working the Games, say selling concessions, tend to be Afro-Brazilians, while those in the stands tend to be white. Are the Olympics bringing Brazilians together or reminding them of that divide?
A. I think there’s been an easing of tensions in recent days. There was a lot of skepticism and negative sentiment around the Olympics before they began.
A lot of people were very excited when Rafaela won the medal. Her image was on the front pages of all of Brazil’s major newspapers. Her postvictory interview was so moving; it was impossible not to be touched by that if you’re Brazilian or if you have some connection to Brazil.
I certainly felt incredibly moved.
But there’s also the realization: This is only two weeks out of the year in Brazil; many things will go back to normal once the Games are finished. This could just be a temporary salve for these issues.
Q. Beyond the Olympics, where is Brazil when it comes to race? How does it compare to the United States?
A. I think there is less overt tension than there is in the United States.
But the reality speaks for itself in Brazil: the huge gaps in opportunity in access, in wealth, in living conditions — that’s so obvious in the country.
Something that’s fascinating in Brazil right now is there are these different movements coalescing around the country clamoring for more rights and more access to institutions of power around the country. It’s similar to what we’ve seen in the United States before, but they are also going about it in their own way.
Sadly, in Brazil, there is also just a grim sense of acceptance of the inequality that still persists in so many spheres of life in the country.
It’s been interesting to witness from afar the debate over #BlackLivesMatter and the killing of police there in the United States because Brazil suffers from the exactly same problem but in a more intense way; far more people are killed by police in Brazil than in the United States, but the public conversation around those killings is really just starting.
It’s like many communities are just, I don’t know, bewildered by the challenges they are facing.