Earlier this month, Sylvia Berutti, an insurance saleswoman in Rio, had her doubts about the globe’s eyes on her country as her city prepared for the Olympics. She worried about terrorism. She felt ashamed about the endless news reports about Brazil’s political corruption scandals; her city’s inability to clean the putrid Guanabara Bay where rowers and sailors were set to compete; and about its delay in installing new transit lines designed to shuttle hundreds of thousands of visitors to new arenas in the city’s western side.
But as she watched two of Brazil’s beloved beach volleyball duo Larissa França and Talita Antunes—known familiarly as ‘Larissa and Talita’—defeat Germany to advance to the quarterfinals on Friday afternoon, Berutti, 28, said her concerns had faded. “There was such a heavy feeling before the Games,” she said, stretching her arm toward the waves crashing in front of the arena on Copacabana Beach. “But now look—it’s just a huge party,” she said, shouting above the din of her roaring compatriots. The crowd was sipping beer, and rising and falling in their seats to raise their giant blue, green and yellow flags in a synchronized fandom—the wave— that Brazilians suggest they invented.
Berutti wasn’t alone in her pessimism. In July, the polling firm Datafolha (PDF link in Portuguese) found that half of Brazilians feared the Games would make them feel more national embarrassment than pride. Sports usually unite Brazilians, who won the bid for the Games in 2009. But that was when the country’s economy was booming and its politics, led by former president Lula da Silva, seemed stable. In May, legislators impeached his successor, president Dilma Rousseff, for financial irregularities, and a raft of politicians, including da Silva and its interim president Michel Temer, are being investigated for corruption scandal involving Petrobras, the partially state-owned oil company. In the past five years, its economy has withered, shrinking in 2015 by -3.8 percent due to the collapse of the fossil fuel industry.
The national mood, once famously upbeat, seemed to range from disgust to resignation, as people feared it would live up to the depressing old joke: “Brazil is the country of the future—and always will be.”
But inside the volleyball arena, nobody seemed to be allowing any of that to seep in. Silas Cesario, a systems analyst from Belo Horizonte, cheered his team on and smiled. “Look,” he said, “everything’s going OK.”
Brazil has long lured outsiders with its impossibly exquisite scenery, its ability to laugh at itself, its sensuality and, in a country where more than half the population identifies as mixed race or black, its at least external racial harmony. In recent years that image has been squashed not only by politics and an economic crash, but environmental pillage, growing urban violence and a disturbing pattern of income distribution that has spawned a new crop of what author Alex Cuadros calls “Brazillionaires,” the hyperwealthy plutocrats who are intertwined with the country’s spectacular rise and fall.
“We have violence, we have hunger, we have income inequality,” said Cesario, 34. “But we proved in 2014 that we could pull off the World Cup, and now we’re proving that we can do this,” he said, nodding toward a row of fans below him who wore sequined flag shirts and yellow, blue, and green wigs. “We’re showing the world something positive.”
Cesario and his colleague, Herberto Luiz Fonseca, had each spent $200 on six tickets for different events. “Am I proud of my country’s corruption, of its politics?” asked Fonseca, 54. “No. But am I proud to be Brazilian? Always—especially on a day like this,” he said, pointing to his yellow and green polo shirt and a new pair of yellow, black and green sneakers. He paused to watch as a team of funk dancers performed on the stage, and smiled.
After the match, the tanned, tall Talita, who like many famous Brazilians seems only to need a first name, appeared at a press conference in her very small yellow and green uniform as if she hadn’t broken a sweat. She said she thought her fans—and the pair’s victory—helped buoy the other. “They come to support us, and we love them, we love each other,” she said. “We’re showing the world what we’re good at— and it’s helpful for us all.”
Outside the arena, Mattheus Santos, a journalism student at the University of Sao Paulo, said he hadn’t expected the legendary “Olympic spirit” to erase Brazilians’ concerns—as well as the billions it has spent on sports venues and not schools. But for two weeks, the global spotlight is focusing on something else, Santos said: “We also have a special soul, and now everybody can see it.”