Epilogue: What’s in Store for Brazil’s Fat Lady? (Part Two)

Orpheus playing his lyre, with thoughts of his lost love, Eurydice

A Dog’s Life

Despite the surfeit of first-rate material, written and performed by artists of the front ranks, in this author’s view Brazilians still need to face up to an unpleasant trait that continues to haunt their midst.

This trait, known, at the time, as complexo de vira-lata, or “mongrel complex” (decades before Sting’s use of the word “mongrel”), was introduced by sports columnist, author, and playwright Nelson Rodrigues (the self-professed “pornographic angel”) after Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup. The phrase suggests that what Brazil has produced is less refined, less “pure” if you will and, for that reason, less genuinely Brazilian than what Europeans and North Americans have provided the world. Ever the dramatist, Nelson went so far as to accuse his fellow Brazilians (and, by implication, himself as well) of being “Narcissuses in reverse who spit on [their] own image.”

What an extraordinary admission! When you consider that eight years later Brazil enjoyed nearly back-to-back triumphs in the 1958, 1962, and 1970 World Cup Soccer tournaments, you realize that Nelson’s remark failed to hold up (as least as far as soccer was concerned). You would think that Brazil’s Fat Lady would have taken pride in these accomplishments rather than go the self-critical route.

Writer, sports columnist, playwright, and dramatist Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980)

How could Brazilians, who, as an example, took the sport of soccer (introduced into the country by a Brazilian-born, British descendant named Charles Miller), injected that sport with so much joy and spontaneity, and after that, went about making soccer essentially their own, have possibly subjected themselves to such levels of self-deprecation? The image of a mangy mutt overturning cans in a darkened alleyway, fighting for scraps with others of its kind, and rearing a brood of “less than pure” offspring, runs counter to everything we know and love about Brazilians. “If you lay down with dogs, you’ll get fleas,” goes the corresponding English connotation. Was this a warning to Brazilians to steer clear of foreign influences, lest they become infected with a permanent stain on their national identity? It positively reeks of post-Modernism gone awry.

However, the reality of the situation is far more complicated, and not as easily dismissible as it might appear. It goes to the core of the argument that Brazilians, as in the days of medieval flagellants, reserve the harshest punishments for themselves. An excerpt from a popular poem known to every Brazilian household, and ascribed to politician, writer, and fanatical Fluminense follower Henrique Maximiano Coelho Neto (1864-1934), both praises and bemoans the insurmountable obstacles of motherhood. The last lines are quoted below:

 Ser mãe é andar chorando num sorriso!
Ser mãe é ter um mundo e não ter nada!
Ser mãe é padecer num paraíso!  

To be a mother is to cry when you are smiling!

To be a mother is having the world when there’s nothing to have!

To be a mother is to suffer even in Paradise!

If you were to substitute “Brazilian” for the word “mother” (“To be a Brazilian is to cry when you are smiling! To be a Brazilian is to have the world when there’s nothing to have! To be a Brazilian is to suffer even in Paradise”), you would begin to appreciate the lengths the Brazilian people have gone to, and the degree of suffering they’ve had to endure, in forging a purposeful life for their families and loved ones in the midst of turmoil and defeat.

Be that as it may, I happen to disagree with Nelson’s viewpoint. I believe, as many of my family members do, that diversity brings us strength and unity of purpose. In my own case, and in the case of my wife, we are the product of multi-ethnicities, of cultures foreign (for the most part) to the Brazilian ethos, yet inextricably bound to it.

My background, as revealed to me recently, was surprising and unforeseen in that it overturned all previous expectations — something many Brazilians have grown accustomed to experiencing. I learned that I am predominantly of Iberian descent (i.e., Portuguese and Spanish), and, in descending order of importance, part Southern European (Italian and/or Greek), part British Isles, part Middle Eastern, part Scots-Irish-Welsh, part North African, and part European Jewish. Similarly, my wife is overwhelmingly Portuguese, over a third Spanish, and a good part French, with a significantly smaller percentage of Native North, South, and/or Central American heritage, along with minor Sardinian ancestry. Do these statistics make us “mongrels”? I suppose they do, but without the complexes, I assure you. If you asked me, I’d say the preferred description would be “citizens of the world.”

In a way, the discovery of our roots has helped me to reconcile a longstanding issue I once had to face as a youngster growing up in the South Bronx. So many individuals I encountered had expressed surprise and, indeed, outright astonishment at my having been born in Brazil.

“Oh, really?” they responded quizzically. “Funny, you don’t look Brazilian,” as if they had advance knowledge of what Brazilians looked like.

It happened that I hailed from the city of São Paulo, a region populated by immigrants with Western European, Middle Eastern, and Japanese affiliation. Judging by such iconic images as those of superstar Pelé and soccer player-turned-actor Breno Mello (Orfeu in the movie Black Orpheus), most folks took it for granted that Brazilians were all people of color, an understandable albeit misguided association. I grew up realizing that such misapprehensions about a person’s “looks” were commonplace in the sixties and seventies, although I had a hard time accepting them. Still, I struggled to overcome people’s ignorance of Brazilian culture and their seeming unawareness of Brazil as a place almost as large, and equally as diverse, as the continental United States, with events in both countries’ past that often paralleled one another’s history.

Orpheus Rising

The favelas, as represented at the Rio 2016 Olympics

In the meantime, Orpheus, the perfect surrogate for a battered Brazil (and a citizen of the ancient world), continues to ply his trade by singing his songs through the mouths of present-day Narcissuses. “The show must go on,” he cries, even if it doesn’t. The irreconcilable dichotomy between the passions of Orpheus with the rancor of a reverse Narcissus is troubling, to say the least, but closer to the truth of who Brazilians are and what Brazil has become. There is one thing we can all agree on: even in the face of the direst distress, Brazilians remain resilient.   

In spite of Brazil’s bittersweet trajectory and its perpetual tumbling toward the abyss, we must admit that the country has continued to evolve, though not in the way one would have expected. It is more apparent to me now that Brazil has been, and will forever be, the land of Carnival and samba. Orson Welles knew this. Vinicius and Jobim knew this, as well as Marcel Camus. Cacá Diegues and Caetano Veloso both knew this, as did Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, and many others. But the world has always known it.

In the make-believe cinema universe and in real life, the Brazilian favelas have forever been depicted as crime-ridden, drug-plagued infernos (unfairly, I might add). Carnival was similarly looked down upon when Welles tried to capture the event in his unfinished documentary It’s All True. His attempts at foisting the festivities down the throats of RKO executives were met with resistance and defeat. Inconceivably, at the time not even those Brazilians in power wanted anything to do with Carnival, especially if it focused on black people. With the 1959 release of Black Orpheus, the elevation of the slums and the film’s inauthentic depiction of Carnival were again rejected by Brazilians, but embraced by everyone else.

Poster for “Orfeu Negro” (“Black Orpheus”)

Yet, by some miracle of modern thought transference, and a combination of déjà vu with wish fulfillment, the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics brought Carnival and the favelas back into the national conversation. In defiance of the odds Orpheus rose once again to strike up his lyre, this time over a setting Brazilian sun. Kept front and center throughout the games, it appeared to television viewers, and to millions of Brazilians, that the country had accepted the image that had long been imposed on them so many decades before. Too, the ceremony’s creative directors had begun to embrace this once-reviled picture of Brazil (the country’s “true face,” come to pass). And appreciably, the music of the ceremony — the same music that issued forth from the slums of Rio de Janeiro — has become suggestive of the forgotten inhabitants who happen to live, work, and die there.

With the exception of the commotion that swirled around the Ryan Lochte episode, a meddlesome sideshow to the main event, Marvelous City Rio put on a model Olympics. And despite the staggering costs involved in the project, and the adverse publicity generated with the city’s concurrent (and mutually exclusive) relocation and pacification efforts, most observers, including a majority of its citizens, gave Rio 2016 an enthusiastic “thumbs up,” a traditional sign of approbation.

About a decade ago, in September 2010, in conjunction with a planned Broadway mounting of a new musical version of Black Orpheus, I had the esteemed privilege of speaking to Susana Moraes, Vinicius’ eldest daughter. We talked, among other things, about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, and how it differed substantially from the movie, Black Orpheus. She told me in model English (she also spoke fluent French) how much the movie had perturbed Vinicius when he saw it at the Presidential Palace in Rio. She sat alongside him at the time, and described to me the tears of hurt and anger that welled up in his eyes and down his cheeks at the stereotypical images of black Brazilians cavorting on the screen.

Susana Moraes (1940-2015), eldest daughter of Vinicius de Moraes (at right)

Over the years, Susana came to soften her outlook on the picture. For one, she regarded it as mostly nostalgic, part of that longing for a time that may never have existed in fact, but that still had a place in her memory and heart; for another, she acknowledged the huge influence Black Orpheus exuded on the world scene in bringing something of Brazil’s culture to the fore.

Looking back on that experience, Susana Moraes, an actress, filmmaker, and producer in her day, had finally come to grips with the movie’s power to enchant through sound, images, and song. Susana had accepted the notion that Black Orpheus had been idyllic in nature, if not grounded in reality. But more importantly, she had grown more mindful today of how the Brazil of 1959 (coincidentally, the year my family and I came to America) had been represented — i.e., as a country on the verge of greatness — than when the movie had first come out.

Coincidence or not, this author has reached a similar conclusion: that Brazilians, too, must accept the notion of what a twenty-first-century Brazil has always been — i.e., an “Orphean country,” in the perceptive, frequently quoted, and still applicable terms of poet-musician Caetano Veloso, “one that expresses its soul’s sweetly tragic aspects through music” — with moments of revulsion and regret whenever that vision ran counter to those terms. To these, and more, we plead nolo contendere.

In a paradoxical twist of fate, Brazil, in the past, has been touted as the country of the future. For today’s Brazilians, that future never seems to arrive. Prosperity appears to be just around the corner; you can almost touch it, squeeze it, even taste the riches that are within your grasp, yet it remains stubbornly out of reach, as it was for many artists and those “just plain folks.” One gets the impression the populace rather enjoys harking after a nostalgic past, with misgivings for the present mixed with unbounded expectations for the future — Tropicália turned inside out and on its head. If diversity in all matters can lead those inured to the country’s problems into the light of reason, may it be so.

What does the future hold for Brazil’s Fat Lady? My parting advice for her is this: Take heart, girl. The performance is over. It’s time to take stock of your accomplishments. Learn from your mistakes, especially from your glorious past. Revamp your repertoire, learn new roles; take on new challenges, then show them what you’ve got. Do something to address the problems of the present, and the future will take care of itself. But do make it a future worth striving for — a grateful nation will be at your feet. Ω

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Eight) — Conclusion: Living the Reality-TV Life

Painting of ‘The Fall of Icarus’ by Jacob Peter Gowy

One-Way Flight

Daedalus hit upon a bold scheme. While Icarus lounged lazily about the prison, Daedalus put himself to work on threading bird feathers together and binding them with wax. His plan was to fashion two pairs of wings, one for himself and one for his son, and escape through their prison’s window. From there, they would launch themselves from the island’s highest peak and fly away to freedom — a novel idea, but one that required patience and resolve.

When the wax had finally hardened, Daedalus explained to Icarus that they could wear their wings to freedom, but they had to steer clear of Apollo’s rays. “Follow me and do as I do. Do not go too near the sun or too close to the sea. Steer a middle course and our freedom will be assured.”

Icarus promised to obey. He followed his father’s advice to the letter, to a point. When the day finally came for them to flee, at dawn they jumped out of the window (there was no need for bars or guards, for there was no-where to run). Climbing the highest peak, Daedalus and Icarus took off and soared effortlessly above the island. They flew for many miles, staying as close to each other as possible.

Soon, the clouds began to part and a magnificently golden sphere appeared in the sky above. Icarus forgot everything his father had taught him and, feeling stronger than ever and free as an eagle after years of confinement, soared ever closer to disaster. On and on Icarus flew, paying little regard to his wings, whose wax binding began to melt away like lard from pig fat.

Distracted by the sights and sounds of gulls and terns, Daedalus looked to see if Icarus was beside him. Not seeing the boy, Daedalus cried out in alarm: “Icarus! Icarus! Where are you?” In desperation, he flew back to where his son had been, whereupon he spotted some loose feathers bobbing in the water. It was all that remained of the impetuous Icarus. Unaware of his surroundings, and caring not a whit for what his father had warned him about, young Icarus had plunged into the sea and perished.

The Truth and Nothing But the Truth

When the fatuousness of reality-TV life begins to dictate the course of one’s real-life experiences, you know you’re in big trouble. And, boy, did Ryan Lochte find himself in a heap of difficulties — up to his swimmer’s ears in them — when the truth of what occurred at that Rio de Janeiro filling station ultimately unfolded.

It did not trickle out in digestible dribs and drabs but rather gushed forth in continuous waves, a torrent of negative publicity and nonstop coverage that nearly drowned the eleven-time Olympic medal winner in a sea of recriminations.

“People wanted a reason to hate me,” Ryan griped to Allison Glock, a senior writer for ESPN Magazine, nearly a year from the time when the incident took place. “After Rio, I was probably the most hated person in the world. There were a couple of points where I was crying, thinking, ‘If I go to bed and never wake up, fine.’ I was about to hang up my entire life.” (You will excuse me for having to point out the obvious, but in this context Ryan’s poor choice of the words “hang up” may not have been ideal.)

Nevertheless, according to that same ESPN Magazine article (“Do You Really Still Hate Ryan Lochte?”), surveillance video from the scene in question revealed a different take on the matter as originally reported. The story went that Lochte and his swimming pals had asked the taxi driver to pull into the nearest filling station so they could make use of the station’s facilities. One report emphasized that there was no access to the men’s room; as an alternative, the drunken foursome urinated on the gas station’s walls, or, in ESPN’s account, they went about “[relieving] themselves in a filling station hedge.” In addition to which, his teammates later claimed to police that Lochte “also pulled a framed advertisement to the ground” and vandalized it.

To hear Lochte tell it, the filling station’s security guards arrived on the scene with guns drawn. The video, alluded to in Ms. Glock’s piece, “showed security guards demanding money in payment for the damage [the swimmers had caused] before letting them depart in their cab. The men paid [the money] and returned to the Olympic Village, where the incident would have been quickly forgotten had Lochte not exaggerated the retelling to his mom, who in turn shared with the media that her superstar son had been robbed at gunpoint.” Ryan repeated the allegations to the Today Show’s Billy Bush.

NBC’s Billy Bush (left) hearing Ryan Lochte’s description of the alleged ‘mugging’ in Rio

Incidentally, it was determined that the swimmers had paid $100 Brazilian reais (or approximately US $30) in damages and offered an additional US $20 to each of the security guards.

By Wednesday, August 17, when doubts began to surface over the initial robbery claims (which included an undisclosed altercation with one of the guards), the story started to unravel. By that time, Lochte had departed for the U.S., leaving his swimming buddies behind to wade, up to their necks, in the fallout.

Incensed by the objectionable nature of the allegations, the Brazilian police sought answers to their queries. They pulled Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger from their flight to face interrogation. Their passports were confiscated as well. The swimmers talked to police on Thursday, August 18, and, satisfied with what they had to say, were subsequently “whisked through airport security and [put] on a plane that night,” as reported by the Associated Press and corresponding news outlets. The fourth swimmer, Jimmy Feigen, followed them on Friday night, “but only after reaching a deal with a judge to make a US $10,800 payment,” a symbolic gesture intended as a charitable contribution.

“I definitely had too much to drink that night,” Ryan fessed up in a televised interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer that aired the following Saturday night, “and I was very intoxicated.” He admitted that paying for the damage was a way of “striking a deal” to avoid embarrassment over his “dumb behavior.” “We just wanted to get out of there,” Lochte persisted. “That’s why I’m taking full responsibility for it, because I over-exaggerated the story. If I had never done that, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

His late-in-the-game admission carried little weight with Rio’s humorless police officials, who charged the swimmer in late August 2016 with filing a false robbery report (punishable under Brazilian law by a maximum penalty of up to eighteen months in prison).

Action and Reaction

Brazilians’ reaction to the veracity (or not) of Ryan’s cause célèbre reflected a long-standing view that white-collar (or upper-class) crimes — the sort that involve public officials, TV and sports personalities, and/or the super-rich — are treated differently by the media than are blue-collar (or lower-class) crimes. Some Brazilians took the rolling disclosures in stride; many expressed dismay that four American athletes had been “mugged” on the mean streets of Rio, only to have lied about it in retrospect; while others sneered indignantly at the incident as typical of the favorable treatment accorded foreigners, as opposed to what their fellow citizens go through on a daily basis.

Brian Winter, Latin American expert at the Council of the Americas research center in Washington, D.C., in an interview with BBC Brazil, raised the issue that “in serious countries, you can’t lie to the police and get away with it.” Alternatively, columnist Nancy Armor of USA Today, while at first insisting that the “truthfulness of Lochte’s story was ‘irrelevant,’ ” took the Rio police to task “even after the swimmers [admitted] that they [had] lied and apologized … [The] Brazilian police missed the boat by treating the false report as a ‘capital offense.’ If only the police had cared as much about the evil done every day against their own citizens …” If only!

BBC News columnist Tim Vickery argued, too, that “real criminality” in Rio should be kept front and center. “It’s for this reason that exaggerated coverage of this subject is preferable to one that tends to minimize the dangers. The main victims of violence in Rio are its citizens. The rich are more likely to protect themselves in their closed condominiums and private living quarters. Those who suffer the most are everyday folks.”

“Here Come da Judge!”

A fascinating sidebar to the gas station goings-on came from the presiding magistrate involved in the proceedings, Judge Keyla Blank de Cnop, of the Juizado Especial do Torcedor e Grandes Eventos (Special Court of Fan Support and Major Events). Interviewed by Gerardo Lissardy for BBC World in Rio, Judge Keyla sensed that Lochte and his team members’ account of the “crime” did not hold up to scrutiny or to the logic of the situation.

Judge Keyla Blanc de Cnop

“I started reading about the case out of curiosity,” Judge Keyla posited. “The way Lochte described the mugger caught my eye. Because it seemed very similar to what American screenwriters think of South American thugs: a tall, strongly built, bearded man, hair cut in the military style. And I thought, ‘This is a long way from our street robber, who often has other physical characteristics.

“The (supposed) robberies also caught my attention because in Rio, if you are mugged, the first thing the bad guys want is your cell phone. And I figured, ‘American swimmers have nothing less than state-of-the-art iPhones. Why would the burglars take only the money?’ It’s not real; no one would ever take the money and leave the cell phone, the watch, expensive clothes.

“Comparing Lochte and the (swimmer) James Feigen’s statements, I realized there were other contradictions: one said that there was only one bandit, another that there were several bandits and only one carried a weapon. I called the prosecutor, we examined the case, and he said, ‘I agree with you, there’s something fishy here.’

“Another thing that caught my attention was the fact that three of [the swimmers] had been lying on the ground but that Lochte had refused [to do so] and the thug put a gun to his head. In Rio, if a bandit tells you to lie down, you lie down, because if you don’t obey, he’ll open fire. It’s no joke. So I said, ‘It’s not possible, no one refuses to comply with an order [to lie down] with a gun pointed at your head.”

Judge Keyla continued to poke holes in Lochte and his teammates’ arguments. “When I saw the images from the Olympic Village, I noticed that one of [the swimmers] was wearing white pants, which had no dirt stains. Anyone who lies down on the asphalt with white pants will leave a mark.” Apropos of these findings, Her Honor ordered that the two swimmers, Conger and Bentz, be detained and their passports confiscated until the matter was cleared up. “There was never a question of demanding their arrest, just the withholding of their passports to prevent them from leaving the country. Considering the level of the athletes in question, it was advisable to alert the Federal Police who have jurisdiction over foreigners departing for the airport.”

At that, the magistrate grew reflective. “Well, then, the government has invested heavily in the Olympics, in the areas near the Olympic parks, but the reality that is Rio de Janeiro is not unknown, and the violence is grave and serious. Do not kid yourself. That’s why [their description] sounded to me like a script out of a Hollywood movie.”

Judge Keyla Blank de Cnop summarized her case in the methodical and measured tone to be expected from a magistrate responsible for maintaining order in the midst of constant chaos. “Brazilian justice is firm, solid, serious, one of the pillars of the nation,” she insisted unequivocally, “and it’s for treating everyone equally that all this has taken place.” (Within the context of this account, this last assertion is surely debatable.)

“Seizing Olympic medalists’ passports is no easy matter,” Keyla concluded. “These are heroes, but an athlete who comes to another country to participate in the Olympics serves as an example to the world and cannot play around that way. They’re not in their home. They must be subject to the rules. I think [the swimmers] thought they were in a country where they could do anything they want, and that’s not so. They thought they could play around with our institutions, with the police. If it’s not so in the United States, why would it be like that here? Now people are going to think seriously before they come here and do something wrong.”

Let’s Face Facts         

When faced with having done something wrong, what would Ryan Lochte do? He would lie, of course, which initiated a brief period of “fake news” before the term had come into regular use. Instead of accepting the consequences of his or his teammates’ actions, Lochte weaseled out of the situation by concocting a fanciful yarn about a robbery that never took place.

Some say it was to protect one of their own from staying out past their curfew. Perhaps Ryan lacked the courage to tell his mom what a naughty boy he had been. Perhaps he found it impossible to distinguish fact from fantasy (or farce, in this case). Or perhaps his mind was clogged with too much to drink, as he later disclosed. Whatever his reasons were, Lochte got caught with his swimming trunks down. He had flown too close to the carioca sun and crashed into Guanabara Bay. He climbed the highest peak in Rio, only to fall flat on his face on one of those mosaic-laden streets.

Within days of his arrival in the U.S., Ryan had lost most of his sponsors (to include Speedo USA and Ralph Lauren cosmetics). He was suspended for ten months following the incident and had to forfeit US $100,000 in Olympic bonus money; as further punishment, he was banned from participation in the 2017 national and world championships.

Ban or no ban, on August 21 the Rio 2016 closing ceremony went on as scheduled without Lochte, or any of the other participants involved in the incident, in attendance. Acting as if one were still on a reality-TV show is no way for a talented athlete to go through life, particularly the sporting life. In that June 2017 ESPN Magazine article, sports writer Glock learned that Ryan wasn’t exactly enamored of the reality show experience (now she tells us!). “They had me drinking nonstop. Eight in the morning, a drink in my hand. I’m like, my liver is about to fail. And anything I said, [the producers would] say, ‘All right, let’s do this scene over, and Ryan, say it like this.’ ” Say it ain’t so!

On July 14, 2017, a Brazilian Appellate Court dismissed the criminal case against him, concluding that Lochte had not broken the law in exaggerating the details of the filling station incident. The Appeals Court had reversed the original decision on a technicality, ruling that the law was not broken because the police in Rio had initiated the investigation, not Lochte. Since he wasn’t the one who reported the alleged crime, no harm had been done (except to someone’s self-worth). Whatever Lochte had said in those NBC interviews with Billy Bush and Matt Lauer did not constitute, in their eyes, a false report. Additionally, USA Today insisted they found no evidence of vandalism, as suspected by the police, with the exception of the poster being thrown to the ground.

“You learn from your mistakes,” Ryan Lochte divulged to Allison Glock. “Am I going to be perfect? No.”

Perfection, like nirvana, is an ideal, not a fact. To work toward perfection, to strive for it, to achieve it, is the goal of every Olympic athlete, be they American, Brazilian, or what have you. However you may look at it, Lochte’s so-called “crime” was committed not to the Brazilian people but to himself.

To compensate for the offense and his admittedly “dumb behavior,” on August 20, 2016, the day before the closing ceremony, Lochte taped (in Manhattan) a rambling and mildly impecunious interview with TV-Globo’s New York correspondent Felipe Santana. It was part of a purported “apology tour” and broadcast simultaneously in Brazil, on the nightly news program Jornal Nacional, and, in a separate interview, in the U.S. with Matt Lauer on NBC.

Matt Lauer (L.) interviewing Ryan Lochte on NBC-TV

“That was my fault. Brazil doesn’t deserve that. You guys put on [an] amazing Olympics. Everyone in Brazil, the people, the fans, everyone that put on the Brazil Olympics, it was amazing and you guys didn’t deserve that kind of publicity. And it was my immaturity that caused that. And that’s why I’m saying, that’s why I’m really sorry about that. It was my fault and I take full responsibility for it. I just want the people of Brazil to know how truly sorry I am, because I’m embarrassed, I’m embarrassed for myself, for my family, for my country. It was … I was highly intoxicated[1] … I’m human, I made a mistake, and one thing I did learn from it, that this will never happen again.”

Apology accepted.

Dance to the Music

On September 13, 2016, not a month after Rio 2016 had wrapped up and the Olympic flame had been doused, Ryan Lochte found himself mired in another controversy as a contestant on the popular ABC-TV program Dancing With the Stars, the hallowed platform for has-beens and makeover artists.

Seeking to repair his tarnished Olympian image, Ryan and his dance partner, Cheryl Burke, started the competition off with a foxtrot. Just as the pair was receiving talent judge Carrie Ann Inaba’s verdict, two intruders rushed up to the stage in protest over Lochte’s appearance. They each wore T-shirts emblazoned with a red circle and a slash across the swimmer’s name. One of the protesters shouted out that Ryan was “a liar.”

Host Tom Bergeron, Ryan Lochte and his partner, Cheryl Burke, on ‘Dancing With the Stars’

None of the ensuing brouhaha was broadcast to viewers, since the TV station had gone to a commercial break. However, cameras captured the incident whereby one of the protesters was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by security. When the show returned from the break, Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron addressed the incident indirectly. He thanked the security team for their quick action and asked Lochte how he was feeling.

“I’m a little hurt,” Ryan responded. “You know, at that moment, I was really heartbroken. My heart just sunk. It felt like somebody just ripped it apart. I had to brush it off … I came out here in front of millions. I did something that I did not know how to do — I don’t know how to dance. And I gave it my all and I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I’m here.”

Instead of a foxtrot, it would have been instructive for audiences to learn if Lochte could master the samba as well as he handled the freestyle.

In our opinion, the opportunity of a lifetime had been squandered. What BBC Worldwide Productions, the company that produced Dancing With the Stars, could have done instead was to pair Ryan Lochte off with another Olympic disrupter, the defrocked Irish priest Cornelius “Neil” Horan, the man who threw Brazilian marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima off his course in Athens 2004. Together, Horan and Lochte could have wowed North American TV viewers with an Irish jig or two. What a striking couple they would have made.

Normally, the moral to this drawn-out Olympic story would be: “Honesty is the best policy.” As for myself, I’d prefer a more aptly worded one: “Birds of a feather flock and dance together.”

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

[1] A year and three months later, Lochte announced that he was seeking treatment for a “destructive pattern” of alcohol abuse, something that had been going on for years, in accordance with his attorney, Jeff Ostrow’s October 8, 2018 press release.

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Seven): Ryan Lochte Fakes a Dive

Sink or Swim

Banner for the E! Network reality show, ‘What Would Ryan Lochte Do?’

Most Olympic stories begin at the bottom and end at the top. As trite as that may sound, the vast majority of sports columnists love to record the exploits of individuals from humble beginnings whose struggles to reach the peak of their profession have inspired a nation. And sports fans — equally obsessed with star power and starved for a good story — love to read about them.

However, there are some stories that are beyond the pale. In effect, they go in the opposite direction, namely by starting at the top and working their way down. Defying logic, this specific Olympic story keeps to that premise: How an American gold-medalist, when confronted with a situation of his own doing, dealt with the consequences of his actions; how the host nation reacted to this alternate version of events; and how the whole dirty business got twisted out of proportion until what was heard no longer resembled the original event.

The Greeks cloaked their stories in life-lessons known as myths. For our purpose, then, let us recount the myth of Icarus. Vain from birth and pampered by wealth and privilege, young Icarus was uninterested in bettering himself. He could be found lounging about his quarters, endlessly admiring his looks and build. On the opposing side, his cousin Talos (called Perdix in some versions) believed in the value of hard work. Industrious to a fault, Talos was quick-witted and eager to learn, whereas Icarus was lazy and indolent.

It happened that Talos’ uncle Daedalus, the father of Icarus, was an extremely clever man. He was so intelligent that the citizens of Athens considered him to be the cleverest craftsman in all of Greece. Because of his nephew’s unique abilities, Daedalus was forced to take Talos on as an apprentice. Before long, word got out that Talos was a genius whose talent outshone that of his uncle: he was credited with the invention of the first saw, along with the first potter’s wheel and the first pair of compasses. Soon, Daedalus’ customers began to take their problems to Talos. Jealousy and spite eventually got the better of our master craftsman, who lured his unsuspecting nephew to the top of Athena’s temple and pushed him over the edge to his demise.

As punishment for his crime, Daedalus and Icarus were banished from Athens under penalty of death. The two fled to the island of Crete, where Daedalus’ engineering skills were employed by King Minos in constructing a labyrinth to house a monstrous beast known as the Minotaur. Unfortunately for Daedalus, an incredibly shrewd young man by the name of Theseus succeeded in killing the Minotaur and escaping the purportedly escape-proof maze.

Greek vase depicting Theseus and the Minotaur

The angry Minos took revenge on Daedalus and his son by throwing them into prison (in some accounts, they took the Minotaur’s place and were forced to wander aimlessly in the lair). Faced with certain death, Daedalus struggled to find a way off the island. What scheme could he possibly come up with that would lead him and young Icarus to freedom?

Ryan’s Story

Team USA swimmer Ryan Lochte at Rio 2016 Olympics

When sports-minded Ryan Steven Lochte was a boy, he did not take seriously to swimming. Born in Rochester, New York, on August 3, 1984, Ryan took his first dive long before he entered nursery school. Shortly after the family relocated to Gainesville, Florida, Ryan’s father Steve (as well as his mother Ileana) decided on coaching as a full-time profession. Local and/or family lore had it that Ryan enjoyed goofing off (and giving lip service to others) more than perfecting his backstroke.

“Ryan was all about racing,” his father admitted to ESPN Magazine. “He hated practice, but when I said ‘OK, we’re going to do a time trial,’ he’d be the first one on the starting blocks.”

In order to channel his son’s excess energy, as he called it, into more constructive pursuits, Steve would make a contest out of everyday activities such as who could swallow their milk the fastest or who could beat the other in fetching the mail or the newspaper. It wasn’t until Ryan reached high school that swimming became an obsession.

Finally getting his act together (for the moment, at least), Ryan was accepted into the exclusive University of Florida swimming program. Under head coach Gregg Troy’s tutelage from 2002 to 2013 (to include the three years he trained for his post-graduate work), Lochte was twice named NCAA swimmer of the year, which was quite a turnaround from his former lack of interest. He went on to qualify for his first Olympics in 2004 at the age of nineteen. It was at the Athens Olympics that he raced against his soon-to-be rival, Michael Phelps — a rivalry that challenged both athletes to perform at their best.

“I think it’s one of the greatest rivalries in sport, me and him, just for what we’ve both done in the sport of swimming,” Ryan argued. “He’s the toughest competitor out there.”

Michael Phelps, Townley Haas, RyanLochte, and Conor Dwyer – Gold Medal winners in the 4×200 meter relay

Phelps pled guilty to that claim. “Him and I together have had a pretty decent rivalry back and forth. We’ve been able to really push each other … During the big meets, we have great races. We’re right there with each other, in the middle of the pool, probably a couple of tenths [of a second] apart.” It was also at Athens 2004 that Lochte met and would become friends with another future Olympic champion, the eighteen-year-old Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira.

Ryan became the second most decorated male Olympian (after Phelps) in London 2012, where he picked up two gold medals and two silvers. Pereira fared well there, too, taking on both Phelps and Lochte in the 400 meter medley for a second-place finish. Despite Coach Troy’s displeasure at Ryan’s “lack of focus” before, during, and after the games, the talented Lochte outdid himself. He may not have slain the mighty Minotaur, but he was on his way to besting him.

With his newfound celebrity status assured, Ryan took a break from competition. He signed to star in a reality TV show for the E! Network, with the throwaway header of What Would Ryan Lochte Do? The show, which premiered on April 21, 2013, exploited his unfortunate reputation as an intellectual lightweight, a partygoer, and an eligible bachelor.

Ryan Lochte filming scenes for his reality TV show ‘What Would Ryan Lochte Do?’ in Miami Beach, Florida on March 18, 2013 (FameFlynet, Inc)

What the E! Network may have been hoping for was a combination of Jessica Simpson’s clueless naiveté with Big Brother voyeurism; what it got was frat-boy foolishness. For instance, the episodes boasted such empty-headed titles as “What Would Ryan Lochte Do With a TV Show,” or “If He Got Plastered?” or “On Spring Break?” Seeing as the general level of the series matched the suspected vapidity of its star, the answer to these queries was, “Who cares?” Not surprisingly, the show sunk in the ratings and was canceled after eight episodes.

A lengthy period of injuries and minor inconveniences followed, along with on-again, off-again, now on-again training and competing — pencil in a stab at creating his own clothing line (“Ralph Lauren, but with a little edge to it,” Lochte was fond of saying). While living and training in Charlotte, North Carolina, Ryan finally secured a spot with Team USA for his fourth Olympic Games in Rio 2016. He did it by inching ever closer to Michael Phelps.

If there was anyone on Team USA who could force Ryan Lochte to swim against the tide, that person would be Phelps. According to the online SwimSwam Website, this was the third Olympic trials in a row where Ryan wound up in second place behind Phelps. It would also be the fourth time that the 200 meter individual medley would be decided in favor of Phelps over Lochte.

In a self-deprecating mood, Ryan half-jokingly insisted, “I guess you would say I’d be like the Michael Phelps of swimming if he wasn’t there.” In that same 200 meter medley, local favorite Thiago Pereira was in the lead through the butterfly and backstroke, as reported in The Guardian, “but Phelps, as inexorable as the incoming tide, pulled so far ahead on the breaststroke that no one got close during the final freestyle.” Thiago finished seventh, with Lochte in fifth place.

On Tuesday, August 9, Ryan had won his first gold medal in Rio in the men’s 4×200 relay with the help of teammates Phelps, Townley Haas, and Conor Dwyer. With competition over for the men’s swimming team on Saturday, August 13, it was time for a little merrymaking.

Early Sunday morning, Ryan Lochte and three other members of Team USA, swimmers Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger, and Jimmy Feigen, left a party at Club France, the hospitality house for the French Olympic and Sports Committee in Rio, a gathering that Thiago Pereira and his wife, Gabriela Pauletti, had also attended. It was a birthday party for a mutual friend, so claimed Thiago’s spokesperson Flavio Perez, who spoke to the Washington Post.

Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira (Photo: Julio Cesar Guimaraes / UOL)

“Lochte was also in the same place, commemorating the same birthday. Ryan and Thiago are friends. Thiago and his wife left earlier, they left alone, the two of them. Thiago and his wife went back to their hotel.”

After leaving the party, Ryan and the above-named team members took a taxi back to their rooms in the Olympic Village. Along the way, the taxi stopped at a filling station. What happened next became a matter of conjecture.

“We got pulled over, in the taxi, and these guys came out with a badge, a police badge,” Lochte told NBC-TV Today Show commentator, Billy Bush, later that same day. “They pulled out their guns, they told the other swimmers to get down on the ground — they got down on the ground. I refused and I was like we didn’t do anything wrong, so I’m not getting down on the ground. And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said, ‘Get down,’ and I put my hands up, I was like ‘whatever.’ He took our money, he took my wallet, he left my cell phone, he left my credentials.”

The story began to flood the airwaves. Oh, it was believable enough as told. Anyone who has lived in or spent time in both Rio and São Paulo, or any large city in Brazil, has experienced some form of assault or robbery with or without a weapon, even kidnapping. There was nothing odd or improper about it, just another night out on the town, with the expected results.

When Lochte unveiled his story on Sunday, he was still in Brazil. Almost immediately, the civil police opened an investigation into the incident. Surely, any kind of reporting that seemed to bash host city Rio or spread so-called “bad press” about mounting crime in the country was grist for the news mill. Those wanting some form of validation that Brazil was incapable of governing itself, let alone controlling the rampant lawlessness of drug gangs and wrongdoers (“even with eighty-five thousand soldiers and police officers deployed throughout the city,” according to New Yorker columnist Alex Cuadros), had a field day.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) initially denied the report as “false.” They quickly reversed course and tacitly confirmed the incident — based on word of mouth, one had to assume, especially when independent corroboration came from Lochte’s mother. “I think they’re all shaken up,” she told USA Today upon speaking with her son. “There were a few of them. They just took their wallets and basically that was it.”

Naturally, this wasn’t the only crime to have been committed at Rio 2016. There were several high-profile robberies, thefts, and abduction cases reported in the weeks and months leading up to the games, many involving an Australian para-Olympics participant, three Spanish Olympic sailors, a shooting competitor, a judo wrestler, and a New Zealand jiu-jitsu martial arts expert. Who wouldn’t believe such incidents had taken place?  

(End of Part Seven)

To be continued…..

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

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

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Five): The Olympic Light Burns Twice as Bright

Oscar Schmidt waves to the crowd at the Opening Ceremony of Rio 2016

Oh, but wait! Who’s that big guy carrying the Olympic flag? That’s Sestão! Sestão? Who the hell is Sestão? Why, it’s Oscar! Oscar Schmidt. No doubt he’s filled out some, but the form was still the same, and so was that unmistakable grin. Schmidt’s imposing six-foot-nine-inch frame towered over everyone else. Yes, Oscar Schmidt, Brazil’s all-time leading scorer in Olympic and professional basketball, if not in ALL of basketball, on hand for the opening ceremony.

After undergoing surgery for brain cancer in both 2011 and 2013, Oscar looked healthy and fit as he stood proud and tall in his all-white suit. Waving to the thousands of cheering fans in attendance, he held the Olympic banner aloft, alongside seven other Brazilian athletes and former Olympic medal winners, to include women’s soccer champion Marta.

Many moments later, the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony resumed with the presence of retired tennis player Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten. At about the middle of the runway, Guga paused and kissed the next torchbearer’s hand. Upon receiving the flame, the torchbearer raised it high overhead. Guga held on to the torchbearer’s hips and bowed, gallantly, to former basketball sensation Hortência Marcari. Strolling sideways down the runway, the still elegant Hortência reached the long-awaited individual who would take hold of the flame and light the Olympic cauldron.

“Guga” Kuerten & Hortencia holding the Olympic flame at Rio 2016

For the next two weeks, the cauldron would burn bright, a symbol of the unquenchable light that illuminates the inner flame of every Olympian; the light that coaxes the ancient spirits of Mount Olympus down from the clouds and back down to Mother Earth. Entrusted with this sacred duty, the bearer of the Olympic flame must be an athlete of unrivaled ability; a sportsperson of the highest order as well as unquestioned integrity and esteem.

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima came from the small town of Cruzeiro do Oeste (Western Cross) in the southern State of Paraná. He was raised in Tapira, an even smaller town in the same state. Like many young Brazilians before and after him, Vanderlei had childhood dreams of becoming a stellar soccer player. Instead, he turned to running.

The aim of most runners is to go the distance, to extend themeselves beyond the norm. This became Vanderlei’s mantra as well, his reason for doing what he did. Through the inspiration of his coach, Ricardo D’Angelo, Vanderlei went from half-marathons to running “the whole nine yards” (actually, 42.2 kilometers, or 26.2 miles for a full marathon).

“We have a great relationship,” Vanderlei said of Coach Ricardo, “and when I started running, he was starting his coaching career. We both learned a lot together.”

He qualified for the Atlanta Games in 1996, and went on to finish the Tokyo Marathon in 1998, taking second place. In that same year, he placed fifth in the New York Marathon with a near-personal best of two hours, ten minutes, and forty-two seconds. While training for the 2000 Sydney Games, Vanderlei hurt his foot, leading to a seventy-fifth place finish with one of his slowest times ever (two hours, thirty-seven minutes, and eight seconds).

“I had to stop three times and walk,” Vanderlei reported. “Nobody knows what I had to go through to finish there. I got injured while preparing in Mexico, and I was never able to recover fully.”

He did recover fully, however, nearly matching his personal best, in 2001, in Japan, and winning in São Paulo in 2002. Previously, he had taken the gold at the 1999 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and struck gold again, in hot and humid Santo Domingo, at the 2003 Pan-American Games.

“I don’t know how I managed to finish that race. The race was the toughest of my life. I don’t remember ever having that many thoughts of abandoning a race. I believe all those who were able to finish were heroes. I remember having no strength to complete the final lap at the track, and people told me I passed out for a few minutes at the end.”

His greatest ambition — and, indeed, the ambition of all marathoners — would be to run in the 2004 Athens Games, where Vanderlei could trace the steps of the legendary messenger, Philippides (or Pheidippides in some accounts), from the ancient city of Marathon to the Greek capital of Atenas, or Athens.

“That was a singular moment in my career,” he remembered. “It took twelve years of preparation for me to reach that point. Considering what happened, I look at it positively that I won an Olympic medal.”

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima with the Brazilian flag at Athens 2004

He was going all the way. Not for silver, mind you, not even for bronze. Vanderlei had his heart set on winning the gold. He had trained for years for this moment. At the 35 kilometer mark, he found himself in the lead at Athens 2004, a mere half-a-minute ahead of his nearest challenger. Buoyed by an inspirational letter he received from Coach Ricardo (sent through another coach), Vanderlei appeared on the verge of victory.

The letter, in part, read as follows: “Remember the tough hill at 35km. If you are feeling well, take your risks, because if you don’t risk, you will never win.”

“I thought a lot about that letter,” Vanderlei reflected afterwards. “Especially once I started feeling well in the race … Perhaps some athletes thought I wasn’t going to lead for a long time, but that didn’t bother me at all.”

What never entered his mind was the fate of that fabled Philippides run. Charged with announcing the news of the Greek victory over the invading Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.E.), Philippides ran the nearly 40 kilometer route (or 25 miles) to Athens. Upon reaching the city’s gates, the exhausted herald approached the ruling body and declared, “Hail to you! We’ve won!” Immediately after, the messenger collapsed and died.

To Vanderlei’s surprise — and to the surprise of spectators and journalists who lined the busy streets of modern-day Athens — he was rushed upon by a man dressed in an orange kilt, a green beret, and green socks. The man shoved Vanderlei off the course and onto the sidewalk, preventing him from going on with the race. But thanks to a burly, bearded Greek onlooker named Polyvios Kossivas, who pushed the assailant away and helped the runner to his feet, Vanderlei continued the race. Losing his rhythm as well as his focus, it took all of Vanderlei’s skill as an experienced marathoner to recover his momentum.

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima is accosted by an assailant at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games

“The attack was a surprise for me. I couldn’t defend myself because I was concentrating on my race. I don’t know what would have happened if the Greek man who helped me so quickly hadn’t reacted the way he did. I give him a lot of credit for his courage.”

The assailant turned out to be a fanatical Irish priest named Cornelius “Neil” Horan, a man with a history of interfering in races and competitions. He was arrested (though given a suspended sentence) and fined a large sum. A year later, Horan was defrocked by the Catholic Church in Ireland.

“It was very difficult for me to finish,” Vanderlei summarized later. “With my sense of Olympic spirit I showed my determination and won a medal” — a bronze medal for third place.

Toward the end of the race, Vanderlei glided into the Panathinaikos Stadium with arms splayed in an airplane-like spread. Smiling broadly and blowing a kiss to the cheering stands, he wound his way over the finish line, physically drained and emotionally overwhelmed.

Nevertheless, his resolve to push on despite the mishap earned him a consolation prize: the prestigious Baron Pierre de Coubertin Award, given by the International Olympic Committee for those athletes who exemplified “the true spirit of sportsmanship.”

“When I entered the stadium, I was so happy that I had already forgotten the episode. It’s bronze but it means gold.”

This brought to mind the hallowed words of the Apostle Paul of Tarsus, who traveled to such far-flung places as Rome and Jerusalem, and, in between, the length and breadth of ancient Greece: “He fought the good fight, he finished the race, he kept the faith.”

For his having finished the race, Vanderlei was called upon once more, this time as one of the torchbearers charged with bringing the Olympic torch to Maracanã. But unlike his predecessor, the Greek Philippides, Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima survived the ordeal and was accorded the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron.

In an odd turn of events, Pelé, who was originally scheduled to perform the deed, decided on short notice, and within hours of the occurrence, to bow out of the ceremony, citing “poor health.” Could the former soccer great have been suffering the ill effects of prostate surgery? No, not possible. The surgery had taken place a year earlier, in May 2015. Cold feet, perhaps? Not likely. Whatever his reasons were, Pelé, unlike his fellow athlete Oscar Schmidt, had failed to show up.

The next in line would be Gustavo Kuerten, but Guga would have none of it. He graciously stepped aside to allow Vanderlei to take his proper place at the top of the steps leading to the cauldron.

Olympic marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima lights the Olympic cauldron at Rio 2016

When Cornelius “Neil” Horan, the fellow who pushed the runner off course in Athens, got wind of the news, his reaction confirmed the delusional state he’d been in for some time.

“When I actually saw him with my own eyes, I really got angry,” the former Catholic priest confessed to the New York Times. “I look[ed] at Vanderlei and I [thought], ‘You would be nowhere the star if not for me.’ ” We trust that Mr. Horan enjoyed his plate of sour grapes that evening.

Horan achieved a degree of notoriety when he danced an Irish jig for talent judge Simon Cowell on a 2009 episode of Britain’s Got Talent. In October 2004, Horan was charged by an Irish court with indecency involving a seven-year-old girl, an unsavory act that allegedly took place ten years prior. He was acquitted of all charges. However, the real-life judge in that case reminded the jury that one of Horan’s “character” witnesses, a clergyman, referred to the ex-priest as “a bit of a nutcase.”

(End of Part Five)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Three): Cry, the Beloved Mother Country

Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony: Grass Huts by Native Performers, August 5, 2016

Honor Thy National Anthem

Discerning viewers should bear in mind that London’s 2012 Summer Olympics Games closed with the same “Aquele abraço” theme song. While retaining the original’s lyrics, the vastly pared-down number, as it was presented at Rio 2016, lacked the stridency and gruffness of songwriter Gilberto Gil’s 1969 extended play recording (which this author once owned and can safely vouch for).

Produced by Manoel Barenbein for the Philips label and arranged by Rogério Duprat and Chiquinho de Moraes, the number’s rasping power and jarring orchestration contrasted with Luiz Melodia’s more contemplative, down-to-Google-earth interpretation — Gil Unplugged!

At that same London 2012 closing ceremony, one of Brazil’s top-rated performers was carried aloft by giant pale-blue flower petals. With arms outstretched and dressed in a flowing white gown, the raven-haired vocalist regaled London’s Olympic Stadium audience with her haunting delivery of the opening melody to Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.

The tune was one of many such efforts by the inexhaustible carioca composer to blur the lines between classical and popular compositions. But who was this ravishing starlet, this improvised Brazilian Fat Lady?  It was none other than Marisa Monte, and Villa-Lobos’ melody played perfectly into her hands (or, should I say, her voice). Little did viewers suspect that the teenaged Marisa had once spent a year studying opera in Italy before returning to her home in Rio.

Adding to the list of headliners, top model Alessandra Ambrósio also participated in the closing ceremony, as did singer-turned-actor Seu Jorge and rapper B-Negão. Former soccer great and ex-minister of sport Pelé was on hand, too, in a surprise visit, as “Aquele abraço” reached its peak. Amid a stream of dancers in typical Oba-Oba formation, the plan was to build anticipation for an Olympic-style Carnival to come, an all-out celebration to include drum-corps pounding, samba dancing, colorful outfits, and that ebulliently festive atmosphere.

Returning to Rio 2016, I made note of some shockingly slipshod attempts by English-speaking announcers to pronounce the many indigenous names that abound in Brazilian Portuguese. I realize, as most native speakers do, that the language is not the easiest one to enunciate. However, when reporting on events from the actual physical sites newscasters should have at least tried to master the correct manner of articulation before airtime.

For instance, the name Maracanã (pronounced Mah-rah-cah-NÃ), a word with a nasally-produced final syllable that resonates in back of the throat, became Mara-CAHN-a in the mouths of reporters. And instead of futebol, the Brazilian-Portuguese literation of “soccer,” the word futbol (in the Spanish-language spelling) scrolled across viewers’ screens. In the same league as the spelling and pronunciation issues, the redundant phrase “Carnival capital of the world,” used to describe Brazil’s party-hearty host city, quickly became an overworked cliché.

Just the same, the Maracanã stadium’s field resembled a visual map of Brazil. Onto this digitally-enhanced encampment, carioca native Paulinho da Viola (né Paulo César Batista de Faria) materialized, strumming a solo guitar and seconded by an eight-piece string orchestra. This is where the creative directors’ plans for the Rio 2016 opening ceremony came into their own.

Brazilian national anthem performed by Paulinho da Viola and orchestra during Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony, August 5, 2016. (Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

After all the pomp and majesty of military bands and symphony orchestras; after so many pretentious arrangements for grand piano and choirs of fifty thousand or more voices; and after the circumstance surrounding the pointless chest-beating at the 2014 World Cup, listeners were held spellbound by the hushed elegance of Paulinho’s intimate take on the country’s Hino Nacional.

This was no time for posturing or empty-headed braggadocio on the soccer field of shattered dreams. Instead, Brazil laid bare her musical soul. With reverence and retrospection, the coordinators of the opening program opted to look inward, to go back to the country’s pop-music beginnings: to samba and bossa nova.

It was as if João Gilberto himself, who slowed down samba’s rhythmic impulses to barely whispered cadences, were physically present that August evening. We know that wasn’t the case. Still, Joãozinho’s essence was carried forward in Paulinho da Viola’s gorgeously understated, two-minute-and-twenty-two-second presentation that set the tone for the sixteen-day event.

Forcing viewers to lean forward in their seats, it commanded their attention by urging them to follow along with the words. This was a multi-part conversation that brought people nearer to today’s Brazilian reality, as well as an invitation to take part in a national ritual. The producers exceeded expectations by toning down the bombast to a mild trickle. The mood was surprisingly stirring. And there was no question of defamation or lack of respect. This was hallowed ground.

As Paulinho continued to enthrall listeners, a group of young people, wrapped in the country’s colors, mounted a circular platform where the flag-raising ceremony would be observed. The platform was inspired by the spherical discs flanking the modernistic structures of the capital Brasília’s National Congress. The group gathered at the flagpole’s base to pay homage to the Brazilian flag. A jet of air, pumped through the flagpole’s core from its base below ground, gave the impression of a banner waving in the night.

Brazilian flag-raising ceremony, Rio 2016 Olympics

Brazil sang, and the world sang with her. A sense of pride swelled up in the audience and in our household; a pride that, frankly, hasn’t always been felt considering what the country has been going through these past few years.

In all probability, the idea for this smaller-scaled treatment may have begun with London 2012’s closing ceremony. During the handing over of the Olympic flag portion, the tradition of playing the new host-country’s national anthem was followed. It was carried out by a recording of a military band intoning Brazil’s Hino Nacional over the Olympic Stadium’s loudspeaker system, in a controversial “shortened edition” that eliminated an entire verse.

Now imagine if you will a scenario of patriotic American baseball or football fans, hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a stadium in the U.S. After the section, “Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight / o’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?” they realize that the bridge, “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,” had been edited out. This glaring omission would be taken as an insult to the host nation, and would no doubt have sparked an international incident. Summon the secretary of state! On the double, pronto!

Mercifully, when Brazilians in Brazil hear their Hino Nacional played, it is given complete. At least, the first stanza is complete. As we know, there are several other stanzas to confront, as there are with America’s “Star Spangled Banner” and numerous other hymns of the nations. These are normally omitted in order to save time.

Besides all that, how many people memorize all of the stanzas to their country’s national anthem? Not many, I’d be willing to bet.

Birth of the Brazilian Nation

The next section introduced the story of the founding of the land we call Brazil (named after the Brazilwood, or Paubrasilia that once thrived there), of the indigenous native population that abounded, of the birds and beasts that inhabited the densely forested continent: Terra Brasilis. Land ho!

In an intricately choreographed segment, performers in native costume (actual descendants, in fact) danced around the arena creating images of grass huts with gigantic ribbon strands. Then, the first Europeans, the Portuguese, arrived in their fast-moving caravels. The bouncing prows of the highly maneuverable ships carrying the bearded and longhaired Portuguese inspired awe and curiosity among the natives. The Portuguese carved a trail through the Brazilian landscape, leaving their mark behind.

Arrival of the Portuguese – Opening Ceremony of Rio 2016 Olympics (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

This was followed by the African slaves, towing their plows, laden down by their shackles and chains, tearing up the land with massive paddlewheels, and working the sugar plantations. The analogy to the Hebrew slaves of Egypt was inescapable. This marked the exploitation of the races in the Portuguese conquest of Brazil.

Little by little, subtly at first, the landscape began to change (through the modern technology of projection mapping). The African slaves were followed in turn by the Arabic contingent, then the Orientals, and still more arrivals from other nations. Japanese immigrants settled in the region of São Paulo. After five generations, the Japanese are completely assimilated into Brazilian life, as were other nationalities, including the Italians, the Poles, the Germans, Czechs, Spanish, Syrian-Lebanese, and various subordinate groups.

A patchwork quilt design emerged, representing the varied and assorted nature of the population as the country approached the modern era — the early twentieth century. The building of contemporary Brazil incorporated rising platforms from under the stadium so as to visualize the growth of buildings, apartment complexes, businesses, and living quarters.

The concrete jungles that dot the horizon led to the burgeoning of major cities. Alongside these, the rise of the slums, or favelas, that cropped up simultaneously along the peripheries. Modern edifices and high-rise dwellings compete for space, with tenants scaling the dizzying heights. Like monkeys swinging from the jungle canopy, individuals try to get a leg up, jumping and climbing from rooftop to rooftop, inching ever higher, and swaying from the parapets in a mad scramble to see who would be first in line to achieve their goals.

From the white Plexiglas squares placed together by the performers there appeared a replica of the 14-Bis (Quatorze Bis), an actual working model, we believe, of a canard biplane, with an actor filling in for that little-known homegrown genius, the eccentric inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont. This biplane flew the friendly Brazilian skies out of the stadium and around the Lapa Arches and over Guanabara Bay (or so it was made to seem to viewers). This portion of the show perplexed many of the foreign reporters covering the event, who had difficulty grasping the message that in Brazil, France, and other countries Santos-Dumont is considered the Father of Modern Air Flight, not the Wright Brothers. So be it.

2016 Rio Olympics – Santos-Dumont, flight of the 14-Bis (Photo: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

Cue back to the big city — digitally and physically enhanced in the wide-open spaces of Maracanã Stadium. Floating through the airspace, the harmonious sounds of a piano accompanied the voice of Daniel Canneti Jobim, composer Tom Jobim’s grandson, who took center stage. Dressed in a white wide-brimmed hat, he sang and played his grandpa’s singular sensational tune, “The Girl from Ipanema,” with lyrics by poet Vinicius de Moraes.

Gliding down the digital runway, and strutting her stuff as only a super-model of her caliber could, stood Gisele Bündchen — a sixth-generation German descendant — in a stunning silver-lamé gown. Jobim’s image was projected thirty-or-more-feet onto the side of a makeshift apartment complex, as the assemblage sang along with the composer’s grandson. Gisele, all smiles, captivated the crowd as she took her sweet time crossing the open field. “When she walks, she’s like a samba / That swings so cool and sways so gentle that / When she passes, each one she passes goes ‘Ah’!”

Gisele Bundchen strutting her stuff at Rio 2016

Switching over to the pop arena, the succeeding segment emphasized the evolution in tastes and Brazilian musical development with the rise of hip-hop, baile funk, axé, forró, frevo, etc. Popular culture took precedent, with the wailing voices of slum residents. Elza Soares, one of the last surviving grandes dames of variety and theater, sang a brief snippet of Vinicius and Baden Powell’s “Canto de Ossanha.”

Along with capoeira, the heavy sound of a cuica pervaded, along with Zeca Pagodinho and rapper Marcelo D2, delivering Zeca’s patented ode to better living, the song “Deixa a vida me levar” (“Let life take me along”). The clash of musical styles, represented by rap and pop (and contemporary artists Karol Conká and twelve-year-old MC Sofia), continued to duke it out in a syncopated slugfest.

Next up, actress and singer Regina Casé interrupted the proceedings to state her case that we need to “bring people together and celebrate their differences.” “Here’s to diversity,” she shouted. Joined by the forever youthful Jorge Ben Jor (“Mas, Que Nada”), both artists sang one his signature hits, “País Tropical.” This brought out the warring factions of different colors, strokes, and folks into one patchwork design, as at the beginning of the ceremony. With fireworks exploding and lights blazing, the theme struck up anew: “Looking for similarities, celebrating differences.” That’s something we, here, in the United States have been striving to come to terms with for, oh, two hundred and fifty years, or more.

Pause for Reflection: A Reading from “Nausea and the Flower”

The Boy and the Plant: Concerns for the Environment, Rio 2016

The concluding portions of the ceremony explored the alarming rise in CO2 emissions on the planet, the dangers of unchecked global warming, of climate change, the melting of the polar icecaps, and the rising sea levels, all of them “challenges to the coastline cities.”

A lone boy in shorts and sneakers, with a backpack and form-fitting cap, discovers a single green object growing in the street. It’s a plant. Thus begins a recitation of the final stanzas of the poem, “A Flor e a Náusea” (“Nausea and the Flower”), by mineiro author and modernist poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. It would be spoken by two of the world’s greatest actresses, Fernanda Montenegro (in the original Portuguese) and Dame Judi Dench (in English translation). The accompanying music score by Antonio Pinto and Jaques Morelenbaum was taken from the multi-award-winning film Central do Brasil (Central Station):

 

Uma flor nasceu na rua!

A flower has sprouted in the street!

Passem de longe, bondes, ônibus, rio de aço do tráfego.

Buses, streetcars, steel stream of traffic, steer clear.

Uma flor ainda desbotada

ilude a polícia, rompe o asfalto.

 

A flower, still pale,

Has fooled the police, it’s breaking through the asphalt.

Façam completo silêncio, paralisem os negócios,

garanto que uma flor nasceu.

Sua cor não se percebe.

Suas pétalas não se abrem.

Seu nome não está nos livros.

É feia. Mas é realmente uma flor.

 

Let’s have complete silence, hold all business,

I swear that a flower has been born.

Its color is uncertain.

It’s not showing its petals.

Its name isn’t in the books.

It’s ugly. But it really is a flower.

 

Sento-me no chão da capital do país às cinco horas da tarde
e lentamente passo a mão nessa forma insegura.

I sit down on the ground of the nation’s capital at five in the afternoon

And fondle with my fingers this precarious form.

 

É feia.

It’s ugly.

Mas é uma flor.

But it’s a flower.

Furou o asfalto,

It broke through the asphalt,

o tédio,

Tedium,

o nojo

Disgust and hate.

e o ódio.


The boy takes the plant and places it gently into a waiting receptacle. Rising from the ground, he holds the object aloft, and silently walks off the stage.

Time for the parade of athletes.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued…..

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Two): Brazil Rises to the Occasion with a Lavish Opening Ceremony

Opening Ceremonies at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics on Aug. 5, 2016, at Maracana Stadium (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

Countdown to Show Time

Winning and losing. That’s life in the Olympic fast lane. They are also part of every Brazilian’s daily grind.

For Brazil, becoming the Top Dog — whether in soccer or beach volleyball, in Formula One racing or the fast-paced world of international athletics — has proven to be a self-deluding pipe dream.

You may recall that the country had stumbled mightily (or, should we say, crashed and burned?) at the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament. But for two full weeks in August 2016, Brazil would be given the opportunity to redeem itself — a do-over, such as it was, where it could enjoy the rapt attention of sports fans, along with a fair share of global viewership and a complement of positive press coverage, for its lavish opening ceremony.

Many in the world media would describe a country’s opening ceremony as its first line of defense — its premier showcase — to prove to inquisitive viewers (and incredulous skeptics) that Brazil, or any other nation, was made of sterner stuff.

Several individuals were involved as creative directors in the planning and execution of this Olympic pool-sized project: Fernando Meirelles, a noted filmmaker and director/producer of City of God and The Constant Gardener; and set designer Daniela Thomas, a screenwriter, stage actor, and ex-wife of writer-producer and theater director Gerald Thomas. Two additional collaborators were also employed: director, producer, and screenwriter Andrucha Waddington (The House of Sand) and choreographer Deborah Colker, known for her work with Cirque du Soleil, as well as hundreds if not thousands of eager volunteers.

Catchphrases for the opening ceremony, which commenced on the evening of August 5, 2016, included such hyperbolic assertions that audiences were in for “a sixteen-day Carnival,” and that “Rio 2016 [was] going to be entertaining.” No need to downplay it, fellas!

As show time neared, a beaming Cristo Redentor (or Christ the Redeemer) statue, the reinforced-concrete symbol of a hospitable host city, stood imposingly upon its base at Mount Corcovado (“The Hunchback”). The towering ninety-eight-foot-tall-figure glowed with a bright green, yellow, and blue light — the colors of the Brazilian flag, calling the world’s athletes to attention in the sporting event of the season.

Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Paradoxically, since the seasons are reversed below the Equator, the quadrennial summer competition took place during Brazil’s winter of political discontent (see the following link to Part One of my piece: (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/09/03/flames-over-rio-2016-brazils-president-burns-as-the-world-watches-the-summer-olympic-games-part-one/). Even though disgraced Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was suspended from office in early May, she declined an invitation by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to attend the opening ceremony. Her former vice president and soon-to-be-interim president, Michel Temer, had been pegged to represent Brazil in her stead.

Immobile and stone-faced, with bribery scandals of his own to agonize over, Temer sat in stern silence in the grandstand area, unintentionally mimicking the stoical gaze of Rio’s Redeemer (or perhaps needing a savior of his own).

Our Country, ‘Tis of Thee We Sing

Music, theater, and dance, in as much as they could be viewed or heard in a stadium of the massive proportions of the two-hundred-thousand-seat-capacity Maracanã, started the 2016 opening ceremony off with the unassuming, nondescript vocals of a veteran sambista, the Rio-born singer, actor, and songwriter Luiz Melodia (Luiz Carlos dos Santos, who sadly passed away on August 4, 2017, almost a year to the day of the opening festivities).

Sambista, singer, and songwriter Luiz Melodia (Photo: Daryan Dornelles)

Waves hugging the city’s shoreline, swimmers approaching the water and diving headlong into the tide; surfers riding the crest of the ocean current; men playing soccer atop a building’s roof; a skateboarder on a deserted street, a golfer swinging his five iron, a biker winding down a treacherous path; rock-climbing, roof-hopping, jogging, and volleyball;  and, of course, the thrill of hang-gliding and wind-surfing, and strolling along Rio’s characteristic mosaic-laden streets — all to the strains of a Gilberto Gil song, “Aquele abraço” (“That Big Embrace”), and breathtaking overhead shots of Marvelous City.

“That Rio de Janeiro is still gorgeous,” went the lyrics. “That Rio de Janeiro continues on, / That Rio de Janeiro during February and March, / Hello, hello, Realengo, that big embrace. / Hello you fans of Flamengo, that big embrace.”

O Rio de Janeiro continua lindo,

O Rio de Janeiro continua sendo,
O Rio de Janeiro, fevereiro e março,
Alô, alô, Realengo, aquele abraço.
Alô torcida do Flamengo, aquele abraço.

 

Chacrinha continua balançando a pança,
E buzinando a moça e comandando a massa,
E continua dando as ordens do terreiro.
Alô, alô, seu Chacrinha, velho guerreiro.
Alô, alô, Teresinha, Rio de Janeiro.

 

Alô, alô, seu Chacrinha, velho palhaço.
Alô, alô, Teresinha, aquele abraço.
Alô moça da favela, aquele abraço.
Todo mundo da Portela, aquele abraço.
Todo mês de fevereiro, aquele passo.

 

Alô Banda de Ipanema, aquele abraço.
Meu caminho pelo mundo, eu mesmo traço.
A Bahia já me deu régua e compasso.
Quem sabe de mim sou eu, aquele abraço.

 

Pra você que me esqueceu, aquele abraço.
Alô Rio de Janeiro, aquele abraço.
Todo povo brasileiro, aquele abraço

Clearly, Rio “abides.” The song played out as a salute to Cidade Maravilhosa, a tourist’s paradise, and a city that, much like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, never truly sleeps. Alive with activity, Rio de Janeiro (translated as the “River of January”) is a place with style and purpose, and a reason for being.

The old adage that São Paulo, the hemisphere’s most populous (and prosperous) state, carries Brazil on its back has a basis in economic fact. That may well be, but what gives the country its rhythm and pulse is Rio, the heartbeat of a nation.

But to insist this pleasant-sounding number was little more than an easygoing sambinha, addressed to unwary international listeners, is to deny the Brazilian producers the profound depth of knowledge they possessed apropos of Brazil’s tumultuous past.

With regard to that past, Tropicália co-founder and songwriter Gilberto Gil (born Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira) wrote “Aquele abraço” in 1969, during Brazil’s most repressive period and close to the eve of his forced departure from his native soil to a two-and-a-half-year exile in Merry Olde England.

After seventy days in prison, Gil had just been released (along with close friend and fellow Bahian, musician and songwriter Caetano Veloso) from a military detention center in the district of Realengo, which Luiz Melodia mentions above.

Gilberto Gil & Caetano Veloso in London, where they were exiled from 1969-1972

Gil stepped outside to freedom. His lungs took in Rio’s air and warmth. Upon seeing the still-festooned city, he resolved to express both relief and indignation at his forced captivity in the wistful, bittersweet manner familiar to all Brazilians: in words and song. The date was February 19, 1969. Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday), which marked the end of Carnival and the beginning of the Lenten season — a time of reaffirmation and renewal.

He and Caetano had paid the price (so they believed) for their supposed “transgressions,” which, according to Brazilian authorities, involved so-called subversive activities such as outright protests, civil disobedience, and criticism of the military. They were placed under house arrest and taken to Salvador da Bahia, where they were required to report daily to the chief of the federal police. Four months later, they received an “invitation” to leave the country, an offer neither artist could refuse.

Both men had been part of a growing artistic trend that incorporated music, words, images, and sounds, even nonsense syllables, into their work, in an attempt to convey one’s hostility, or whatever emotion they felt compelled to exhibit, toward the current state of affairs — an anything-goes, kitchen-sink-style approach to protesting.

This trend (or movement, if you prefer) acquired the exotic-sounding label of tropicalismo, itself derived from “Tropicália,” a term originally used to describe an installation piece by the carioca visual artist, Hélio Oiticica. Caetano appropriated “Tropicália” (a name he much admired) for the title of a song, a raucous blend of verbal representations invoking the modern capital of Brasília, the French Nouvelle Vague, Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, birdsong, Carmen Miranda, Dadaism, concrete poetry, Che Guevara, indigenous forenames, the films of Glauber Rocha, and so on.

Visual artist Helio Oiticica, at an installation in Pittsburgh, PA

Unfortunately, rumors had been circulating that the tropicalistas had defamed Brazil’s national anthem in this musically-dishonored manner (the rumors proved to be false). Despite their denials, the accusations served as the flimsy justification for Caetano and Gil’s arrest and their being whisked off to Europe, comparable to riding backwards on a donkey while wearing an ill-fitting dunce cap.

Other pop culture references alluded to in “Aquele abraço” paid respect to two polemic TV personalities of the era (the “clown” Chacrinha and the fictional Teresinha), the city’s largest and most influential soccer team (Flamengo), a girl from the slums of Rio (moça da favela), one of its local samba schools (Portela), and the month of February (o mês de fevereiro), in that order.

Gil concludes the number with a few short phrases: saying goodbye to the samba band from Ipanema — a Guarani word with the distasteful connotation of “bad water” (which, if the Olympic rowers and swimmers had advance knowledge of, may have elected not to participate in those events); and, with his middle-finger raised in the direction of the ruling regime, statements about his personal philosophy of life:

I’ll make my own way in the world

Bahia provided me with slide-rule and compass

Who better than I know what’s best for me?

 

For those who don’t remember me, that big embrace

Hello, Rio de Janeiro, that big embrace

To the people of Brazil, that big embrace

 

And with that parting shot at Brazil’s brass, Gil bid a fond farewell. But don’t think for a moment that he had lowered his head in shame and penance. Not long after “Aquele abraço” was recorded and performed (in a show, given at Teatro Castro Alves in Bahia, to raise money for their “trip” abroad) Caetano and Gil left their old haunt, not knowing whether they would ever see the country again.

Obviously, the number meant more to Gil and Caetano than a hello-and-how-do-you-do. “Aquele abraço” became the expression, in Caetano’s words, of “its wound of love and loss, and above all the direct address to Rio de Janeiro, the city to which I feel so intimately connected … The irony of this song — which seemed a kind of valediction to Brazil (represented, according to tradition, by Rio) but without the least rancor — is that it made us all feel up to the difficulties that lay ahead” (Caetano Veloso, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil, pp. 266-267).

Caetano (center right) & Gil (far right), with Os Mutantes, Gal Costa & Jorge Ben, performing the song, “Divino Maravilhoso” (1968)

His companion-in-exile Gil was far less circumspect. Turning down the prestigious Golden Dolphin (Golfinho de Ouro) Prize, from the Museum of Image and Sound, for the best-selling record of the year, Gil wrote an incendiary piece, “Recuso + Aceito = Receito” (“Refuse + Accept = Acquiesce,” a less-than-veiled play on words), in the Brazilian periodical O Pasquim, explaining his reasons for declining the dubious honor:

“If the MIS [Museum of Image and Sound] thinks that with ‘Aquele abraço’ I was going to beg forgiveness for what I had done, they were mistaken. And let it be clear to those who thought my mind had changed with ‘Aquele abraço,’ that it does not mean I have been ‘regenerated,’ that I have become ‘a good black samba-player,’ as they want all blacks to become who seem to ‘know their place.’ I do not know what place that is and I am no place at the moment. Even far away I can understand what’s going on. Even in England, the Brazilian Embassy has declared to news agencies that I am persona non grata. No prize will make this situation disappear.”

So this was the background to that simple little samba. And yet, this was but the opening salvo, the first of several Olympic broadsides that, through intricacy and nuance, accomplished what tropicalismo had tried to do, but in a less vulgar, less crass, and certainly less overt way. To these ears, the playing of “Aquele abraço” could only have meant one thing: as a reminder to their fellow citizens, by the producers and creative directors of the opening ceremony, that they should be mindful of their country’s past and present ills.

Their subtlety may have gone over the heads of everyone else who was watching the Olympic program. But it could not have escaped the notice of those Brazilians whose lives were irrevocably transformed during the harrowing military-dictatorship years.

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes