Despite Carrying the Olympic Torch, No Indigenous Athletes Will Rep Brazil in Rio

The feats of aboriginal athletes such as Australia’s Cathy Freeman, who won gold in the 400m at the Sydney Games in 2000, and Native American gold medal winners like Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills, have become part of Olympic legend.

Yet, while Australia will bring seven aboriginal athletes to this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, there will be no indigenous sportsmen or women at all representing host nation Brazil – despite the fact that around 800,000 Brazilians described themselves as being of indigenous descent in the 2010 census.

Perhaps the closest Brazil’s indigenous athletes came to an Olympic place was this year, when three young archers from the Amazon region – Nelson Silva, 16, Graziela Paulino, 20, and Dream Braga, 18 – competed in a qualifying tournament for a place on the Brazilian national archery team. The three were taking part in a project that aims to find top class athletes among Brazil’s indigenous peoples, as well as attempting to raise the self-confidence of some of the country’s most impoverished and socially excluded communities.

“The project is part of a movement to strengthen indigenous culture in Brazil, which includes promising initiatives of bilingual education and the recovery of traditional cultures,” Virgilio Viana, chief executive of the Sustainable Amazon Foundation (FAS), told Remezcla. “The teenagers are already magnificent hunters, and can shoot birds in flight. They have more chances of winning medals than urban youngsters from South Korea or Russia.”

In some ways, the fact that Brazil’s indigenous sportsmen and women exist in the shadows reflects how Brazilian society and government has long treated its indigenous population.

The fact that Brazil’s indigenous sportsmen and women exist in the shadows reflects how Brazilian society and government has long treated its indigenous population.

The lifestyle of Brazil’s indigenous people is under continual threat from mining, logging, and farming activities invading protected lands, resulting in often violent clashes. According to Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), 390 members of the Guarani Kaiowá tribe in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul were killed in armed conflict between 2003 and 2014.

High unemployment rates and limited educational opportunities mean that alcoholism and drug abuse are common among indigenous Brazilians, while suicide rates among young males in such communities are often high.

“The situation of the indigenous peoples in Brazil needs to improve a great deal. The high levels of suicide are a perfect example of the tragedy of their reality. The confidence of the indigenous people is very low, due to poverty, prejudice and social exclusion. Levels of alcoholism are very high. Access to health and education is extremely limited, and the dominant mood is of despair,” explained Virgilio Viana of the Sustainable Amazon Foundation.

Although the rights of Brazil’s indigenous peoples are protected in the country’s 1988 constitution, enforcing such laws, and protecting indigenous territory from voracious corporate interests, is a difficult task. And many indigenous peoples fear that their rights will be further whittled away under the country’s interim leader Michel Temer, currently substituting for suspended president Dilma Rousseff.

In such troubled climates, sport can sometimes help, providing a voice, and visibility, to oppressed, marginalized peoples.

Brazil’s new justice minister Alexandre de Moraes recently said that land demarcated as indigenous in the months leading up to Rousseff’s suspension would be reviewed, while Temer’s government sparked protests by considering Roberto Peternelli, an army general and defender of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985, as president of FUNAI, the official body responsible for protecting indigenous rights.

“The slowness of the demarcation process and the non-recognition of lands was also a problem under (Brazil’s previous) Lula and Dilma governments. But in our opinion the situation has gotten worse since the interim government has taken over,” said Cleber Buzatto, executive secretary of the Indigenous Missionary Council.

One threat to the indigenous peoples is PEC215, a proposed constitutional amendment that would grant Brazil’s congress, filled with agri-business friendly federal deputies, the right to define indigenous territories – and reevaluate established reserves.

“PEC215 is one of the main instruments being used by agribusiness to attack the indigenous people and their rights, especially their land rights,” Cleber Buzatto told Remezcla. “It’s an extremely worrying tool. Agribusiness is very strong in congress.”

In such troubled climates, sport can sometimes help, providing a voice, and visibility, to oppressed, marginalized peoples. And the Olympics, despite its official non-political stance, has often become a stage for consciousness raising, from Jesse Owens in 1936 to the black power salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 and even the feats of Cathy Freeman in 2000.

The indigenous presence at the 2016 Rio Olympics will be largely ceremonial. Back in May, members of the Pataxó tribe carried the Olympic torch throughout three coastal cities in the state of Bahia. Several of the participants chose to skip the official relay uniform, instead opting to wear their own traditional dress.

Yet during the actual games, Brazil will not have an indigenous voice. Many indigenous settlements are found in isolated locations, far removed from the infrastructure of youth or school sporting competitions, and often have limited sporting facilities within their own communities. And there are few indigenous role models to encourage youngsters to take up popular Brazilian or Olympic sports.

Instead, the country’s indigenous cultures were more visible at last year’s inaugural World Indigenous Games, held in the city of Palmas, the capital of the vast western state of Tocantins. The competition, which brought together over 2,000 competitors from around 30 countries, included events such as the Mexican ball game pelota mixteca, tug-of-war, and native Mongolian archery.

Given the threats that Brazil’s indigenous populations currently face, however, not everyone was in favor of the Indigenous Games.

“At the same time as there are clear attacks on the rights of indigenous peoples, the World Indigenous Games spread the idea, on an international level, that this wasn’t happening,” said Cleber Buzatto of the Indigenous Missionary Council.