Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Six): The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of the Feat

Olympic flame and cauldron at Rio 2016 (Photo: Filipe Costa)

The Light that Lasts Half as Long

The cauldron that housed the Rio 2016 Olympic flame was also of modest degree and scope. However, to heighten the impact in a way that all eyes would be drawn to it, the cauldron was surrounded by a large, rotating kinetic sculpture constructed of recycled material.

Designed by American artist Anthony Howe, who specializes in these types of outdoor displays, the sculpture, with its 12.2 meter diameter (approximately 40 feet) and 1,815 kilo weight (close to four thousand pounds), clearly dwarfed the cauldron in importance.

Each individual segment of the wind-powered contraption, made up of “hundreds of reflective spheres and plates” arranged “concentrically around the cauldron and supported by a metal ring,” was specifically “designed to rotate independently” around a central ring, “creating a pulsating movement and millions of reflections from the cauldron’s flame.”

“My vision was to replicate the sun, using movement to mimic its pulsing energy and reflection of light,” Howe told contributor James Brillon, via a previously taped interview, and published in an August 2016 article for the online journal Dezeen.

The idea for the flame derived from one of the Rio 2016 Games’ themes, that is, the ever-mounting effects of global warming. “The International Olympic Committee did not specify the exact design they wanted me to make,” Howe continued. “They gave me fairly free reign. We went through several iterations and what we finally decided on was something that was most like the sun in its energy, reflectivity and light.”

Indeed, Olympic officials in Brazil stressed that the low-emissions cauldron should be smaller than past versions, mostly to give credence to the notion that reducing fossil fuel output and greenhouse gas usage would lead to similar reductions in global warming (or, to be precise, climate change).

Olympic cauldron burning bright at Rio 2016

Constructed at his home studio on Orcas Island, in Washington State, Howe’s mammoth structure was completed in Montreal, Quebec. From there, it was transported to Rio de Janeiro in time for the opening ceremony and beyond.

“I hope what people take away from the cauldron, the Opening Ceremonies, and the Rio Games themselves,” Howe concluded, “is that there are no limits to what a human being can accomplish.”

Victory Laps and Spats

If that is the case, then there is nothing that compares to skill on the field of competition. Olympic champions are made, not born. Many athletes devote their lives to participating in the quadrennial tourney. Many suffer for their pains, both physically and emotionally, and, yes, even monetarily. Regardless of the downsides, the visceral thrill of having accomplished one of life’s most challenging aspects stands uppermost on every athlete’s mind. For most of them, just being able to participate is victory enough. But for those select few, winning is everything.

No doubt, the undisputed superstar of the event, and a hero to those from the Third World, was Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. Showing off his patented “bolt of lightning” victory stance at every opportunity, Usain won an unprecedented third consecutive 100-meter, 200-meter and 4×400-meter triple run, “a feat that,” the official Olympics website informs us, “may well never be repeated.”

Next in line for glory was American swimming sensation Michael Phelps, who earned five gold and one silver medal in Rio, along with the honor of being named the most decorated athlete of all time, with 23 gold, three silver, and two bronze medals to his credit over a sixteen year span.

These were to be expected. What of the local population? How did they perform before the hometown crowd?

As fate would have it, the first gold to be won by a native-born Brazilian went to twenty-four-year-old Rafaela Silva in the 57-kilogram judo division. Born in the Cidade de Deus (City of God) slum complex of Rio, made famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) by the 2002 movie, Rafaela was disqualified four years earlier at London 2012 for an “illegal leg grab” during a fight against the challenger from Hungary.

Gold-medal winner Rafaela Silva (Photo: Correo del Sur)

Because of constant taunting and overt expressions of racism online and in public, Rafaela almost gave up the sport entirely. “Rafaela got depressed,” her sister Raquel related to The New York Times. “She watched television all day and cried alone in front of the TV. Our mother cooked her favorite things to cheer her up, but that didn’t work.” But for her fighting spirit, she might never have competed again. What made her snap out of her despondency was her instinctive defense mechanism.

Rafaela’s coach, Geraldo Bernardes, refused to give up on her as well. “Rafaela was really aggressive,” Bernardes claimed, “but in a way that I could direct her in a way that was good for the sport. Judo requires from the athlete a lot of sacrifice. But in a poor community, they are used to sacrifice. They see a lot of violence; they may not have food. I could see when she was very young that she was aggressive. And because of where she is from, she wanted something better.”

This is the experience of many of the favela’s residents, who become marginalized by their own fellow citizens only because of where they have lived or grown up. Nevertheless, Rafaela’s underdog status did not deter her fans from rooting for her success.

“Everybody here knows Rafaela’s history,” remarked Eduardo Colli, a Brazilian torcedor viewing the finals from the stands. “This is more than just a medal, it’s a victory for poor people. It’s hope for all of them.”

The second Brazilian athlete to win the gold was twenty-two-year-old Thiago Braz da Silva (no relation), from the municipality of Marília, in the state of São Paulo. The six-foot-tall pole vaulter managed not only to score a personal best, adding an additional eleven centimeters to his previous tries, but set a national and Olympic record on his second attempt at 6.03 meters (19.6 feet), beating out defending champion Renaud Lavillenie from France.

“Incredible,” commented Thiago. “My first time over six meters. My home town wanted me to win. The crowd [was] cheering me too much,” he added. “I had to fix my mind on my technique, forget the people.”

He may have tried to “forget the people” when it came to hitting the heights, but the people did not forget him. The reaction from former competitors and seasoned sports journalists said it better than I ever could.

“No way in your life have you seen drama such as this,” claimed former Olympic javelin silver medalist Steve Backley. “The place has gone wild. How on earth has he done that? The jump of his life!”

“I’ve seen some things in my years competing and watching athletes,” observed former Olympic 1500-meter silver medalist Steve Cram. “That has got to be one of the best moments. Home crowd, home boy, higher than ever, better than ever.”

BBC Sport’s Chief Correspondent Tom Fordyce underscored the magnitude of Thiago’s win. “That might just be the moment Brazil’s Olympics have been waiting for. Every Games needs an iconic gold in the Olympic Stadium — think Cathy Freeman in Sydney, Michael Johnson in Atlanta, Fermin Cacho in Barcelona, the Mo/Jess/Greg triptych in London — but with so few chances and all of them outsiders, we thought it might not happen in Rio … A local kid put that right in spectacular fashion, destroying his old personal best, smashing the Olympic record, dethroning the reigning champion.”

Not every victory was as impressive as this one; some were simply bittersweet. And it happened on the soccer field of shattered dreams at Maracanã Stadium. Brazil and their star striker Neymar met archrival Germany in an Olympic rematch that mimicked their 2014 World Cup semifinal encounter in Belo Horizonte. The outcome, for all intents and purposes, proved inconclusive.

“That was the World Cup,” trumpted Rogerio Micale, Brazil’s coach, “this is the Olympic team. Neymar never played in that match so there is nothing that could generate any type of feeling that we have to take revenge.”

He was right, of course. Neymar suffered an injury that left him out of that humiliating 7-1 defeat. Two years later, Rogerio pointed out, none of the players who took part in that loss were present for their current matchup. “It is a different time with different players and ages.”

At the twenty-seven-minute mark, Neymar scored first on a perfectly timed 25-yard free kick after a blatant Germany foul to the shins. The equalizer came not fifteen minutes into the second half when Germany’s captain Max Meyer scored off teammate Jeremy Toljan’s cross, making it an even 1-1. After thirty minutes of overtime play (and several close calls and near misses), Brazil settled the score with Germany via penalty kicks. Neymar struck the winning goal into the net after Brazilian goalie Weverton’s dramatic defense of Nils Petersen’s blocked shot. Neymar stepped up to rifle the ball into the top corner for the shootout win.

Neymar gives thanks for Brazil’s 5-4 win against Germany at Rio 2016

The explosion at Maracanã could be heard ‘round the soccer world. Olympic gold had proven elusive for the five-time World Cup Soccer champions. This time, though, they made it count. Brazil was back on top — or so they thought.

The aroma of that sweet smell of success, however, did not last into Russia 2018. Beaten 2-1 by the Belgians in their quarterfinal match in Kazan, Brazil had lost much of it luster four years earlier at the 2014 World Cup. It recovered its fighting spirit, somewhat, for the Olympics. The swagger, the temperament, the ability, and the love for the sport were still there, but to a diminished degree.

Reported on in July 2018 by USA Today, sports columnist Martin Rogers noted that “Brazil is caught in a void between its free-flowing past and a more modern, measured approach. Present-day formations are at their most-developed in Europe and hence European teams are shining [there] … It is not lost on Brazil that in part, it has been found out.” By that, Rogers meant that the days of “diving and faking and feigning,” which was a large part of the Brazilian game plan, are pretty much over.

“Brazil crashed out of the World Cup … for a simple reason,” Rogers reasoned. “It wasn’t good enough.” In his view, the dynasty had ended. “[Brazil] found itself mired in an identity crisis,” he fathomed, “a situation true dynasties rarely find themselves in.” His conclusion, vis-à-vis the country’s future World Cup aspirations, was that “Brazil will come again; always a contender, always compelling. But if it wants to find success, it needs to find itself.”

It did find itself, but on a different playing field. During the gymnastics competition at the Rio Olympics Arena, Brazil made history by having two of its native sons, thirty-year-old Diego Hypólito and twenty-two-year-old Arthur Nory Mariano (a Japanese descendant), finish two and three in the floor exercise, winning both the silver and the bronze — a first for Team Brazil. A boisterous partisan crowd lifted the two gymnasts to a level unattained by the host nation in previous contests.

Britain’s Max Whitlock took the gold, while Japan’s all-around champion Kohei Uchimura faltered as he stepped outside the line of demarcation, costing him a medal.

Criticism and condemnation of the obviously pro-Brazilian crowd was widespread — curious in a sport where civility and respect for one’s rivals tend to follow the expected norms. However, compensation for the spectators’ unsportsmanlike conduct could be drawn from the tears of joy Diego displayed after his routine had ended.

Diego Hypolito (l.) & Arthur Nory Mariano flashing their silver and bronze medals at Rio 2016

“I started crying because I had worked for twelve years for this moment,” Hypolito declared for reporters. “I tried to be calm and just do what I did in training. I fell in two Olympic Games. I was able to overcome that and that is a great result for me. I believed in myself and my coach believed in me. Today, my soul was cleansed.”

His teammate, Arthur, also showed unbridled pleasure at having achieved a win. In fact, he had jumped at the news that he had earned the bronze. “It was unthinkable to have two Brazilians on the podium but finally our day came,” the equally unrestrained Arthur smiled after his winning performance.

(To be continued….)

Copyright© 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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