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The challenging struggle of Brazilian Olympic athletes to maintain their identity

by Richard Meckien - published Jul 02, 2017 08:35 PM - - last modified Jun 04, 2019 10:57 AM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa.

Natação brasileira
The professional athlete of today is a nomad who goes where there are job offers, according to IEA's researcher

The audience sees only the spectacle provided by Olympic athletes and ends up having a distorted view of the life they experience. The pictured day-to-day glamor with mishaps is not the reality, according to Professor Katia Rubio, from USP's School of Physical Education and Sport (EEFE), and a participant in the 2nd edition of the IEA Sabbatical Year Program.

'The professional athlete of today is a nomad who goes where there are job offers and these displacements affect their identity,' says Rubio, who is developing the research project 'The Influence of National Displacements and Transnational Migration in the Formation of the Identity of Brazilian Olympic Athletes.'

The corpus of the research is the more than 1,300 biographical narratives of Brazilian athletes that participated in the Olympic Games from 1948 to 2016, a material produced by the researcher in the last 17 years.

Public policies

Rubio's perspective is that her research becomes a contribution to the generation of public policies in support of athletes. One of them would be professional regulation: 'But it will have to be a differentiated policy, even in terms of retirement, because the athletes have a much shorter professional life than other workers. In addition, they often begin their career before the age that is determined as the minimum for the work of minors.'

Another outcome of Rubio's research will be the production of subsidies for the academic and applied works of the specialists that accompany the trajectory of an athlete, which in the case of psychologists, physicians, physiotherapists, nutritionists, social service staff ('mainly for the youth system'), anthropologists and sociologists.

She believes that the work can also provide indications for the full preparation of athletes, something 'already existing in some training clubs that are concerned in providing athletes with information about the world they are facing.'

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Katia Rubio - Perfil
Katia Rubio

The institutional structure of sport also profoundly affects athletes, according to Rubio. 'The dedication to sport is born as an activity of the individual, but then they must submit to the hierarchical structure of the country, from the need to be linked to a club to playing regional tournaments for their city and achieving the national team, which participate in international tournaments.'

She compares this situation to 'an iron ball attached to the athlete's foot,' so that from the moment they enter the system 'they lose freedom to move as a citizen the way they would like to.'


With professionalization in the 1980s, sport has become a transnational labor market like few others, says Rubio. 'It does not matter what language the athlete speaks. What is expected of them is that they will train, compete and be champions.' That has completely changed the dynamics of the Olympic sport, she says.

'While developing my research, I will analyze the whole process of these individuals that leave their place of origin, become citizens of the world and at the same time lose the reference of themselves during the numerous processes of displacement.'

Even the speed of travel today affects the athlete's life: 'Today, when it is possible to be on the other side of the world within 36 hours, the athletes do not experience the displacements as in the past. They do not have time to adapt to new places and cultures. They get there and start training, spending six to eight hours on it. Another eight hours remain for a social life that some of them are not able to develop. Some try to learn the language and get cultural information, making a minimum adjustment to food and climate. Others simply go without any previous preparation.'

Rubio points out that one thing is the athlete's desire to live this life. Another is when they realize that the level of expectation about that desire is much greater than the harshness of life in the place where they went to. 'It is not uncommon to know about an athlete who is an idol in Brazil becoming an outcast when going abroad, and ending up not meeting expectations. This turns into a snowball that affects them deeply.'

Photos (from the top): Danilo Borges/ME; Leonor Calasans/IEA-USP