Brazil Olympic Ambitions – Rising To The Occasion
Brazil has been in the media spotlight over the past year for political and economic reasons, and also for sporting ones as host of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in August. Brazil is no stranger to hosting big international events—including last year’s FIFA World Cup as well as its famous Carnival, an annual celebration that attracts tourists from around the world. I was fortunate to be in Rio de Janeiro again this year during Carnival and was able to gauge the mood of the Brazilian people in the midst of what has been Brazil’s worst recession in decades. I also had a chance to tour some planned Olympic venues and see the preparations being made for the upcoming influx of athletes and spectators.
Brazil Olympic Ambitions – Celebrating Carnival
When I arrived at Copacabana Beach, the Carnival festivities were already underway. Despite Brazil’s dire economic situation (gross domestic product shrunk 3.8% in 2015 and a similarly negative reading was expected this year), it seemed that everyone was ready to party and enjoy themselves. On the streets of Rio there were block parties (blocos) with crowds of people dancing, ranging from a couple of hundred to more than a million people. Streets along the parade route were accompanied by trucks topped with platforms of dancers and singers and with huge speakers below them blasting out music.
At Carnival, procession groups are called “schools” because the first ones practiced next to a school. Rio has over 70 samba schools that select themes, write music and lyrics, make costumes and floats and practice all year to succeed in their parades. They are categorized in a strict hierarchy organized into different competitive leagues. When the procession of one of these schools finishes, groups of cleaners donning orange uniforms follow with big brooms and motorized sweepers to clean the avenue for the next school. Brazilians seem to be optimists by nature, often able to make the best of a dire situation or a menial, unappealing task. One year I saw one of the street cleaners playing with his broom and dancing around it, making it stand on end and generally having fun. The crowd loved it and he became a regular feature of the entertainment. This year, the threat of the Zika virus didn’t seem to dampen spirits—there were colorful Zika virus costumes and I even spotted a Zika-themed float. From what I’ve witnessed, to call the people of Brazil “depressed” or “unhappy” despite the difficulties they are facing is not accurate.
That said, the happy and carefree attitude that Brazilians or at least Cariocas (people from Rio) exude can be misleading—I have also found the people to be very hard-working and up to tackling challenges head-on. When Brazil was selected to host the FIFA World Cup football (soccer) competition in 2015, many people doubted the Brazilians could meet the construction deadlines and properly prepare for the crowds. I didn’t doubt for one minute they could pull it off, because I had witnessed the Carnival parades at Rio’s Sambadrome where, from seven in the evening to seven the next morning, thousands of dancers, musicians and huge, complex floats danced and marched past the cheering fans in an orderly and disciplined fashion within strict time limits. I figured if Brazilians were able to organize such an event every year, then they could handle large sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympics.
Brazil Olympic Ambitions – Sights, Sounds—and Smells—of Rio
Rio is important to Brazil not only because of its famous Carnival (which, in my opinion, is the greatest show on Earth) but also because it is the base of some important companies, even if São Paulo is considered the industrial and banking center of the country. Rio also has an important history since it was the country’s capital before that status was bestowed on the ultramodern Brasilia, which boasts unique buildings designed by Brazil’s famous architect Oscar Niemeyer.
In the early 1500s when Portuguese explorers entered the Guanabara Bay in Rio and encountered the giant round mountains, they called them Pão de Açúcar, which means “sugar loaf” in Portuguese. At that time, sugar was placed in clay conical molds for transport on ships, which looked like Rio’s mountain peaks. Guanabara Bay has become a bone of contention in recent days for something a bit more sour. On the weekend, we were cycling along the route bordering the beautiful white sand Botafogo beach at Guanabara Bay with Sugar Loaf mountain in the background. We were hit with an awful pungent smell caused by the intense pollution in the bay—the reason why no one was on that beach. There have been a number of oil spills in the bay and in one case, 1.3 million liters from a leaking underwater pipeline destroyed large areas of the bay’s mangrove ecosystem. In addition, surrounding communities have been releasing sewage into the bay. The sailing events for the upcoming Olympic Games are scheduled to be held on the bay, and we wondered if the government will be able to clean it up, even with the assistance of Dutch experts.
Nonetheless, there are many spots in the city that are famous for other reasons and worth a visit. Driving for about a half hour along the coast out of Rio, we also passed the Barra district with many high-rise luxury apartment buildings along a wide beach, where rolling waves crashed on the white sands that stretched for miles. Lots of kitesurfers could be seen out on the ocean flying off the wave tips. Given that there must be a few thousand of such apartments in Barra, it is clear that many Cariocas are wealthy and enjoy an affluent lifestyle.
Behind the high-rise apartments were large shopping malls with all the famous brand names and plenty of food choices, from fast food to upscale restaurants. One mall is called “New York City Center” and has a giant Statue of Liberty in front of it. At the mall we watched the movie “Deadpool,” a satirical take on a Marvel comic. The film had Portuguese subtitles, but it made constant reference to a number of actors, characters and incidents from American television, theater, video games and films that I expected a foreign audience wouldn’t understand. I was surprised to find that the entire audience, mainly made up of young Brazilians, was howling with laughter throughout, while I barely understood half of the jokes. This brought home to me how global culture has become and how the young people of the world are being exposed to much more