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A new perspective on the Olympics, from a Brazil native

9 mins read

Sitting on my couch, with a cup of tea in hand and blankets covering my legs, I prepared myself to watch what I feared would be the biggest public humiliation Brazil had ever faced. It was August 5th , and I was watching the Opening Ceremony for the Olympics at home. Feeling safe in my living room, all I could think about was how scared I would have been in that stadium, where I was sure I was going to be just a month earlier.

Throughout the whole summer, all I would hear about is how unprepared we were to host the games, how the athletes would have nowhere decent to stay, and how Zika was a terrible threat to the safety of the Olympics. Meanwhile, I was worried about my people, who were not curious tourists who had signed up for a cool – possibly risky – adventure in South America, but who called that place home with  nowhere to go.

According to anistia.org.br the number of deaths caused by the police in Rio increased 103% between April and June. When the Olympics came around, and athletes begun talking about how terrible their rooms were, I could not care less. Brazilians were dying more than ever, and all our politicians cared about was how to put on a nice show for curious tourists.

I initially chose not to attend the Olympics because I was scared. I wish it had been for any reason other than fear, but it wasn’t. Terrorist threats were happening more often, crime was spiking, and the city that I had grown up in no longer seemed welcoming and familiar to me. Only later did I realize how much the international media had influenced my decision, a decision I don’t necessarily regret but one I certainly don’t admire.

What is it like to live in the country hosting the Olympic games? Hectic. What is it like to live in Brazil during the Olympic games? Chaotic. We were not prepared and probably should not have been chosen to host the games. Politically, economically, in terms of health and safety, Brazil was going through much turmoil, and still is. It was hard to be proud of the host title when I knew how much that affected the low-income population. According to the World Bank, 4.9% of Brazilians live in extreme poverty; that corresponds to almost 10 million people. To make Rio (and other parts of the country) picture-perfect, houses in slums neighboring the areas where the games would be held were torn down and those people saw the life they built being destroyed for a 3-week event.

It was hard to hear people who knew nothing about my home talk about how much of a disaster the games would be, but it was just as hard to see people celebrating how things ended up running so smoothly. I wanted to be proud, I wanted to tell everyone how beautiful I thought the Opening Ceremony performances were, I wanted to say I was happy to have witnessed all of that, but the truth was that every time I celebrated a win and every time I found myself thrilled to talk about the opening night, I also felt ashamed. Patriotism was never part of my life until I moved to the United States – Brazilians tend to complain about everything in our country. When I came to Swarthmore, I felt like every time someone said anything about my home, they were directly insulting me. It was a strange feeling – to feel protective of an image – but I wanted to make sure outsiders wouldn’t change how I saw my home.

During the summer, I expected to let go of my patriotism while in my country (with people who love complaining about it just as much as I do). I was wrong. Everyone’s eyes were on Brazil and were waiting for us to fail. I did not want to be a member of that crowd. For a while, I adopted the posture that all criticism towards Brazil came from some misconception or ignorance, and I was ready to pull up any statistics to prove that their concern about violence was ridiculous. Then I remembered how police brutality had increased, how I only felt safe in a bulletproof car, and how I had too many friends updating their social media outlets just to say that their phones had been stolen.

Truthfully, Brazil has always been chaotic. It was terrible to see athletes leaving their apartments because they were uninhabitable, extremely frustrating to see how Rio’s mayor reacted to criticism, and really upsetting to see how scared some people were to attend the games. At the same time, it was heart-warming to watch the Refugee Team walk in. It was thrilling to see so many athletes break world records, and it was uplifting to realize how many Brazilians had volunteered to work for the Olympics. My satisfaction with everything that happened far exceeded any initial disappointment I had with the lack of organization. However, throughout the month of August, the strongest feeling I experienced was sorrow. I felt bad for being proud because I knew how much the Olympics were harming the people who (unlike me) only had Brazil as their home.

Sitting on my couch, with a cup of tea in hand and blankets covering my legs, I prepared myself to watch what I feared would be the biggest public humiliation Brazil had ever faced. As the ceremony proceeded, I beamed with joy as some of my favorite singers stepped on stage. I gasped as Gisele strutted down to the sound of “Girl of Ipanema,” and I cried as I saw Yusra Mardini bear the Refugee flag. I was proud, but also ashamed and couldn’t help but grieve the destruction of homes and the loss of Brazilian lives just so that some of us could feel worthy of the presence of those who were so reluctant to come. We smiled through it. We put up a show worthy of the acclamation it received. We proved people wrong and shattered stereotypes, going above and beyond expectations. I am immensely proud, and as Brazilian sports reporter Rica Perrone wrote on behalf of the Olympic city, “I couldn’t offer you the most comfortable stay, but I did offer you my best intentions (…) I am made fun of, I am irresponsible and cool. I am happy (…) Nice to meet you, I am Rio de Janeiro.”

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