The Olympics are over. Now it’s time to reflect and celebrate. Brazilians were hoping for a higher total medal count as the host country, which placed Brazil among the top 14 nations. However, it was the best Olympic showing ever for Brazil. It’s worth noting that athletes from 120 countries went home with no medals at all.
Certainly there were more than enough heroes, like Neymar, or the men’s volleyball gold, or Robson Conceição, who won Brazil’s first ever Olympic boxing gold medal. Or the hero already celebrated in these pages, Isaquias Queiroz, the first Brazilian ever to win three medals in the same Games. Interviewed after his third victory, he admitted he’d be taking a vacation, but only for one week. Next week, he’ll start training for Tokyo!
Olympic tourists came to see one of the world’s friendliest countries and most beautiful cities, and none left disappointed. Athletes competed in the finest arenas technology could provide. The New York Times editorial board declared, “. . . all hail to Brazil and all the fine athletes who have provided, once again, a sorely needed respite from the real woes of the world.”
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the Olympics, so my observations are based solely on the impressive 24/7 TV coverage afforded by SporTV and ESPN in Brazil. Counting online live feeds, SporTV provided 56 different transmission options available for fans to overindulge on Olympic fun. Most events and awards ceremonies were broadcast live, and whenever there was nothing happening at the Olympic venues, there would be reruns of the best moments from every sport. This is undeniably the first time in history this has ever been done, and the Brazilian audience was the only one to enjoy this splendid coverage. The TV options provided by the NBC network in the US were dismal by comparison.
My only disappointment was falling asleep in front of the TV after midnight, only to discover the next morning that not only had I missed the end of the match I was watching, but one that followed as well. In this way, I missed two gold-medal matches happening live in men’s and women’s beach volleyball. The Brazilian women took the silver, losing to Germany, and the Brazilian men won the gold, defeating Italy. I don’t recall missing matches in previous Olympics because they were being fought at 2 am! Brazilian enthusiasm for the Olympics had no bedtime.
Brazilian fans were disappointed that with two great women’s beach volleyball teams, they had to settle for only one silver. Even more disappointing was the ouster of the women’s soccer and women’s indoor volleyball teams, both of whom were expected to medal. The women’s volleyball team won the gold medal both in Beijing and London.
If there was anything to be ashamed of in Rio, it was the behavior of the four American swimmers who fabricated a story of being robbed by men posing as police. In fact, no robbery occurred, the Rio authorities later determined, and it was unclear what Ryan Lochte’s motivation was for the fabricated story, other than gringo arrogance and intoxication.
There was much to celebrate, however, with Brazil’s athletes, like Rafaela Silva’s gold in judo. Or the great stories in canoeing and badminton and boxing and the gold medal in the pole vault by Thiago Braz da Silva. Even when they didn’t win, Brazil’s athletes showed tremendous courage competing in sports that were new to them, like women’s rugby.
In a country where people grow up believing their soccer team never loses, no one anticipated seeing the men’s team win a gold medal, especially after they failed to score one goal in their first two matches against weaker teams. Equally, US athletes have much to be proud of after winning more than 100 medals. Similarly, the Russian synchronized swimming team won the gold medal in Rio, marking an astonishing five consecutive Olympics with gold for Russia in this women’s event. Many viewers don’t realize that at no time are the swimmers’ bodies permitted to touch the bottom of the pool.
We should also be celebrating the fans. How can we thank the people of Brazil who welcomed the 11,303 athletes from 206 nations and a refugee team with warm smiles, despite the political instability and economic controversies facing Brazil. In a Datafolha poll taken a few weeks before the Games, 63 percent of Brazilians thought hosting the Olympics would hurt the country. Only 16 percent said they were enthusiastic about the Games, while 51 percent said they had no interest in them. From what I could see, the Games revised everyone’s opinion. Brazilians were extraordinarily enthusiastic about the competition.
No doubt it helped that on the final two days of the Games, Brazil added two more golds, winning in men’s soccer and volleyball. It was an emphatic back-to-back triumph for the host country, with victory coming in the two sports it cares most about. The two golds were extremely gratifying wins after both teams had settled for silver in London, and both final matches in Rio were extremely close. While the volleyball team won 3 sets to 0, each game was incredibly tight, requiring intense support from the home crowd, including Neymar, who came to support the volleyball team after leading his team to the gold medal platform a day earlier.
In fact, the only criticism we could hoist on Brazilians is they may have had a bit too much enthusiasm. With Brazil hosting the Olympics for the first time, the fans didn’t win over the world with their approach to live sports viewing. Booing and jeers were staples across Rio’s arenas when Brazilian athletes were in competition. While booing is commonplace in soccer, it is not welcomed in other sports. When it’s meant solely to rattle the opposing athlete, like applauding a competitor’s mistakes, it’s considered rude.
To be fair, not only did Brazilians boo other countries, they booed their own, including the interim president and the men’s soccer team until they started winning. They booed the Argentine delegation during the opening ceremony. They booed US soccer player Hope Solo, yelling “Zika!” every time she touched the ball, since she’d made negative comments about Brazil’s outbreak. They booed Russian athletes, some of whom had been involved in a doping scandal. “Brazilians are very passionate, very vocal, very loud – very Latin,” Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada told reporters. “It’s a learning curve. They will be getting better and better as the days move on.” And they did; there was no booing in rhythmic gymnastics or synchronized swimming. In fact, on the final day of the Games, when Brazil’s volleyball team defeated Italy for the gold, the Brazilian fans gave rousing cheers to the Italian team during the medals presentation.
Another complaint in Rio, which had nothing to do with Brazilians, came from the table tennis competitors. Two years ago, the international federation that governs the sport switched the material of the official ball from celluloid to a different type of plastic. The federation also allowed the ball to be slightly larger. Some players are still struggling to adjust — and so, apparently, are some manufacturers. Many players criticized as subpar the specific quality of the balls from D.H.S., a Chinese brand that became the official ping-pong ball supplier after the 2012 Olympics in London. “I think many players are complaining because we have better balls,” said Timo Boll of Germany, who is at his fourth Olympics. “There are better balls on the market. We don’t use them at international tournaments. That’s a pity.”
It was extremely gratifying to see so many women in competition. It’s the only time women’s sports are taken seriously, especially in Brazil, where even the world’s best soccer players, Marta and Cristiane, must play abroad because there is no professional women’s league in Brazil. Nearly every sport (there were 28 total sports in the Rio Games) has a men’s and women’s component in the Olympics, and 45 percent of the athletes competing at the Olympics were female.
Since the days of the ancient Greeks, men have been well-aware of the value of sports. Not just the honing of the body and acquiring skills, but the value of being mentored and the glories of camaraderie, whether in victory or loss. Yet it is only in the Olympics that women are given equal footing.
In the US media coverage of Rio, female athletes received more than 50 percent of the news coverage. It was brilliant to watch female athletes compete fiercely in Greco-Roman wrestling, trampoline gymnastics, or women’s cross-country mountain biking. There are lessons to be learned watching women athletes. For example, what a glorious exhibition of sportsmanship to witness an entire soccer game without the appearance of a yellow card. That never happens when men play.
Speaking of women, what about Dana Vollmer, an American swimmer and gold medalist in 2012, who stopped training after London, became a mother and attended to her newborn. But the pool still beckoned, and last weekend, just 17 months after giving birth, she won silver and bronze medals in Rio. Women won more total medals than men in 29 countries that participated in the 2016 Games.
Is there any sport more beautifully graceful than rhythmic gymnastics? It’s the ‘other’ gymnastics that takes in the arena the second week after the more famous gymnasts are done, like Simone Biles, the young woman who seemed to break every record in the gymnastics books. Like Vollmer, Biles defied the odds. She was separated at an early age from her mother, who battled drug and alcohol addiction. Thanks to her amazing success in Rio, she was chosen to carry the flag for the United States Olympic team during the closing ceremonies on Sunday.
Brazilian women were setting Olympic records as well. During the match of Brazil’s soccer team defeating Sweden, 5-1, Cristiane set a record with her 14th Olympic goal, making her the all-time leading scorer in Olympic soccer history for both men and women. Sadly, team captain Marta and Cristiane lost in the semifinals in a shoot-out with Sweden, the team that defeated the Olympic champion US team. So it was up to Neymar to avenge Brazil’s World Cup defeat to Germany in 2014 and win the Olympic gold for Brazil.
If Cristiane set an Olympic record in Brazil, then some recognition should go to Heloísa Pinheiro. Although she is now 71 and a grandmother, she’s the real girl from Ipanema, and owns a beachwear shop today on Ipanema Beach called the Girl from Ipanema. It was her tall, blond daily strut down the beach that inspired Tom Jobim and lyricist Vinícius de Moraes to write their song in 1962, when Helô was 17 years old. “The Girl from Ipanema” brought global popularity to the beach.
Besides having ‘her’ song played at the opening ceremonies, Helô was also a torch bearer on Friday in Rio, the final day to carry the torch before it entered Maracanã stadium for the lighting at the opening ceremonies. Spotify reported that “The Girl From Ipanema” was streamed more than 40,000 times the day after it accompanied Gisele Bundchen across the field.
Brazilians are still talking about Gisele’s gold sequined dress, which was custom-created by Brazilian designer Alexandre Herchcovitch. The making of Gisele’s striking gown took several months and involved multiple collaborative design sessions. “Gisele knows exactly what looks good on her and what doesn’t, which makes the job much more objective and accurate,” Alexandre said. “The fabric was specially developed for the occasion with some peculiarities, such as the fluidity in which the sequined embroidery would flow horizontally around her body. I didn’t want a conventional gold, but a color that was very similar to her hair tone and skin, a golden light.”
Cariocas, as Rio residents are known, not only applauded Gisele, but also the infrastructure improvements Rio desperately needed. Nearly 100 miles (160 km) of rapid bus lanes slashed commuting times for thousands of workers. Four new tunnels were built, and a 17-mile light rail system opened in June. A new subway line, the system’s first major expansion in decades, began operating four days before the opening ceremony.
The Olympic torch arrived in Rio for the opening ceremony after traversing every state in Brazil, a total of 30 thousand kilometers (18,600 miles). During the torch tour, one special bearer was Hanan Dacka, a 12-year-old Syrian refugee. She carried the torch in Brasília to honor the thousands of Syrian refugees who have recently entered Brazil.
On the final day of the Olympic torch relay, Friday in Rio, along with Helô, supermodel Adriana Lima was a torch bearer. She was so overwhelmed by the honor that while carrying it she broke down in tears. Ivo Pitanguy, the unofficial king of plastic surgery and inventor of the Brazilian butt-lift, was also given the torch to carry on the final day, but did so in a wheelchair. Sadly, this great honor proved to be his last, as Pitanguy died the following day, on Saturday, August 6, at age 93. He will be remembered for fighting for the rights of women to re-form their bodies for the emotional benefits not just the physical ones. Even though he was Brazil’s best-known plastic surgeon in a country famous for its plastic surgery, Pitanguy spent one day of each week at his clinic offering his services free to those women who couldn’t afford them.
Speaking of longevity, New Zealand had a competitor in the equestrian, Sir Mark Todd, who is 60 years old and won a gold medal back in 1984. Nick Skelton, a British rider aged 58, earned his first medal in Rio after failing to medal in six previous Olympic Games. And American swimmer Anthony Ervin won the 50-meter free, the fastest race in the pool, and took home a gold medal at age 35.
The oldest sailor in the Olympic fleet at age 54, Santiago Lange of Argentina learned he had lung cancer last year and had part of one lung surgically removed. But he still made it to the starting line for South America’s first Olympics. He and his sailing partner, Cecilia Carranza Saroli, were not the favorites in the new mixed multihull Nacra 17 event. Yet they managed to win the gold medal by just one point, and when it was over, Lange’s sons, who competed in the 49er class in Rio, swam out to celebrate with him.
The concerns about these Games were myriad, and many of them stemmed from the water. One fear was that the polluted water in the ocean, the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, and Guanabara Bay would sicken the athletes competing in it and on it. A bigger fear was that standing water would allow mosquitoes to multiply, increasing the chances that visitors would get the Zika virus and causing a global health crisis. Yet look how everything turned out: mosquitoes were few because it’s winter. And as far as we know, zero athletes were affected by dirty water, even though numerous sailors jumped into the water to celebrate their victories.
During the Olympics, Brazil’s Ministry of Tourism did a survey of the tourists’ impression of Rio. The survey learned that the largest number of the Olympic tourists came from the United States, followed by Argentina and England. In the survey 56 percent of the total number of tourists were seeing Rio for the first time – and 90 percent of them plan to come back for a second trip.
What better example of globalism than the Muslim competitor wearing a burqa during women’s beach volleyball. Indeed, the lesson of international kindness was frequently on display. For example, when two women runners collided in a distance race, one stopped to help the other. One was from New Zealand and the other from the US, and they had never met before.
The message of gender equality wasn’t lost on the fans either. One young boy who came to Rio to root for Brazil’s Neymar became discouraged after the men’s two scoreless opening games. The boy switched his number 10 shirt to Brazil’s female counterpart, Marta, and his photo went viral. Model Lea T rode the leading bicycle for the Brazil team and became the first transgender woman to participate in the opening ceremony of an Olympic Games.
In a burst of Olympic racial equality, there was Lia Neal and Simone Manuel, two Black swimmers on the US team, and Simone Biles, considered now the greatest female gymnast. These three brave young women rose to the Olympic pantheon in two sports that have rarely seen Blacks participate.
Indeed, there was much to proclaim in Rio these past two weeks. So many Olympic stories have been told and so many have yet to be told, but let’s end with this particularly Brazilian one – a young unemployed Brazilian man who exemplifies the creative spirit of Brazil when it comes to dealing with adversity. Regis Oliveira had been unemployed for several months, having formerly been employed as a driver and armed escort. He decided to use the last of his savings to buy two tickets to the finals of the men’s soccer game, long before anyone knew Brazil would be in the finals against Germany. When Brazil reached the finals and everyone in Rio wanted a ticket, Regis offered one of his tickets free to anyone who’d give him the chance of employment. According to Globo, Regis received over 50 job offers after he posted his free ticket on social media.
Finally, the closing ceremony offered us a chance to reflect on the glory and grace of the world’s greatest sporting event. The Brazilians did what they do best, fireworks and euphoria. The Olympic flame was extinguished beautifully in song by an artificial rain shower, which then gave life to a large tree sculpture to symbolize rebirth and lead us toward the next Olympics. In honor of Tokyo 2020, the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe, made an appearance, as Super Mario no less.
The actual rainfall at the closing ceremony had little effect on the spirits of the performers who praised towering creative figures and thinkers like the prolific composer Heitor Villa-Lobos; the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx; and Niède Guidon, the archaeologist whose discoveries in the remote caves of northeast Brazil Serra da Capivara are challenging long-held beliefs about the discovery of the Americas.
To finish, the samba schools of Rio danced in, led by Brazil’s most famous street sweeper Renato Sorriso, who accompanied Victoria Secret’s Angel, Isabel Goulart. In the end, there was no end. Globo terminated the ceremony show, but when it did, the music and dancing were still going. The Olympic athletes left their seats and flooded the field to join the music and dance, and once again Brazil proved that with just a little faith and patience, everything turns out okay. It all ended in samba.
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.
[Research from The New York Times and BBC News]