Rio’s Olympians: Like the city, its athletes overcoming own obstacles
- The young Carioca (native of Rio de Janeiro) athletes stake their own dreams on these Olympics, notwithstanding obstacles that are uniquely Rio’s.
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This is Rio de Janeiro, your Olympic host city, in the run-up to the lighting of the cauldron: Body parts wash up on Copacabana Beach. A crashing wave takes out a recreational bike path, sending two people to their deaths. The mayor accuses the state government of doing a ”terrible, horrible” job of keeping the public safe. Sailboats on Guanabara Bay cut through an oil slick. Then there’s the mosquito-borne Zika virus, for which Brazil is the prime breeding ground. Signage on a highway leading into Rio from the international airport flashes a plea that tries to pass itself off as fact: ONE LITTLE INSECT CAN’T BEAT A WHOLE COUNTRY.
It’s as if the four equestrians of the Olympic apocalypse have been summoned to Rio to test just how marvelous the self-described cidade maravilhosa really is: Pestilence, not just in the form of Zika but also in alarming levels of other viruses and bacteria in the water at the rowing and canoeing, sailing and open-water swimming venues; urban violence, the likely cause of that cadaver flotsam near the beach-volleyball venue; political chaos, touched off by a bribery scandal that implicates companies responsible for Olympic infrastructure and helped cause the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff; and insolvency, which has left the Rio state government so cash-poor that some policemen, unwilling to protect the public unless they’re paid, greeted visitors at the airport in late June with a sign that read WELCOME TO HELL.
The Brazil that hosts the 2016 Olympics won’t be remotely the same country that was awarded them in 2009, when its economy was surfing the swell tide of high oil prices and then-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva could cite his own rags-to-riches story as a parable for his nation. Fold in the usual construction snafus that torment every Olympics—an extension of the city’s Metro system linking Ipanema with the Olympic Park in Barra da Tijuca is set to open only four days before the Games begin on Aug. 5—and Rio looks poised to host the devil’s own idea of a five-ring circus.
Yet organizers soldier on, with the blinkered focus and unwillingness to quit that any elite athlete would recognize. “We’re committed to delivering a great Games, because we won’t have a second chance,” says Agberto Guimarães, the former Olympic middle-distance runner who serves as director of sports for the Rio 2016 organizing committee. “Even with all the turmoil the country is going through, the majority of our population is under 40 and knows that if we do a great job here, the sky’s the limit. I’m a typical Brazilian, a mixture of everything and ready for anything.”
That attitude obtains all over this most variegated of cities, where rich and poor, black and white and in between circulate and work higgledy-piggledy, catching the same unmatched views and populating the same beaches, if not always the same neighborhoods. Just as organizers shrug off bad news to keep their eyes on the prize of a successful Games, young Carioca (Rio native) athletes stake their own dreams on these Olympics, notwithstanding obstacles that are uniquely Rio’s. Guimarães knows many of those Olympians by the truncated names characteristic of prominent Brazilians: Rafaela, Marcus Vinícius, Martine. “Those kids can be the face of the city, overcoming challenges,” he says.
Here then is a look at a handful of locals with skin in the Olympic game. Some are athletes. All hope that these Games will change the city’s trajectory. And each is ready for anything.
RAFAELA SILVA: Child of the City of God
City of God is the award-winning 2002 film about life in one of Rio’s most notorious favelas. It’s also the name of the community itself. The movie’s tagline—“If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you”—captures the fatalism of life in the cramped shantytowns where one of every five Cariocas lives, often trying to avoid crossfire between drug gangs and police.
Rafaela Silva, the 2013 world champion lightweight judoka, spent the first eight years of her life in the City of God, getting into fights with boys and getting expelled from school. But she showed an early aptitude for street soccer and for pipa combate, a kind of aerial martial art in which combatants fly kites from rooftops and try to cut one another’s strings. Rafaela’s parents nudged her into judo at age five at Instituto Reação, which today serves some 1,250 athletes in five favelas around Rio. The Silvas moved to a new home a mile from the favela when Rafaela was eight, but the City of God had left its mark. “We’d pass people selling drugs and trying to recruit kids to be lookouts,” says Rafaela, now 24. “My parents didn’t want that for me.”
She was lucky that her first sensei, Instituto Reação cofounder Geraldo Bernardes, had coached Brazilian judokas through four Olympic cycles. “Playing soccer and pipa, jumping over walls and climbing trees, gave her natural coordination,” Bernardes says. “The first moment I saw her, I knew I had a diamond in the rough.”
At 16, shortly after earning her black belt, Rafaela won a world junior title. Three years later she added a silver medal at the 2011 world championships. But her experience at the London Olympics nearly led her to quit the sport. While comfortably leading Hungary’s Hedvig Karakas late in their quarterfinal match, Silva was disqualified for violating a newly instituted ban on moves that target an opponent’s legs. Afterward a Brazilian Twitter user showered Silva with racist abuse, saying “the place of a monkey is in a cage.”
Judo means gentle path, but Silva had come up on mean streets, and she responded in kind: “Go f--- yourself ... earn a spot in the Olympics and then we’ll talk.” The exchange escalated into a full-fledged flame war, for which Silva apologized to team officials. In one sense she was simply acting out the command of her sport: for every action, a reaction. But the loss in London and its ugly aftermath sent her into a tailspin. She abandoned training and hunkered down at home, in thrall to the TV. “It wasn’t just losing,” she says. “It was being called a monkey out of my cage.” Only with the help of a psychologist was Bernardes able to lure her back to the mat. Now her objective, to win an Olympic medal and expunge memories of London, can be riddled out from one of the tattoos on her arms, a word-search grid in which judo and the Portuguese renderings of dreams and reality are all circled.
On the same day last month that Brazilian judo officials introduced Silva and her Olympic teammates at a catered affair, troops from Rio’s Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) sealed off the City of God. A drug dealer’s niece had been shot in the face, and it would be several days before the revenge killings and police operations ran their course. But now that she lives safely beyond the crossfire, Silva has begun to swap an instinct for retribution for a different warrior koan: Yield in order to conquer.
MARCUS VINÍCIUS D’ALMEIDA: Seeking stillness in the Sambadrome
Cariocas try to cope with the city’s carjacking epidemic by following a few rules: Stick to middle lanes, stash belongings beneath seats and ignore red lights late at night. Last month Anna Paula Cotta, a 27-year-old Navy sergeant who dreamed of making the Brazilian competitive shooting team as a pistol specialist, nearly died after being shot in the head while trying to escape a roadside assault. A year ago carjackers targeted even the archbishop of Rio, as he returned from Mass.
Marcus Maurício D’Almeida was lucky that day in 2001. Two gunmen invaded his car while he was stopped at a red light with his three-year-old son, Marcus Vinícius, in the backseat. No shots were fired, but the D’Almeidas were held captive for two hours before police rescued them and arrested the carjackers. In the aftermath Marcus Maurício needed months of counseling and eventually decided to leave Rio. He scooped up his wife, son and four daughters and moved to Maricá, a sleepy coastal town 30 miles away. There Marcus Vinícius spent a carefree childhood swimming, doing jujitsu and playing the Brazilian martial art capoeira.
The boy’s life changed in 2010, soon after his 12th birthday. Using funds earmarked after Rio won the Olympic bid, the Brazilian Archery Confederation had set up a training center in Maricá. The D’Almeidas enrolled their son in a free children’s program taught by Dirma Miranda dos Santos, a 17-time Brazilian champion who ran the center. Within a few months Marcus Vinícius had impressed Dos Santos with his dedication and even temper.
The boy quickly kindled to the precision that archery requires and the instant feedback it affords. Like a young Hoosier with a key to the high school gym, he’d duck in on a whim to squeeze off shots. After two years Dos Santos vouchsafed him to the national coach at the Olympic training center in the state of São Paulo. By 15, Marcus Vinícius was competing internationally, and at 16, in 2014, he broke through. He won three golds at the South American Games in Santiago, Chile; took a silver at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China; and became the youngest archer to reach a World Cup final, in Lausanne, Switzerland, collecting a silver medal in the men’s recurve competition after losing by a single arrow to two-time World Cup champion Brady Ellison of the U.S. The inevitable nickname—archery’s Neymar—soon followed, and D’Almeida has been ranked as high as sixth in the world.
World Archery, the sport’s international governing body, likes to stage events at iconic sites: Lord’s Cricket Ground during the London Olympics and the Eiffel Tower for the 2013 World Cup final. In Rio archers will shoot arrows in the Sambadrome, where the furthest thing from the stillness and quiet of an archery competition plays out each year at carnaval. Given the venue and D’Almeida’s popularity, organizers expect archery to sell out.
Because Rio’s successful bid led to that permanent training site in Maricá, D’Almeida is a creation of these Olympics. And he may soon have unlikely company, thanks to another effort inspired by the Rio Games. Three years ago the Sustainable Amazon Foundation launched an initiative to make competitive archers out of indigenous boys and girls who grow up hunting with bows and arrows. None of the young archers now in the program has qualified for Rio, but 16-year-old Nelson Silva, who once fashioned bows out of tropical paxiuba wood in a village 90 minutes up the Rio Negro from the Amazonian capital of Manaus, is one of several who, coaches believe, could make a future Olympic team. In the final of the mixed pairs competition at last year’s Brazilian championships, Silva and another indigenous archer, Graziela Paulino, defeated D’Almeida and his Carioca partner, Ane Marcelle dos Santos.
In the meantime, D’Almeida keeps images of the Sambadrome in his head. “I think my greatest quality is to remain calm during competition,” he says. But after competition, all bets are off. He has never attended the Sambadrome’s raucous parade of samba schools at carnaval, but he gets goose bumps at the thought of a party breaking out in the stands to celebrate a Brazilian gold medal.
And of that carjacking 15 years ago, he doesn’t remember a thing: “I only know that what happened that day changed my life.”
MARTINE GRAEL: Solving Guanabara Bay
A visitor to Rio will notice how reliably Guanabara Bay offsets such iconic vaults of green as Corcovado, with its statue of Christ the Redeemer, and Sugar Loaf. Martine Grael loves the bay for something quite the opposite: its unreliability. A sailor on its waters copes with shifting currents, eddies from irregular harbor channels and the thermals that suddenly race down the surrounding hills. “Even if you have a forecast in your hands, you’re never sure what will happen,” says Grael, 25, who will sail for Brazil in the 49erFX two-woman skiff. “There’s such a range of conditions that it presents many challenges, and I really like challenges.”
Of course a plastic bag or stray shoe caught in your rudder is the ultimate change in conditions and a challenge no Olympic sailor wants to face. During training, Grael and her crewmate, Kahena Kunze, treat every piece of debris as another test the bay throws at them. “We stop and take it off, as if it were happening in a race,” she says.
Grael’s earliest sailing memory is of her mother taking her out on the bay. Martine would routinely jump in the water and clamber back into the boat. She has never contracted an infection from her home waters, but sailors from elsewhere, without immunity built up over years, have fallen sick. Only half of Rio’s sewage gets treated, and most of the untreated effluent winds up in the bay: 8,200 liters per second, as well as 100 tons of garbage each day. Rio won its bid to host the Games with a pledge to make the bay at least 80% clean. That goal won’t be met, and independent investigations confirm the microbial dangers lurking at the outdoor water venues. Organizers hope trash-scooping “eco boats” can at least keep debris from obstructing the sailing course. Grael is unimpressed: “Eco boats don’t solve the problem. They just postpone it until after the Olympics.”
Switching craft and crew after the London Games, Grael joined Kunze to win a world championship in 2014 and finish first in Rio test events in ’14 and ’15. In ’14 she and Kunze were named the International Sailing Federation’s World Sailors of the Year, a title also won by Martine’s father, six-time Olympian and five-time medalist Torben Grael. The Graels are sailing royalty: Three generations have represented Brazil at the Olympics since 1968, and Martine’s brother, Marco, is also set to compete next month.
But Martine’s non-Olympian uncle Axel Grael might be writing the most significant chapter of the family story. A former environmental official for the state of Rio de Janeiro, he’s now vice mayor of Niterói, the municipality on the bay’s east side that is home to the Rio Yacht Club. Two decades ago Niterói put its sewage treatment contract up for bid, and today 95% of its waste is treated.
Axel is also president of Projeto Grael, which Torben founded with his brother Lars and Marcelo Ferreira, two other Brazilian Olympic sailing medalists. The foundation teaches the sport and nautical arts to people aged nine to 24, with an emphasis on environmental education. “We’re surrounded by nature, but there’s not very much contact with it,” Martine Grael says of greater Rio. “And we have very little nautical culture here. People like to go to the beach more than engage with the sea itself.”
She hopes that she and her brother will someday raise another generation of Graels on Guanabara Bay, kids who can jump heedlessly into its waters as they once did. And she hopes her performance will highlight the great unkept promise of these Games. “Our situation here is unacceptable,” she says. “Examples should come from above, but we have such political issues in Brazil now that they can’t be. Maybe with the Olympics we athletes can set the example.”
BOXING FOR ALL: An education in and out of the ring
It’s a five-minute stroll from the beach at São Conrado, in Rio’s upscale South Zone, to the edge of the hillside favela called Vidigal. Pass the UPP outpost, head left up the main commercial street and around one bend, and you’ll find a hard hairpin turn into a narrow alleyway. Take it, and in 50 or so ascending, cobblestoned meters, opposite graffiti that reads FAITH IN THE CHILDREN OF VIDIGAL and BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD, you’ll find a doorway. Duck in, and Todos na Luta will hit you like a left cross, all shuffling feet and thuds on heavy bags and the perfume of teenagers’ sweat.
Luta is the Portuguese word for boxing, but it also means struggle, which lends more metaphorical wallop to the name of the club headquartered there: Boxing for All, to be sure, but also Everyone in the Struggle. A sign lists the program’s 13 rules, from Respect others when they speak to Wash hands before meals. But the most meaningful command tops the list: Follow these rules beyond the club walls. One product of the program, middleweight Esquiva Falcão, won a silver medal in London and is now unbeaten in 14 fights as a pro based in the U.S. And next month, at the Riocentro boxing pavilion, two Todos na Luta veterans—light heavyweight Michel Borges and light flyweight Patrick Lourenço—will answer the bell for Brazil.
Raffi Giglio began the club in 1993 as a private boxing school in rented space at the base of the Vidigal hill. He charged those who could pay and comped promising favelados who couldn’t. But after a war between two drug gangs broke out in 2004, the full-freight customers stopped coming. Borges and Lourenço became known as “the bullet-dodging kids” because they continued to descend the hill. Even at the height of the violence the traficantes spared the club. “They understood our social mission and never interfered,” says Raffi’s daughter Júlia, who administers the program.
In 2011 the UPP pacified Vidigal, and today disease is a bigger local concern than gunfire. Júlia has had dengue fever, and one of the club’s volunteer coaches has contracted Zika. But with the decline in violence, property near the sea has soared in value. Like many others near the affluent neighborhoods of Ipanema and Leblon, the Giglios were priced out. So they abandoned paying clients entirely and moved the club into the favela proper. “What was once a mixture of private enterprise and social-service project is now all social-service project,” says Júlia, who still works her day job as a lawyer.
Like Instituto Reação and Projeto Grael, the Giglios’ nonprofit collects little in public funds and counts on private donations. Among the program’s patrons is Brazilian actor Malvino Salvador, 40, who discovered Todos na Luta when he had to play a boxer in a telenovela and needed a training site. Five years ago he helped underwrite the move to the club’s current quarters and still returns to spar. “We’ve done this on a shoestring,” Júlia says, “but if a club like ours somehow produces Olympians, we must be doing something right.”
She is standing on the roof of the club, with views that sweep down the length of Ipanema Beach. Sugar Loaf preens off to the left. The Giglios hope someday to fit the rooftop with barriers, to make it safe enough to put a ring there, clear of the stifling air below. But as with everything the club does, it’s a matter of finding the money.
RENE SILVA: Torchbearer bearing witness
He’s only 22, but Rene Silva has been a journalist for half his life, covering the favela in which he lives: Complexo do Alemão, 13 distinct communities that sprawl over a series of hills in northern Rio. As an 11-year-old he launched a single-page monthly, Voz da Comunidade (Voice of the Community), with the help of the student council at his school. He soon extended the paper’s scope to the entire favela, and today Voz distributes 10,000 copies a month. A typical issue mixes straight news—shootouts, mudslides—with advocacy for such causes as job-training centers, better street lighting and improved transportation.
Silva’s life suddenly changed on a late November day six years ago, when 2,700 soldiers and police, backed by tanks, invaded the Alemão to root out the drug traffickers who ruled it. Using his grandmother’s hilltop home as a base, Rene and two teenage Voz colleagues rigged up a video stream from his mobile phone and live-tweeted the operation. They kept a real-time casualty count, corrected erroneous reporting by the mainstream reporters barred from entering the favela, and alerted authorities to the location of a young boy trapped in the crossfire. At one point during his microblogging marathon, which won him 28,000 Twitter followers over three days, Rene tweeted out his desire to be a journalist someday. One follower shot back, “You already are.” Silva, one of four Brazilians who carried the Olympic torch before the London Games, will participate in the torch relay again on Aug. 1, bearing the Olympic flame through his hometown.
Rio suffers from a divide between morro and asfalto—the hills where favelados dwell and the paved streets of more prosperous Cariocas. “Particularly in the South Zone, the attitude is that favelados are all thieves,” Silva says. “But stop and think: 180,000 people live here. If 10% were drug dealers, that would be 18,000. If 1%, 1,800, which is still a lot. In fact, it’s a lot less than 1%.”
Silva understands the conundrum of reporting on his community: Stories on drugs and crime feed negative stereotypes, but if problems aren’t exposed, no one will feel pressure to address them. And revealing what favelados experience every day helps make sure their accomplishments aren’t sold short. “There’s great solidarity within the favelas,” Silva says. “Many residents are natural entrepreneurs—by necessity—because they have to figure out how to meet their needs.”
Silva remembers the first time he tasted Coca-Cola: A delivery truck, tipped over by a booby trap at a drug gang’s roadblock, scattered product in the street, and Rene and his young friends helped themselves. Today Coke is one of his most reliable advertisers and a sponsor of the torch relay.
“With the World Cup in 2014 we had lots of problems too, but that didn’t stop people from enjoying it,” Silva says. “One good thing is that because of the problems, the Games will focus the world’s attention and maybe spur the government to act.”
Silva has no college education, but in March he’ll take Brazil’s university entrance exam to formally study journalism on a full scholarship. He and two Voz colleagues are also reporting for a book, to be called One Hundred Days, that will look at the month before the Olympics, the fortnight in which they take place and the six weeks afterward. “It’s important for the city that it’s all documented,” Silva says. “And perhaps most important will be that last part—those weeks after.”
EDUARDO PAES: Last Pol standing
He’s impatient. He’s a devoted practitioner of message discipline. And right now he’s running late. Such is the Americanized M.O. of Brazil’s most prominent unindicted, unimpeached politician—to swan onto the scene after constituents and cameramen are in place. Moreover, this is a Sunday morning, when Rio mayor Eduardo Paes loves to schedule public events, to underscore that he’s at work when others aren’t. Today he’ll preside over the dedication of a new spur in the city’s light rail line, a link between the revitalized port, site of one of the big screens for Olympic spectators without tickets, and downtown Rio.
The rail extension isn’t an Olympic project per se but rather new infrastructure that can be credited to the momentum of the Games. That’s the note Paes strikes again and again: that the Olympics are a tool that Rio can use for its larger purposes. He’s criticized for razing favelas and too readily transferring public assets to private developers, but transport is likely to be one area where the Games’ legacy is impressive. “The great thing about the Olympics isn’t the party,” Paes says. “It’s the journey that got us here.”
Wearing a bright yellow Brazilian Olympic Committee windbreaker, the mayor squeezes into one of the train cars. He disembarks to deliver a speech at the first stop, where musicians and dancers from a samba school offer a reminder that Brazil’s most beloved musical genre was born in the port. The morning has all the marks of a whistle-stop campaign, but Paes is coy about his plans after his term ends on Dec. 31, even as it’s widely assumed that he will run for president. The filthy bay, the tardy subway line, the soon-to-be-declared “state of public calamity” because of unpaid health, transport and security workers—all are failures of the state of Rio de Janeiro, not the city; except for that star-crossed bike path, the city has kept most of its part of the Olympic bargain under Paes, who was inaugurated the year Rio won the bid.
With Rousseff facing her impeachment trial in the Senate and with interim president Michel Temer himself under investigation for corruption, Paes might be the political face of the Games. Although his name shows up on a list that a construction company implicated in the scandals, Odebrecht, kept of politicians it favored with campaign contributions, so far no Paes pro quo has been established for any Odebrecht quid. The most incriminating thing on the company’s list is its code name for Paes: Nervosinho, which translates roughly to “little tantrum thrower.”
After the bid was won, Paes traveled to Barcelona to meet with that city’s former mayor Pasqual Maragall, whose stewardship through the 1992 Olympics is considered the rare instance of a city successfully leveraging the Games for a larger urban makeover. “He gave me two important lessons,” Paes says. “One, do whatever you’ve got to do, because they won’t take the Games away from you. And two, there’s the Olympics where the Games use the city, and the kind where the city uses the Games. We’re the second kind.
“It hasn’t been easy to deliver the Games in such an economic and political crisis. But being a Carioca always helps.”
With that last comment the mayor is referring to the city’s improvisational spirit. Brazilians call it jeito, the ability to conjure some solution with a shortcut or workaround. For 17 days Rio will draw on its reserves of resourcefulness, to welcome visitors who beat their way to the city’s soiled apron of water and sand and undulating hills, risking disease and violence until the party runs its course.
Once upon a time Brazil seemed to have perfected the art of smiling in the face of adversity. Certainly sports gave the country occasions to do so. Even before the referee blew the final whistle on the seleção’s 7–1 home-turf humiliation by Germany in the 2014 World Cup, Brazilians posted tragicomic memes on social media. Today is different. “We have lost our ability to laugh,” says one federal official. “No one has a sense of humor about any of this.”
Yet in parts of the Rio 2016 headquarters near the Sambadrome, a wry sensibility shines through. “The joke we have here is, give me a pen and a piece of paper and draw the worst that could happen, and none of us would have been this creative,” says Gustavo Nascimento, venues design manager for the organizing committee. “But we didn’t come this far not to succeed. We’re here to make it happen. It’s been six years. Now, let’s do it.”