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Brazil Olympians face long odds in their own Games

October 4th, 2009

2016_olympics_rio_logo

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wept with joy when Rio de Janeiro won its Olympic bid but he may shed tears of sorrow at the 2016 Games if Brazil does not reverse a history of Olympic mediocrity.

The five-time World Cup soccer champion and home to famous athletes like soccer stars Pele and Ronaldinho has for years performed poorly at the Olympics amid a lack of investment in developing world-class talent for the Games.

Unlike China in the 2008 Beijing Games, Brazil is unlikely to mark its growing influence on the world stage with a strong showing in its own Olympics — particularly as it faces considerable work bringing Rio’s infrastructure up to speed.

Brazil won only four gold medals in the Beijing Olympics, compared with 51 for China and 23 for Russia, countries seen in similar stages of economic development. The South American country seldom wins medals outside its specialties of judo, volleyball and sailing.

Brazil, the world’s fifth most populous country with more than 190 million people, has never won more than five gold medals in an Olympic Games. It won 15 medals in Beijing, compared with 110 for the United States and 100 for China.

Its volleyball teams will have home-court advantage on Copacabana beach and its sailors will tack easily through Rio’s Guanabara Bay but Brazil will garner little gold if it does not use the coming years to make inroads in other areas.

“We’re going to have to start from zero,” Sports Minister Orlando Silva told reporters. “We have a chance to change our policies toward sports using the 2016 Games as a platform for the development of Brazilian sport.”

Still the planet’s most feared soccer team, Brazil has never won an Olympic gold medal in the country’s most popular sport — even though it has won every other major soccer competition.

Lula’s threat to give the team a “whack on the head” if it does not win in 2016 may not be enough to change that.

The country’s athletic development is reliant on private club systems that produce legendary professional soccer players but do little to nurture Olympic talent, leaving Brazil struggling in major events such as swimming and track and field.

It won gold medals in both of those sports in Beijing but the long-jump victory was aided by a doping scandal that eliminated top contenders, while its top swimmer had to train at a U.S. university with a Canadian coach to bring home the gold.

MAJOR INVESTMENTS

Brazil is promising it will make major investments in school athletic programs to identify talent early on and develop it at the university level, a formula that has worked for countries with strong Olympic performances.

“Within 10 years, I want Brazil to be an Olympic powerhouse. We have the conditions to do so,” Lula told reporters in Copenhagen, although a successful showing in Rio will require a more aggressive timeline.

He will ask sports federations to set Olympic development targets and sit down with government officials to plan an overall Olympic strategy with the same fervor that went into the Rio bid.

Rio resident Maria Gouveia is confident Brazil will develop athletes much like Rio builds new stadiums for the Games and expands public transit.

“In the next seven years, they’ll get the athletes ready. Brazil wants to show it’s an important country,” said Gouveia, a retired nurse who has lived 45 of her 65 years in Copacabana.

“I’ll be old by then, but I’ll push people out of the way with my cane to see the Brazilians win.”

By Brian Ellsworth

(Additional reporting by Pedro Fonseca in Copenhagen; Editing by Peter Cooney)

http://www.guardian.co.uk


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