When I was a young girl growing up in Brazil, I would often visit family and friends in the beautiful, bustling city of Rio de Janeiro. It was a magic place, sunny and warm, with an average summer temperature of around 22°C, teaming with people and bursting with life. We took long walks on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, and leisurely bike rides at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, supping fresh coconut water and breathing in the electric atmosphere and spectacular views. Rio was, and still is, a city of dreams.
Photo: Agustin Diaz Gargiulo
But it also has its nightmares. Like so many emerging world cities Rio has more than its fair share of social, political and economic challenges. So as the opening of the 2016 Olympic Games approached, many Brazilians were both bursting with pride and frozen with trepidation. After all, our beloved Rio, with all of its challenges, would be the first South American city ever to host the Olympics. The state of Rio de Janeiro was declared a ‘state of public calamity’, as the New York Times predicted ‘Brazil’s Olympic Catastrophe’. Postings all over the internet warned athletes would be sailing and swimming in raw sewerage, ruining events and landing in hospital. Many predicted the Games would be a disaster.
So when I joined a small group of homesick Brazilian friends to watch the opening ceremony kick off on 5 August 2016 at the world famous football Maracana Stadium, I confess I had my fingers firmly crossed under the table. But by the end of the night I was singing and laughing with all the competitors. The unshakeable Olympic spirit had cut through all the predicted chaos with a message of courage and hope. As each athlete was presented with a seed and a cartridge of soil to plant an ‘Athletes Forest’ of 207 different native Brazilian trees, Brazilians everywhere looked proudly to the future. As the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team, representing Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, marched into Rio’s Maracana Stadium in the Parade of Nations, and the celebration of tens of thousands of spectators erupted in a spectacular standing ovation, we applauded the triumph of the indomitable human spirit so nobly embodied in the Olympic tradition.
Whatever the future will bring, it was a magic moment Rio will have for ever. And for Brazilians everywhere, there will always be Neymar’s unforgettable penalty kick for the Olympic football gold medal, in front of 78,000 passionate, screaming Brazilians. For that alone, it was all worth it.