Mad Brazilians Say Olympic Investment Yielded Lame Medal Returns

Brazil's Olympians have returned home bearing 17 medals in all, putting the country in 14th place according to medals earned, higher than it has ranked before. One might think that would produce a sense of national satisfaction.

It has not. The Ministry of Sports had expected 20 medals. Many in the country seemed to feel cheated out of their record investment in the Olympic team, which totaled 1.76 billion reais ($869 million) over four years in government support and sponsorships by government companies, according to calculations by the O Globo newspaper. Sports Minister Aldo Rebello demanded a “much better” performance from the country’s athletes in 2016, when Brazil will host the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The dissatisfied reaction to the nation's performance speaks to Brazil's ambitious vision for itself. Various commentators analyzed what went wrong and suggested how to fix it.

Sports columnist Juca Kfouri pondered why Brazil didn’t demand more of its athletes. In a column for the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper site, he criticized Fabiana Murer, who was eliminated in the pole vault competition, swimmer Cesar Cielo, who failed to repeat his Beijing Gold, and gymnast Diego Hypolito, who fell over and was disqualified. Kfouri decried the “paternalism that for many years has led us to excuse fiascos with the argument that the Olympic athlete in Brazil is a hero." He added, "What is lacking is the demand for results.”

Brazilian athletes actually surprised the country by winning in sports in which they don’t normally excel -- such as boxing, in which Brazil won three medals -- and gymnastics, in which Arthur Zanetti won gold, though gymnastics is traditionally seen as a women’s sport in Brazil.

But the men’s soccer team failed to win the gold medal, losing 2 to 1 in the final to Mexico. That hurt, given that Brazil had more highly-paid players and a lineup much closer to its national team than any other country. The loss was a bad harbinger for the 2014 soccer World Cup, which Brazil will also host.

“I thought the team, being almost the main team, unlike other countries, would be the big favorite,” said Tostao, a former soccer star who is now a columnist for Folha de Sao Paulo. “I was wrong.”

The columnist noted that stars, including Neymar, Brazil’s highest paid player, had disappointed. Tostao said it was only worth sacking coach Mano Menezes if he could be replaced by someone "romantic," "brave," and "combative," like Ze Roberto, who led the women’s volleyball team to a gold medal over favorites including the U.S. team. Unlike the pampered professionals of the men’s soccer team, the women, he noted, had fought their way to victory.

The women's coach had a different explanation for his success. Roberto told Folha that before winning a gold medal in Barcelona in 1992, he met a hunchback and touched the man’s back for luck. The same thing had happened when he arrived at London’s Olympic Village.

The columnist said winning was more about giving the right jobs to the right people, hinting at the corruption that exists in Brazilian sports. He wrote: "If we want to progress, in all areas, including sport, it will be necessary to reduce the cliques and the pernicious exchange of favors, and put the most prepared and most dignified people in strategic positions.”

A number of Brazil’s athletes complained of a lack of proper preparation. Sandro Viana, an experienced member of Brazil’s 400-meter relay team, said the team failed to reach the final for the first time since 1992 because it did not face top-level competition throughout the year. In an interview with the Terra site, he said the team participated only in lesser tournaments. “The world of sports goes forward in leaps and bounds,” he said. “All the other countries advanced, and we simply can't afford to wait.” He concluded, "In strategy, we are really weak."

Marcelo Negrao, who was on Brazil's gold-medal-winning volleyball team in 1992, stressed the need for continued government support for athletes in an interview with the government’s cable channel, TV NBR. “It is a little late, but it’s good that these things are starting to happen," he said. "We need this investment. An athlete needs to travel, he needs to have a good diet, he needs to pay his technical commission, he needs to pay his coach, often he needs to buy his uniform.”

While Negrao and others worried about how to optimize Brazil's prowess in future outings, some Brazilians simply shrugged and calculated that the country's Olympic ranking wasn't so bad after all. A cartoon that circulated on Facebook depicted a television announcing that the country was 22nd in gold medals. Slumped on a sofa, one viewer commented to another: "For a country that is in 88th place in education, 84th in human development and 72nd in digital inclusion, that's pretty good.”

Of course, pretty good is not what most Brazilians are aiming for.

(Dom Phillips is the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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