Brazil’s Olympic mood swingsI have a confession: The other day I went sailing in Rio de Janeiro. I took the whole family, in fact, on a blustery, pre-Olympic afternoon. And we enjoyed it. There were no shoals of garbage, no bodies bobbing in brine, as so many alarming pre-Olympic dispatches have warned. True, my daughter didn’t feel so well, but not from contagion; she gets seasick. Yes, there are waves in Guanabara Bay.
I don’t want to be a spoiled sport, but I think the Olympics are going to be okay. To judge by the stylish opening ceremony and the first weekend of competition, the games will not disappoint: Six world records tumbled in the pools alone and unprecedented weight was hoisted. Brazilian women dazzled at volleyball, in handball and on the football pitch. (Not so the male footballers who, despite efforts by celebrity striker Neymar, were held scoreless by humble Iraq.)
What went right? For one, the opening ceremony. An old trope has it that at least Brazilians know how to throw a party. More accurately, they know how to put on a pageant. Orchestrated by a trio of film directors and scenographers, headlined by Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”), the Aug. 5 ceremony in Maracana stadium was simple, graceful and seductively understated. Instead of a diva belting out the national anthem, the directors chose Paulinho da Viola, the beloved samba crooner who rendered the Brazilian anthem in a near whisper while playing acoustic guitar against a string octet.
Yes, the Rio games could still go flat. Plenty of danger and misery lies beyond the perimeter of the Athletes’ Villa. (Ask the Chinese reporters, whose bus trip to the Olympic Village was delayed by a shootout along the airport expressway.) And yes, parts of Rio’s bay (though fortunately not where most of the competitions will be held) are still awash in human waste. We went sailing, not swimming in Guanabara Bay.
But international guests are not strolling into hell, as picketing police union reps recently advertised in the airport arrival lounge, trying to turn a labor grievance into a media opportunity. With some 85,000 or so soldiers, beat cops, municipal guardsmen and private security assigned to watch over Rio and its guests, you are likely to be safer in no other place in Brazil. Certainly not in Rio Grande do Norte, on Brazil’s northeastern shore, where jailed crime bosses with smuggled mobile phones have recently orchestrated more than 100 acts of violence and mayhem in dozens of cities.
Most Brazilians seem to be warming to their Olympics, despite dour pre-games polls. Though national ratings aren’t yet available, leading broadcaster TV Globo reported a 20-year high for its viewing audience in Sao Paulo for the opening ceremony. Sure, a few mischief-makers tried to snuff the Olympic torch on its way to Rio, and stadium police have drawn rebuke for censoring fans protesting against acting president Michel Temer. Irony alert: They are being silenced under a gag law signed by suspended — and, apparently, soon to be impeached — President Dilma Rousseff, who wanted to preempt embarrassment during the 2014 World Cup.
But pranks gave way to pride when supermodel Gisele Bundchen cat-walked through Maracana to the cadences of “The Girl from Ipanema,” and everyone cheered when beloved former Olympic marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima — who lost his lead and finished third in the Athens games when a deranged Irish fan tackled him — climbed the dais to light the Olympic pyre.
A good friend who, like me, is also a longtime adoptive native of Rio de Janeiro, said she’s convinced the sudden upturn in the Brazilian mood is more theater than a conversion. The world may be falling apart, she told me, but put on feathers and paint, deploy a supermodel, and let lavish props and performance-enhancing production values do the rest.
There’s something to the argument. After all, this is the land of Ivo Pitanguy, the storied plastic surgeon, who died on Saturday at age 93. Alongside football’s Pele, Pitanguy is revered as a Brazilian icon, the man who turned his country into a global center for artful remakes.
That may be too harsh. Brazilians are sore but they’re not blinkered. They’re rightly angered over a government that made a hash of the economy and politicians who still confuse elected office with a birthright. The country’s athletes may not be the stars of the Rio games, but their fans know the difference between earning gold and stealing it. And that’s worth an Olympic cheer.
*The author writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”