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Why Did Brazil Underwhelm in the London Olympics?

Brazil’s small medal count at the 2012 Games is due to a history of less government investment in its Olympics programs, as well as a lower emphasis on Olympic success as a variable in international legitimacy.
Fans of the Brazilian women's soccer team cheer on Team Brazil at the London Olympics during their quarterfinal match versus Japan, August 3, 2012. Japan defeated Brazil 2-0. Photo: Courtesy of David Farquhar. Homepage Photo: Courtesy of Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR.

An examination of the final medal tally at the recently concluded 2012 Olympics shows many countries familiar to the ranks of the top 10. The United States placed first overall, followed by China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Australia, France, South Korea, and Italy. What are the ingredients to these countries’ consistent success in the Olympics?

Analysts suggest that strong economic performance and robust infrastructure are key factors. Some believe that prior experience in hosting prior Olympic Games motivates these governments to invest in building strong sports programs and infrastructure.

But what about Brazil? Despite supplanting the UK with the world’s sixth-largest economy, and despite predictions of garnering 28 medals, Brazil is absent from the top 10 list—having only pulled in 17. 

What's more, Brazil has not only hosted several international and regional sporting competitions in the past (e.g., the Pan American Games in 2007), but it will soon host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Some believe that these mega-events should motivate the government to develop a strong, prize-winning Olympic squad.

But if there is a strong correlation between a nation’s wealth and its Olympic success, then what happened to Brazil in London?

It seems that international politics, domestic policy and Olympic legacies that provide insight into this puzzling question.

Indeed, in contrast to its BRICS peers of China and Russia—who were in the top 10 medal count list—it seems that Brazil's government has never viewed Olympic success as a means to bolster the government's international legitimacy and reputation. In large part this has to do with the fact that in Brazil, the absence of political persecution, human rights abuses, ample free speech, and political mobilization, has never incentivized the government to use Olympic victory in order to save face with the international community and increase their government’s credibility—as seen in China and Russia.

Domestic policy plays a big role.

In contrast to China and Russia, Brazil's government has repeatedly failed to simultaneously develop and unify a strong educational and physical fitness system. On the contrary: The government has repeatedly failed to adequately invest in these areas, especially in primary schools to motivate children at an early age. This appears to provide few opportunities for highly talented kids to develop the skills and experience needed to one day compete in the Olympic Games.

But history also matters.

Legacies of impressive Olympic wins, and the enduring incentives and expectations that they generate, seem to explain why India and Russia have done better than Brazil in snagging Olympic medals.

Since the 1988 Summer Games, China and Russia have always placed in the top 10 in total medal wins. This has created a sense of deep pride among government officials, at times even leading them to attend the Games in person—as we saw last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attendance at Tagir Khaibulaev’s gold medal victory in the judo competition.

In contrast, Brazil has no such Olympic legacy— save for specific competitions such as soccer, judo and volleyball, all three in which Brazil has consistently excelled. This is reflected both in the lower amount of money spent on Olympic training and infrastructure when compared to China and Russia.

To increase these expectations and to improve their athletes’ future performance, the Brazilian government announced yesterday that it will triple its spending across the next four years, versus the same period between Beijing and London, to $700 million in order to place in the top 10. The money will be obtained through taxation on lottery winnings and private contributions to target high-performance athletes and prepare them for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. The $700 million sum is the most Brazil has ever spent on its Olympic athletes, a sign that the government means business.

Therefore it seems that Olympic medals not only reveal an emerging nation’s physical talent, but also their differences in governmental commitment to further these for legitimacy on the international stage. Brazil and the emerging nations need to continue overcoming these obstacles in order to provide opportunity and hope for those seeking to represent their nation in Rio de Janeiro come 2016.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Brazil, China, Russia, Sports, Olympics

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