When Los Angeles hosted the 1932 Olympic Games, many nations were faced with a problem, namely money. Travel distances coupled with a worldwide depression made the cost of sending a team formidable. Entries were way down—only 1,500 athletes compared with 3,015 in the 1928 Amsterdam Games. Nonetheless, 37 countries managed to get their Olympians to California. Some coped by drastically trimming the size of their teams. China, with a population of 400 million, sent only its best sprinter, Cheng-Chun Liu. Haiti, Uruguay and Egypt also sent one-man teams. Colombia sent two representatives. Brazil had another idea, and if ingenuity had been an Olympic sport, the Brazilians would have gotten the gold—and maybe the silver and bronze, too.
Although Brazil was the fifth-largest nation in the world in area, it couldn't afford to send anyone to the Games. The wholesale price of Brazil's one cash crop, coffee, had fallen to 7¬¨¬®¬¨¢ from 25¬¨¬®¬¨¢ per pound and the country was in economic turmoil. Many disheartened coffee growers destroyed their crop rather than sell at a loss, while still others stored mountains of unsold beans in Rio warehouses to wait for higher prices.
Then a government official had an idea—load a ship with 50,000 pounds of coffee, have the Olympic team serve as crew and sell the cargo at ports between Rio and L.A. The team would get passage to California and use the profits from the sale of the coffee for expenses once there. Eureka, someone said in Portuguese. So several weeks before the July 30th opening ceremonies, the 69-member Brazilian team (68 men and one woman—17-year-old swimmer Maria Lenk), the 50-piece National Brazilian Marine Band and 25 tons of coffee were loaded aboard the S.S. Itaquice. It made a number of stops at Brazilian ports north of Rio, but sales weren't encouraging, and at the first foreign port, Trinidad, no one wanted so much as a single bean. When the Itaquice reached the Panama Canal, the Brazilians were unable to pay the toll.
Because warships were allowed free passage, the captain pointed hopefully to the huge cannons that had been providently installed on the Itaquice's stern before departure and tried to convince the Canal authorities that the Itaquice was indeed a warship. The ploy didn't work, and when the authorities stopped laughing, they refused to allow the ship through. In desperation the Itaquice radioed a distress call to the Banco do Brasil, which dispatched a messenger who arrived with the cash a few days later. The ship steamed on, but stops at several Pacific ports en route to Los Angeles produced little revenue and on July 22, when the Itaquice reached San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles, total cash on hand was $24. Because the U.S. Immigration Service had a one-dollar head tax, only 24 athletes could go ashore; their 45 teammates would be stranded on board if the tax weren't paid. The Brazilian consul in San Francisco was asked to bail them out. Yes, the consul had enough money; a courier was on his way. But before he reached Los Angeles, disaster struck. The Brazilian currency had been devalued, and where three milreis had been worth one U.S. dollar, eight were now required. Bye, bye bailout. Team spirit plunged to new lows.
August 10, 1980
Rather than abandon the Olympic effort, the coaches chose the 24 athletes they thought would have the best prospects, paid their head tax and sent them off to the Olympic Village. The remaining athletes decided to make one last effort to raise enough money to join the competition They sailed the Itaquice toward San Francisco and Portland, hoping that the Pacific Northwest was thirsty for coffee. It wasn't, and the Itaquice was not seen in Los Angeles again until sometime after the closing ceremonies.
Meanwhile, on July 30, the 24 Brazilians marched into the Olympic Stadium among the 1,500 athletes in the Parade of Nations. Customarily, the Games had been opened by the head of the host government, but President Hoover was busy campaigning for reelection and felt he could not spare the time to attend. His stand-in, Vice-President Charles Curtis, stood before 100,000 spectators and proclaimed the Games open.
The Brazilians participated in track and field, swimming, water polo, rowing and shooting, but they should of stood in bed—or bunk. They won no medals and scored only one point, tallied when Lucio Almeida Prado de Castro finished sixth in the pole vault. (There is no official Olympic scoring, but unofficial scorekeepers in the press have traditionally awarded 10 points for a first, and 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 for second through sixth places. The U.S. thereby "won" the Games with 295½ points.)
But the Brazilians didn't go unnoticed. In a rough first-round water polo match against Germany, they were assessed foul after foul by the Hungarian referee, Bela Komjadi—fouls to which they objected vehemently. Because none of the Brazilians spoke Hungarian, and Komjadi spoke no Portuguese, the team found a way to make certain the referee understood its true feelings. When the match ended 7-3 in favor of Germany, the Brazilians politely joined hands and gave a cheer for the winning team, then swam to the judge's stand, surrounded Komjadi, and started throwing haymakers as spectators swarmed out of the stands to join the fray. Komjadi, angered at allegations that he had been prejudiced against the coffee sellers in favor of the Germans, complained, "The Brazilians have no idea how to play water polo. They have no idea of the international regulations." Since the Germans, not the Brazilians, were Hungary's chief rival in water polo, the Olympic authorities sided with Komjadi and disqualified Brazil from further competition in the sport.
At the conclusion of the Games the Brazilians were bused back to the Itaquice, where they rejoined the stranded ones and then sailed for Rio. At the sight of Sugarloaf they cheered, little suspecting that for many, further nightmares lay ahead.
Brazil was in the midst of a revolution. Rail transportation between Rio and S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo had been halted, and 32 athletes from that city were marooned once again. They were invited to remain in a safe retreat in Rio, but voted to decline the offer. Instead, they found a friendly captain of a freighter leaving for S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Sebasti‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Island, who gave them free passage.
Once on the island, they hitched a ride aboard a small boat to the city of S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Sebasti‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o. From there, everyone, including young Maria Lenk, proceeded on foot through the rugged mountains of the Serra do Mar. They hiked for eight hours, foraged for food, then spent the night in a deserted hillside shack.
The next morning they marched higher up the mountainside until they found a compassionate truck driver. He gave them a lift to the town of Cacapava, where they were finally able to catch a train to S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo. The train was delayed by combat between the Brazilian army and the rebels, but eventually reached the city safely. And, although they didn't return victorious, the Brazilians had reason to be proud. As the Roman poet Propertius said, "In mighty enterprises, it is enough to have had the determination."