Brazilian athletes flex their muscles in sports politics

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By Brian Homewood EINDHOVEN, Netherlands (Reuters) - Amid the flurry of doping and corruption scandals which have hit sport over the last few years, it is often asked why athletes do not make more use their influence to force change. Brazil is a rare case where they can claim to have done so. Latin America's largest nation has suffered more than its fair share of sports-related scandal. The former head of the Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB), Carlos Nuzman, is to stand trial for his role in a corruption case involving alleged bribery in Rio de Janeiro's successful bid to host of the 2016 Games. Nuzman has denied wrongdoing. Five Brazilians are among several dozen former soccer officials and sports marketing executives who were indicted in the United States in 2015 in a case which plunged global soccer body FIFA into its worst ever crisis. Meanwhile, many of the venues used at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games had fallen into neglect. But behind the scenes, changes are taking place. Four years ago, Brazil's Senate passed a bill that placed a two-term limit on the mandates of presidents sporting confederations which receive public funding. It also obliged the federations to publish their annual accounts and include athletes in the decision-making process. Those changes, considered hugely significant in a country where some officials have clung to power for decades, were forced through after intense lobbying from a group called "Atletas pelo Brasil" (Athletes for Brasil). Founded in 2006, their members include some of Brazil's most famous former athletes like volleyball player Ana Moser, Formula One's Rubens Barrichello, former Brazil soccer captain Cafu, basketball player Oscar Schmidt and middle-distance athlete Joaquim Cruz. Its president is Rai Oliveira, a member of Brazil's World Cup winning team in 1994, and the younger brother of the late Socrates who was regarded as one of the finest footballers the country has ever produced. "We have 67 athletes from different generations and different sports, men and women, I think that makes us unique maybe in the world," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the Play the Game sports conference. "It's certainly a pioneering imitative in Brazil where athletes don't have a culture of taking a stand and starting a movement." TRANSPARENCY Rai said his organization scored another victory in 2015 when some of Brazil's biggest companies agreed that sponsorship money would only be made available to federations which meet high levels of transparency and governance. "The surprising thing was that even rivals companies got together," he said. "A lot of company directors like sport and that helped us achieve it. They also realized there was no point in one company doing not if others did not follow suit." Rai said that 27 companies have so far signed the so-called Pact for Sport, representing 60 percent of total sports sponsorship money in Brazil. The big exception have been sponsors involved in soccer but Rai said negotiations were continuing with them as well. The latest battle is to force a change in COB statutes which would give athletes one third of the votes in its electoral college. A vote was postponed on Monday and is due to take place in December. Rai recognized that there was still a long way to go and said the Olympic legacy was a setback. "What was left? Abandoned Olympic venues, white elephants, lack of planning for the next Olympic cycles, decrease in public spending for sports..." he said. "But today, we have a voice, we are respected and we are being called to attend important discussions. "We know the big fight is still to be won... we want better sports in our schools, better sports for all, better governance. "Our goal is to have a country where everyone can have access to sports - we put the bar very high." (Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Christian Radnedge)