Everyone this year must have wondered about Rio as an appropriate site for the games. Admittedly, not a great sports fan, I still always am fascinated by the prowess of the athletes, always amazed by the skill and sleekness of their bodies. Last night the choreographed duos plunging into the pool left me in awe : the best reminded me of the tightly wound gears of clocks.
Even the opening ceremonies that traced the history of the country fascinated. The hot pinks and greens of people dressed as arrows along the parade of athletes tickled my imagination. The skeletons of boats rocking with explorers a la cirque de Soleil, the slaves with huge blocks attached to their feet, the rising tenements that featured a backdrop for the diversity of silver dancers were all wonderful, artfully and historically conceived. The serious admission and projection of the shrinking land and resources of our world dramatically set against each athlete planting a seedling: small and big, individual and colossal. And yet, as in Beijing where the poor were relocated for the building of stadiums such asThe Birdsnest (which now stands empty ) ,60,000 residents in working class favelas in Rio were also moved out for the building of the Olympic Park. Gary Mason in his column,” The spectacle you don’t see on TV”( The Globe and Mail, August 12, 2016) describes families in dire circumstances, begging for food and sorting through garbage cans, babies in arms. He states,” The dichotomy between the money drenched world of the IOC…and the horribly disadvantaged people…in Rio is blunt and depressing.”
With the terrible issues in the favelas and the poisonous prick of the Zika, not to mention the fluctuating political presidents, Rio appears cursed. My own hairdresser confided her family has been beset by gangs in local grocery stores and no doubt, most have heard about the Spanish sailing team’s mugging at pistol point. In the midst of such burning poverty, how can there not be unrest?
Yet I carry sweet poignant memories with me when eight years ago, I celebrated New Year’s Eve on Copacabana Beach with four million others in a quietly festive, family based party. Every one respectfully dressed in white, carrying gladiolus, silently approaching the edge of the water, bending to offer the flowers to the goddess. Small groups of extended relations preparing dinners on portable stoves, tasty, spicy smells, children dancing on tiptoes on the sand: the atmosphere calm, friendly, spiritual.
And at exactly midnight after fireworks, belongings and small babes packed up in arms, the partygoers turned back to fill the streets and head silently home by foot or bus. We were sitting in a bar restaurant called Mabe’s beach- front where we poured champagne for anyone who came by. Told not to display jewellery or wallets as tourists, we had begun our Rio trip fearful, but encountered no problems. In fact, our memories of Rio still give us pause today :awe of a night that was far from violent or threatening – and lives in our minds as one of those moments that twinkles and endures when so many other travel memories have vanished.
The story yesterday, August 8, of Raefaela Silva, is like that, a story that persists. Winning Brazil’s first gold medal in women’s judo division, she is David battling Goliath,poorest of girls triumphing. On the podium, biting her lips to hold back tears as she waited for the medal to be placed around her neck, Raefaela conveyed( to me) that she was unlike the other athletes. Whether it was a toughness, a rawness, a particular look, a demeanour,a raggedness, she somehow marked a difference from the sleek and poised, say, of the women swimmers or divers such as our Penny Oleksiak or Rosie Filion. Siva is quoted as saying, “I was always climbing up walls, over walls to get a kite that might have fallen out of the sky…I had a dream” , a mantra both literal and figural for a child reaching beyond a bad neighbourhood towards a better future. She adds,”I had to fight in the midst of that, in order to overcome and not be defeated as a child” ( The Star, Bruce Arthur, The girl wins gold for City of God”).
As humans and story readers,we approve this story, beaming with pleasure that there are avenues to vanquish our enemies, whether they be human or societal. We burst our buttons that the human spirit has prevailed and for one shining moment, the dragon has been felled. But in truth, there are few Raefaelas able to exit their circumstances. Even her sister at 15 found herself pregnant. The conditions that confine all the other children and propel them into crime, not sports, drama , professions must haunt society. Without opportunity, the quiet one in the corner, the bully, the kid kept at home to mind his baby brother, few can escape the cycle of poverty that robs all of us :to move from challenging circumstances and go forward. What made the difference for Raefaela? Did she have a latent gene from her ancestors to persevere and somehow continue her trek? Was it her parents, who in spite of moving a small mile away from their former favela, hand her the torch? Was it her coach who in the midst of crushing racism in London, and Siva being disqualified in London four years ago and persuaded her to dig in her heels, scof and steadfastly believe in her dream? Was there one guardian angel knowing what words or signs were neededto keep her on the right track? In deed, what makes one swing one leg in front of the other when everything within screams, “Giveup, lie down; it’s enough all ready.”
Cynically I ponder if she will return to her former life and hang her medal on her wall, or will she be used by the government as motivation that even if you live in slums, you can triumph.Will she be air brushed by the government into a lovely model for drinking coke and selling sanitary pads?
It is a lovely notion that we cling to: that one downtrodden person can rise up in the midst of adversity. Rather than fighting the odds, governments must ensure that all our Raefaelas find outlets for their talents, and even ” ordinary” children be allowed to rise to fulfill their potential, not scour for scraps in garbage bins. Wasn’t that the idea behind the 1979 Year of the Child promoted by the Unesco and the UN?Not snipped in the bud by the Zika virus.