Brazil’s Uplifting Olympics
SPORTS, 22 Aug 2016
15 Aug 2016 – When I was a correspondent in Brazil 30 years ago, inflation was rampant. It ran at an average of 707.4 percent a year from 1985 to 1989. The salaries of the poor were wiped out within hours of being paid. The country went through three currencies — cruzeiro, cruzado and cruzado novo — while I lived in Rio. The only way out for Brazilians, people joked, was Galeão, the international airport.
Antônio Carlos Jobim, the composer of “The Girl From Ipanema” (and whose name is now affixed to that airport), famously observed that “Brazil is not for beginners.”
It was not then and it’s not now. It’s a vast diverse country, a tropical United States, whose rich and poor are divided by a chasm. High crime rates are in part a reflection of this divide. Flexibility is at a premium in a culture fashioned by heat, sensuality, samba and rule bending. Life can be cheap. You adapt or you perish.
Edmar Bacha, a friend and economist, had coined the term “Belindia” to describe Brazil — a prosperous Belgium perched atop a teeming India. I wrote a story about the poor kids from north Rio, far from the beaches of Ipanema and Leblon, who would get their kicks as “train surfers,” riding the tops of fast-moving trains, rather than surf Atlantic waves. Often they died, electrocuted. I will never forget the twisted corpse of one in the city morgue.
Inequity was part of the story, yet even in those tumultuous times it was not all of it. “Tudo bem?” — “All good?” — I would ask when I ventured into the ubiquitous favelas, or slums. “Tudo bem!” was often the response, along with a smile, even when all was entirely awful. Penury in the sun is not penury in the cold.
I once asked the São Paulo industrialist José Mindlin if he was worried about where Brazil was headed. “I always worry about the end of the month,” Mindlin said. “But I never worry about the future.” He was right. Brazil is the graveyard of naysayers.
The country has been transformed since the 1980s. Democracy and the currency have been stabilized. The middle class has grown exponentially even if it is under pressure now. Brazil has impeached one president, Fernando Collor de Mello, and is in the midst of an impeachment process against another, Dilma Rousseff, for charges of budgetary manipulation. The law can no longer be bought with facility. The commodities boom that propelled rapid Brazilian growth over many years has ended. Still, Brazil is ensconced in the world’s top 10 economies.
According to the World Bank, life expectancy increased to 74.4 years in 2014 from 63.9 in 1986 (in the same period American life expectancy went up by just four years). Illiteracy is still too high but has fallen sharply.
Brazil today is less Belindia than Franconesia — a substantial France atop an Indonesia. Its problems persist, but only a fool would deny that Brazil will be a major 21st-century player. As anyone attending the Olympics must feel, Brazil has a powerful and joyous national culture. It is the land of “Tudo bem.”
All of which is to say that I am tired, very tired, of reading negative stories about these Brazilian Olympics — the anger in the slums, the violence that continues (including the armed robbery of four American swimmers), the enduring gulf between rich and poor, the occasional organizational hassles, the Russian doping and the Brazilian mosquito, money that could supposedly have been spent better than extending the Metro that now runs from the center to prosperous Barra da Tijuca (so, among other things, enabling the poor to get jobs out there).
First, Brazil was never going to get the job done in time for the Olympics; now that it’s shown so much success and held a magnificent opening ceremony, it’s blamed for not having resolved every one of its social problems in time for the Games.
There is something in the developed world that does not like a developing country that organizes a major sporting event. I heard the same jeremiads in South Africa at the time of the World Cup in 2010: the crime that would ruin things, the poverty that was shameful and the inefficiency that would plague visitors. The tournament was a triumph. I don’t recall reporters combing the poorest, most crime-ridden parts of Britain in 2012 to find people ready to grumble about the London Olympics.
These Olympics are good for Brazil and good for humanity, a needed tonic. Watch Usain Bolt or Simone Biles and feel uplifted.
My preferred image is that of Rafaela Silva, the young Brazilian woman from the violent Rio slum of Cidade de Deus, who won a gold medal in judo and declared: “This medal demonstrates that a child who has a dream should believe, even if it takes time, because the dream can be realized.”
Out in the favelas some kids are dreaming in a different way right now. That, too, is a story.
Roger Cohen joined The New York Times in 1990. He was a foreign correspondent for more than a decade before becoming acting foreign editor on Sept. 11, 2001, and foreign editor six months later. Since 2004, he has written a column for The International New York Times, formerly known as The International Herald Tribune. In 2009 he was named a columnist of The New York Times. Mr. Cohen has written Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo, an account of the wars of Yugoslavia’s destruction, and Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis’ Final Gamble.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on August 16, 2016, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Brazil’s Uplifting Olympics.
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