Order and Progress at the Rio Olympics
Order and Progress at the Rio Olympics
I had never traveled south of the equator before. As an American of Pakistani descent, most of my voyages have been easterly, flying high above a fragmenting Europe whose empires once ruled the world, over the cauldron of nations to which the prophets traced the birth of their enduring dogmas, to the dusty, teeming chaos of my ancestral hometown of Peshawar. Those trips to Pakistan were formative. They exposed me to the full spectrum of the human condition, offering lessons in the limits of politics and the realities of geopolitics. Pakistan, after all, had been a front-line state in the United States' war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a war whose implications rippled outward to Peshawar in particular.
But this voyage was different. My friend Hamza and I were flying to Brazil to see the Olympics. We were largely going as tourists, but as an analyst of geopolitics I was also on a mission: I wanted to understand Brazil. It is the largest country in the Southern Hemisphere, but even as its rainforests contain cures for diseases both current and undiscovered, the body politic suffers from a pathology caused by the proliferation of political parties. Former President Dilma Rousseff was a clear casualty of this disease — that much I knew. But every story has a hero and a villain, and I wanted to learn whether it was Rousseff or her successor, President Michel Temer, who wore the black mask in the eyes of the Brazilian people. As a tourist traveling between Olympic venues, the bulk of my local contact was with taxi drivers — or rather, Uber drivers, since Uber was everywhere, operating with formidable efficiency as it ferried us from point to point in a wild and unknown city.
A Familiar Picture
During my weeklong stay, these words were burned into my mind: Ordem e Progresso (Order and Progress), the Brazilian motto. The phrase in Portuguese is stamped on the blue orb in the center of the Brazilian flag. From my first moments in the country, I noticed that "order" was visible everywhere. I saw it brandishing its rifle near the sliding exit doors when I entered the lobby of Rio de Janeiro's Galeao International Airport. I saw it patrolling the streets in an armored vehicle, standing erect behind a machine gun, when I was touring the Avenue of the Americas. I even saw it soften, smiling and posing for pictures with tourists visiting Christ the Redeemer, the magnificent statue eternally gazing out over the city. Yet unsurprisingly, "progress" was much harder to find. Here, my mind drew a comparison with another developing country, Pakistan. I thought of the many summers of my childhood spent in Peshawar being ferried along the city's often-nameless streets. There, I had become familiar with the anguished face of poverty, approaching in the guise of a disheveled boy hawking garlands of fragrant jasmine, or of a burqa-clad woman begging for coins outside the mosque. Would a similar reality greet me in Rio?
I still don't have a clear answer. I never once encountered a beggar in the city, but that didn't mean destitution was absent. Poverty in Rio is holed up in numerous shantytowns called favelas, including Rocinha, reportedly the largest favela in Latin America. Still, if favelas represented the low end of the development spectrum in Rio, the high end was represented by the 32 Olympic venues. Scattered across the city, these buildings were world-class constructions, their outer walls draped in the flashy, modern hues of the Olympic banner. The most impressive of the arenas was the main stadium. Recently modernized for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, it was a structural marvel epitomizing the grandeur of the Olympic dream, a garden of light, steel and sound blooming from the gritty landscape of the Maracana district. Together, these venues embodied Rio's vision of itself as a confident metropolis taking its place among the celebrated cities of the world. Ultimately, the city was both developed and developing, chasing progress and escaping poverty. Rio is, of course, a project yet unfinished.
The Spirit of the Games
The Olympics were like a rock concert. After standing in line, stepping through a metal detector and scanning your ticket, you were allowed in. As we entered Carioca Arena 3 to watch fencing, we were greeted by two armed Brazilian soldiers. I had never seen a fencing match before, but after watching that evening's contests, I left convinced that no sport hinged as much on hesitation. The opponents shuffled back and forth, concentrating, hesitant, almost polite in their exchange, searching for a moment to thrust. Though we were watching a bronze-medal match between Hungary and Ukraine, judging by the athletes' tenaciousness, it might as well have been a duel to the death.
The crowds themselves were at times rollicking and rambunctious, merry and impassioned. Sometimes they sang, sometimes they jeered, and, at least at the taekwondo venue, their excitement would swell in proportion to the number of punches or kicks a competitor could score consecutively on an opponent. I even recall a moment when a chorus of booing at one match drowned out the other American spectators who broke out into a chant of "USA, USA." Later in the match, that crowd was chanting "Oussama, Oussama," in support of Tunisian taekwondo fighter Oussama Oueslati in his bronze-medal contest against his U.S. opponent, Stephen Lopez. The irony of a crowd chanting a variation of the name "Osama" at a bout featuring a competitor from the United States was not lost on me.
The Color of a Nation
Later that week, as I was watching the men's 80-kilogram gold-medal match in taekwondo, I thought about egalitarianism. Gathered in the many Olympic venues throughout the city were athletes from nations that possessed vastly differing amounts of power and wealth. Some of these countries were fighting wars against one another. Other athletes were competing in Rio against peoples whose forefathers once submitted to the hegemony of their distant crowns. Thus, I sensed that among the developing nations in particular, an Olympic victory in some small way was aimed at rectifying the tragedies of history. When a poor nation won against a rich one, and the crowd roared in delight, I could almost hear notes of vindication in the rapture.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the taekwondo match between Cheick Sallah Cisse of Ivory Coast and Lutalo Muhammad of Great Britain. In geopolitical standing, their motherlands could hardly be more different. Britain is the world's fifth-largest economy, and a nuclear power holding a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. By contrast, the Ivorian economy is just 1 percent the size of Britain's, and the country ranks 172nd on the Human Development Index. But on the Olympic stage, the two competed as equals. After several rounds and what seemed like a thousand kicks later, the score was 6-4, and one second was all that stood between Britain and victory. Then, as the clock started, something remarkable happened: Ivory Coast scored. The knock of Cisse's three-point kick against Muhammad's helmet reverberated through the arena. The crowd gasped in stunned silence, then erupted in cheers as Cisse ran toward the stands in wild disbelief, tossing his helmet in the air like a wedding bouquet and draping himself in the Ivorian flag. Ivory Coast had won.
That final, stunning second would be stitched into an Olympic highlight reel for posterity. And yet it was a different moment that would stay with me. Earlier in the match, the spirited white-haired man sitting next to me belted to the man seated next to him, "That's typical of the U.K., just typical!" Curious, I leaned over and asked him what he meant. "I mean that guy doesn't look like he was born in the U.K.," the man said, motioning to Muhammad, who was black and would settle for a silver medal that evening. "Clearly he looks like he was born in Africa!" Hamza leaned over and told me in half-jest, "Then I wonder what he thinks about us." The exchange touched upon something I had thought about throughout my trip: the link between ethnicity and nationality. Even in a globalizing world, many people have an image fixed in their minds of what someone from, say, China or India or Nigeria looks like. But often those images are incomplete. I would know: As a Pakistani-American, I am proof.
The Body Politic
Of course, the Olympic Games weren't the only significant developments in Brazil in August. The country was alsowitnessing the collapse of Rousseff's presidency. Her vice president, Temer, had become the president. In gauging what people thought of the two figures, I was reminded of Plato, who contended that the fundamental problem of politics is how to find the wisest and best rulers for society. After speaking to many Brazilians about politics, it seemed Plato's problem was still alive and well.
Everyone hated Temer.
They alternately portrayed him as cunning, conniving, evil, elitist, greedy, rotten, unscrupulous or villainous. According to one Uber driver who I'll call Leonardo, Temer was aligning himself with unsavory characters, and the presidency was functioning as a conduit to siphon wealth. Another driver, a woman, put it more succinctly: "Temer is a rat." She believed Temer was against education for the poor because he feared the downtrodden might rise and challenge the elites and their stranglehold on society. Rousseff, on the other hand, was portrayed in more endearing terms. Leonardo said that she was imperfect to be sure, but certainly not the criminal her opponents made her out to be. "The cases Temer is prosecuting against her are fabricated," he told me as we pulled up to a restaurant. "They could never prove corruption against her." It was the last part that struck me: It was a very legalistic way of viewing the situation, and it seemed an indictment of the justice system as much as it was a case against Temer. I had found who wore the black mask — clearly, it was Temer.
These sentiments and more were echoed in a more elaborate fashion by another Uber driver I'll call Gabriel. His story harkened back to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff's predecessor. According to Gabriel, Lula, as the former president is known, was golden — a skillful negotiator hailing from a working-class background whose ascent to the apex of Brazilian politics was masterful. Under him, the country was in good hands. And then came Rousseff. Though well-intentioned, she lacked Lula's finesse and struggled to manage the various relationships and negotiations required of the office. And then — as was becoming a familiar refrain — the presidency slid down to Temer, who fabricated a case against Rousseff, Gabriel said, to gain power.
The conversation ended with the Olympics as I asked Gabriel about his thoughts on the games. "We aren't serious," he commented, the rain pouring outside. "We were working until the last minute to finish preparations for the Olympics." Indeed, I remember reading that less than eight weeks before the launch of the games, construction on some of the venues was still ongoing. But then, as Gabriel slowed the car to a stop in front of our destination, he added, "We still pulled it off." And he was right. Late as the construction may have been, the venues as I saw them were completed, and the Olympics as I experienced them were nowhere near the catastrophe heralded by some prognosticators. I felt safe, and the people around me seemed unfazed by the bedlam of politics, the threat of Zika, or the specter of criminality.
Exiting the train atop Corcovado Mountain, it was quiet and dark, but Christ the Redeemer was still shining. Bathed in floodlights, the famous statue overlooking Rio was at once marvelous and frightening, towering nearly 30 meters (100 feet) into the darkness, arms open in indiscriminate acceptance. Pausing in admiration, I took several pictures and marveled at its presence. But then I walked to the edge of the railing and what I saw was worthy of poetry: Before my eyes was a panorama of the city, a glittering crown encrusted with 10,000 jewels scattered across the horizon, spread beneath the gaze of the full moon and mirroring the constellations above. The mountains were like lumps of finely crushed charcoal piled high. To the south, a ghostly haze hung over the Atlantic, an unperforated ocean evaporating into the darkness, linking the rim of South America with the coast of Africa and the Antarctic pivot of the world.
This was a summation of the city, a horizontal sweep encapsulating the favelas, arenas, beaches, taxi drivers, mountains and water, along with the world of Rio's progress and peril. And then I thought of the beginning. I had started my journey wishing to understand Brazil. Spending one week in one city was hardly enough to achieve that goal. Yet even if I couldn't claim to have peered deeply into the Brazilian soul, I sensed something of the Brazilian ethos, at once festive, energetic, passionate and yearning. My experience in the country was a positive one that pushed against the notion that Rio was incapable of hosting the world's greatest sports contest. Progress was not guaranteed, and the geopolitics of a vast, unmitigated geography outlined the challenges facing Brazil in unnerving clarity. But still the dream lives on.