For months Carol Solberg had been losing her patience with the “nightmare” that is Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil: the burning rainforest, the attacks on culture, the catastrophic coronavirus response that has left more than 165,000 Brazilians dead. Finally, she snapped.
“Fora, Bolsonaro!” the Brazilian volleyball star shouted at the end of a live interview on Brazil’s most-watched sports channel, SporTV. “Bolsonaro out!”
When she uttered those few words one afternoon in late September, Solberg was best known for her on-court exploits.
Two months later the 33-year-old mother-of-two has become a powerful symbol of opposition to Brazil’s far-right leader and an unlikely champion of free speech. Her image, and her opposition to Bolsonaro, have been splashed across newspaper and magazine front pages, with one weekly proclaiming her Brazil’s “Active Voice”.
“I wanted to use my voice for a cause I consider urgent,” Solberg said of her decision to speak out during a post-match interview after winning a bronze medal at a beach volleyball tournament in Rio.
“I’m utterly against everything that this government represents. What we are living through is a nightmare – a government that shows such contempt for its people and for human life.”
Solberg’s protest sparked an immediate and angry backlash from Bolsonaro supporters and sporting authorities alike.
The Brazilian Volleyball Confederation accused her of “staining the sport” with her “thoughtless act” and threatened action. Brazil’s court of sporting arbitration called for Solberg to be fined 100,000 reais (£14,000) and handed a six-match suspension, despite never having sanctioned athletes who voiced public support for Bolsonaro.
But attempts to punish Solberg backfired, serving only to amplify her cry.
“Right now, the world of sport is witnessing an attack on freedom of expression,” the magazine Istoé complained, condemning the “disproportionate and violent” reaction to Solberg’s move.
“Persecuting athletes for their political views is the stuff of repressive [regimes],” the magazine said, recalling how Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship targeted the football player Afonsinho.
In one of more than 20 interviews Solberg has given since her post-match protest, she said being Brazilian had become “embarrassing” since Bolsonaro took office in January 2018 and declared war on the environment, media and the arts. “It should be forbidden for a president to be so bad.”
Solberg said she respected athletes who remained silent. “But for me, an athlete isn’t simply a body made to entertain others. They are part of society.
“They say that we athletes are supposed to be examples. But how can you set an example if you don’t have a voice?” asked Solberg, citing the basketball star and activist LeBron James as one of her inspirations.
Another role model is Solberg’s own mother, Isabel, a former volleyball star known for her pro-democracy activism.
In an interview with the newspaper O Globo she defended her daughter’s right to speak out. “What would make me ashamed would be her singing the praises of a torturer,” she said in reference to Bolsonaro’s tributes to the dictatorship-era torturer Carlos Brilhante Ustra, “or if she was homophobic or racist”.
Solberg, who was cleared of all wrongdoing last week after a public outcry, said she was encouraged by the political awakening young Brazilians were experiencing under Bolsonaro.
“Many people are coming together to change the country,” she said. “We will get through all this, and we will emerge a better country.”