The Story Behind Obama’s Absence At The Olympics Opening Ceremony

President Barack Obama speaks about the new health care law during a White House Youth Summit, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CAROLYN KASTER, THINKPROGRESS/DYLAN PETROHILOS
President Barack Obama speaks about the new health care law during a White House Youth Summit, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CAROLYN KASTER, THINKPROGRESS/DYLAN PETROHILOS

This is a part of ThinkProgress’s #Rio2016 coverage. To read other articles about the 2016 Games, click here.

As the opening ceremony kicking off the Olympic Games draws near, foreign leaders are being peppered with questions regarding their travel plans. Many have yet to guarantee their attendance, but one will definitely not be in the stands: President Obama.

On Tuesday, the White House announced that Secretary of State John Kerry will be leading the presidential delegation, and will greet the American athletes competing. Skipping out on the festivities: Obama and Vice President Biden.

Sending Kerry, a diplomat of considerable prestige, is a far cry from an outright snub. Still, after indicating only a few months ago that he would be eager to attend, Obama’s absence will be a notable one.


Historically, the Olympics’ opening ceremony has been a time for international camaraderie. The Parade of Nations sees all participating countries marching in procession, ultimately filling the stadium, queuing host countries to launch a series of exhibitions showcasing their history and heritage. At the conclusion, relay runners take turns passing the Olympic torch, until the fire is ultimately lit. It’s an uplifting time, and a signifier of unity in the face of competition.

But the ceremony is also a time of considerable politicking. Countries who choose not to attend, or who send lower-level officials, are oftentimes hoping to convey at best a message of disapproval to host nations, and, at worst, outright condemnation of their governments.

The message the United States sends at this year’s Olympics could be more important than in previous Games. In recent months, Brazil’s government has been plagued by a corruption scandal linked to the state’s energy company, Petrobras. Protests have swept across the country, and Brazilians have an extremely low level of faith in their government.

The impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in May and her replacement with interim President Michel Temer has made matters even worse. Temer is by, virtually any measure, exceedingly corrupt. He was also closely tied to Rousseff’s ousting, which was widely seen as a coup.

Brazil’s Presidential Crisis, ExplainedWhile scrolling through your Facebook feed or preferred news app of choice this week, you’ve probably seen headline calling attention to Brazil’s embattled president…thinkprogress.orgThis poses complications for governments contemplating sending top officials to the Olympics, and especially the opening ceremony, where all eyes will be watching. To attend is to signal a measure of support for Temer’s government, and, by extension, for Rousseff’s impeachment. Choosing not to attend, however, could send an equally strong message of condemnation. Adding another layer of complication, Rousseff has said she will not be attending the Olympics’ opening. While the competing presences of both Rousseff and Temer would have made things uncomfortable for visiting dignitaries, Rousseff’s choice to opt out entirely fails to ease the pressure her old allies are now under.


In June, Obama seemed open to attending the Olympics after Rousseff issued him a standing invitation. The Brazilian leader even gave her American counterpart a sweatshirt reading ‘Brasil’, which she encouraged him to wear while in the country. At the time, Obama responded enthusiastically to the invitation, if not to the sweatshirt. Much has changed since Rousseff’s offer, however, and Obama’s decision not to attend the event reflects the changes Brazil has been undergoing.

Officially, the Obama administration has not taken a strong stance on the ousting of Rousseff, or on the legitimacy of Temer’s government. However, the president made a call to the former Brazilian leader in both 2010 and 2014 after her election and re-election, a gesture he failed to extend to Temer, though the situations were admittedly different. Apart from expressing faith in the endurance of Brazilian democracy, Obama has kept Temer at arm’s length — a move further reinforced by his absence at the Olympics.

This will not be the first Olympics Obama has avoided. In 2014, the president, vice president, and first lady all opted out of attending the winter Olympics held in Sochi, Russia. The snub was intentional. Under the Obama administration, the United States has long critiqued Russia’s human rights record, especially with regards to LGBTQ issues. The president was also not in attendance for the 2012 opening ceremony in London — however, First Lady Michelle Obama attended in his absence, signaling the administration’s support for the event.

Obama will not be the only one to skip this year’s Games. Dogged by a doping scandal implicating numerous Russian athletes, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly chosen to skip the event. China appears to have ruled out the presence of President Xi Jinping and is weighing sending a low-ranking official, Vice Premier Liu Yandong. Numerous Latin American leaders are also stalling, though given Brazil’s prominence in the region it seems unlikely that they will decline altogether.