It started as a persistent tapping, like impatient fingers on a tabletop: tah-ca- TAH tah-ca-TAH tah-ca-TAH.
I was on deadline, hunched over my desk in the back corner of the Associated Press newsroom in San Francisco, trying to block out the perennially ringing phones and the reporter chatter. This was October 2009. President Barack Obama’s plan to reform health care was the news of the day, and my editors in New York wanted an article on what it meant for immigrants. I had a couple of hours to make something coherent out of the reports strewn on my desk.
On my screen, sentences refused to coalesce into paragraphs. Through the office din I heard that pulse, faint but insistent: tah-cah-TAH tah-cah-TAH tah-cah-TAH . . . TAH TAH. TAH TAH. Then it clicked. I knew that pattern: it was the call and response of surdos, the bass drums that drive a Brazilian samba beat. The sound was so out of place in the air-conditioned newsroom that my eyes flew up to the TVs that hung in clusters from the ceiling, tuned to the news. I walked over.
One of the tech writers was already there, craning his neck to watch, curious about the commotion. There was the long sweep of Copacabana Beach, the cobalt of the Atlantic. The white sand was thick with people, tens of thousands, skin glistening as men stripped off their shirts on the warm spring day and women danced, arms widespread, the whole crowd flashing Brazil’s green and yellow colors and heaving to the syncopated beat.
This was the day. Brazil—Rio de Janeiro—was in the running to host the 2016 Olympics, up against Tokyo, Madrid, and Chicago. The announcement would be broadcast live on massive screens raised on the beach.
This wasn’t the country’s first try. It had bid two times before and failed. But this run was different. Brazil was different. A copy of The Economist sat on my desk under the health care reports, folded back to an article on vast oil finds just off Rio’s shore. There had been other intriguing headlines recently. Brazil was lending money to the International Monetary Fund, after years of failing to pay its debt. Its middle class had grown by a population the size of California’s in less than a decade. Something remarkable was happening in this southern giant. Financial papers had picked up on it, even if to most foreigners it was still a place of poverty and parties, samba, soccer, and favelas.
The country’s recent good fortune and its Olympic bid made for good copy; as a journalist, I knew that. But my interest wasn’t just professional. I was born in Brazil, although I’d spent most of my life rambling from country to country, first as the daughter of an oil executive, and later as a reporter with a chronic case of wanderlust. Over time, the roots connecting me to my home country had grown long and thin, but I’d kept them alive through annual visits and by collecting news articles such as the ones that littered my desk.
Recently, I’d noticed a change in these articles. What had been occasional pieces, mostly short briefs about a burst of violence or a presidential election, came more frequently, and in greater depth. The world had begun to pay more attention to Brazil. The Olympic vote could push it right under the spotlight.
I watched as in Copenhagen the camera panned to Brazil’s president, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, a stocky man pumping a few more hands in the moments before countries made final presentations to the International Olympic Committee. Brazilians affectionately shortened his name to Lula, as if he were one of the family. Being chosen to host the Olympics would give Brazil—the Brazil crafted during his tenure—an unprecedented vote of confidence, a gold star to show that this forever-emerging nation had finally arrived. The International Olympic Committee had played that role before: Tokyo won the 1964 bid as Japan rose from the devastation of World War II. Seoul hosted the 1988 Games just when Korea was taking off, and China got the 2008 Olympics right as it was flexing its muscle on the international stage.
In the week leading up to the IOC decision there had been a scrum of press conferences with presidents and campaign trail stunts, making the run-up feel like something between a high school popularity contest and a political summit. The Madrid team flew in a liveried plane; Oprah Winfrey shilled for Chicago.
Still, as the Olympic Committee members gathered there was no clear favorite. Tokyo was a safe, functional alternative. Madrid already had most of the venues built. In a last-minute twist, Obama said he would deliver the U.S. pitch, becoming the first American president to address the IOC. His perfectly timed trip swayed the bookmakers. On the day of the vote, the money was on Chicago.
Whichever country won, it would face scrutiny and tremendous expense. The Beijing Olympics the year before had cost an astounding $40 billion, removed 1.5 million people from their homes, and left behind empty stadiums. The torch relay had sparked huge protests over China’s human rights record; I’d helped cover the marches in San Francisco.
Spain and the United States were mired in a global recession; Japan’s economy was faltering. And yet the contest was more intense than ever. Staging the world’s biggest sports bash was expensive, but voters loved it; it also gave the host country tremendous leverage to promote a particular agenda, whether it was fostering rapid urban renewal, picking up a lackluster economy, or showing off new political and economic might.
The problems with Rio were obvious even from afar. Security came first, then transportation, with old airports and roadways that flooded with every major storm and gridlocked hopelessly every rush hour. There were not enough hotel rooms for the millions of expected visitors, and the proposal to stash them in the dilapidated port area made the whole plan seem rather improvised. Official estimates said that preparing the city would cost more than $11 billion. That was three times more than the second most expensive proposal that year, from Madrid.
But the Olympics had never been held in South America, and Brazil’s Lula had thrown himself into the campaign. He visited London’s Olympic Park and spoke up on the topic over months, making it clear that Rio’s bid was the nation’s bid, with support and funding guaranteed from the top. There had been protests in Chicago, where residents worried that hosting the Games would mean budget overruns, corruption, or neighborhoods razed to make way for Olympic projects. Brazilians, on the other hand, were eager to host, Lula said.
The president’s personal magnetism made him a powerful salesman for brand Brazil. But his life story spoke more eloquently for the country than any of his speeches. In his well-cut suit, he represented something unheard-of in Brazil’s history: a rise from abject poverty to absolute power. He had set his meaty shoulders against the odds—his birth in the parched northeast, a childhood shining shoes and selling peanuts on the street, his years as a steelworker and then a union leader in the country’s industrial guts—and he’d made it.
This was startling in a country of entrenched hierarchies, in which one’s niche in society was determined by a complex calculus involving class, race, geography, and income. By those measures, Lula should have never left the factory floor. And yet, there he was: an equal among presidents of some of the most powerful countries in the world.
After coming up through the labor movement, he helped found the Workers’ Party, which defended the rights of the poor and working classes. He ran for president—three times—and lost. By his fourth run, in 2002, he’d trimmed the bushy, revolutionary beard. The ink-black hair that had crowded his brow had softened into gray and lay back in brushed waves; his suits no longer looked borrowed, tight in the wrong places. He took on a businessman as running mate, reassuring the upper classes and foreign investors that his radical days were over. This time, he won. Four years later, with a stable economy and a broadening middle class, he won again.
This was the Lula who went to Copenhagen: a man who drew on his rank-and-file background to charm, with an informal, backslapping manner that could sometimes startle heads of state, but was cordial, disarming, and very, very Brazilian. The country he promoted was a profitable place to invest, a growing power, and a real democracy in which men like him could become president.
None of this was lost on the International Olympic Committee that October day as he sat, dark jacket, gray beard, waiting.
After the informal greetings and handshakes, the candidate cities’ presentations started. Chicago was the first to make its case. Michelle Obama, in yellow and big TV hair: “I was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side. . . .” She talked about family and about her dad, who taught her to “throw a mean right hook.” Barack picked it up from there: he wanted to welcome the world “into my neighborhood.” It was the Obama two-step—graceful, polished. They did it well. Chicago looked like a winner. Tokyo was up next, with something about green Games. I went back to my desk, to health care reform and my deadline, all but giving up on Rio after the U.S. performance.
Then, there was the drumming again—louder. I looked up. There was the beach at Copacabana, the swarming crowd, the Olympic anthem floating over the masses. There was IOC president Jacques Rogge at the podium, lean, staid, aristocratic, so European. There was Lula in the front row of the auditorium, fidgeting and crossing himself for good luck.
Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, president of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the world governing body of soccer) and one of the IOC’s voting members, sat across from the Brazilian president, watching him. Blatter poked other IOC delegates, mimicked Lula’s superstitious gesture, shook his head, and cracked a grin as if to say, “Can you believe this guy?”
Rogge thanked the candidate cities. He lifted the envelope with the five rings. He fumbled, then pulled out the card.
“Rio de Janeiro,” he said, stumbling on the hard Portuguese J and giving it the soft, aspirated Spanish sound: Reeow day Haneirow.
No matter. Lula, Pelé, the whole Brazilian contingent jumped from their chairs and fell into each other’s arms as if they had just scored the winning goal in a World Cup final. They cried, they kissed, they bounced around like popcorn. Lula barreled over to the Spanish delegation. The eighty-nine-year-old Juan Antonio Samaranch, former president of the IOC and a big campaigner for Madrid, had been sitting quietly through the chaos. Lula pulled him in for a big kiss on the forehead.
Next he went for José Luis Zapatero, the Spanish head of state. Lula wrapped him in a hug, yelled something in his ear, then he turned around, heading against the human current with a green and yellow Brazilian flag in his hand. Someone started singing “Cidade maravilhosa . . .” and Lula led the chorus of Rio’s informal anthem, belting out, along with the Brazilians in the room, his love for the “marvelous city of a thousand graces, the heart of my Brazil.” Protocol was in shreds. IOC president Rogge looked uncomfortable.
But Lula was unstoppable. He now wore the flag like a cape, an unlikely superhero from the global South. Photographers went in for the shot, and flashes of light brightened Lula’s way as his security guards huddled around and pushed with him through the crowd.
The cameras cut back to Copacabana. The air quickened with flags and flying confetti, fireworks. CNN’s Shasta Darlington, reporting from the beach, tried to talk over the racket. She described a party expected to last all night.
Watching the raucous celebration on TV, I knew the exhilaration was fueled by much more than the Summer Games. Brazil was on the brink of something exceptional.
Other countries suffered through bloody battles for independence, civil wars, revolutions —the sort of historical junctures that can reconfigure a nation’s character. Brazil had experienced few great ruptures. Independence was granted without a fight, there was no upheaval to end slavery, no communist insurrection. The scaffolding that propped its wealthy and powerful had never been challenged; these structures lay like bones under the surface, hardening over centuries, shaping Brazil into one of the most unequal countries in the world.
Now powerful and overlapping circumstances—local and international, social, political, and economic—were forcing those old bones to shift and, perhaps, settle in new configurations. For the first time in generations, possibly ever, there was money and political will for change. The possibilities were tantalizing.
Lula himself was a symbol of this potential. He’d lost a finger at eighteen, crushed in a lathe during a late-night shift at a steel mill. When he used his hands to make a point—which was often—there it was, the reminder of how far he’d come. The man himself embodied this moment when everything seemed possible. That’s what the crowd on the beach was celebrating. It was Brazil’s turn. The Olympics in Rio would give it a stage and a spotlight.
This is when it struck me: it was time to go back.
I was three years old when my family first left Brazil, following the whims of my father’s job. For the next seven years or so, we moved around the Middle East and the Mediterranean, changing cities more often than most families change cars. This hopscotching left me a perennial outsider, a bookish kid with glasses and a halo of curly hair who spoke a home- baked Portuguese sprinkled with English and Arabic, and felt out of place anywhere but in a library. My sense of the country named on my passport was patched together from conversations, the outdated magazines that reached us, and yearly visits to our vast extended family when I’d lose myself among dozens of cousins, watching and listening, trying to grasp what it meant to be Brazilian.
Each time we landed back in Rio, there would be a moment after we left the airport when I’d roll down the taxi window and let in the city’s humid embrace. It was the first sign I was home.
In these visits I’d take my fill of the hothouse atmosphere, letting it gush though my senses. After the spare vistas of the Middle East, with their limited palette of sand, stone, and sky, I always returned hungry for Rio, where green shoots pushed from every crack and thick- petaled flowers bloomed year-round, saturated with color, rich with scent. The people thronging the streets, bare-chested men and women in short-short-tight-tight everything, walked with a fluid grace as if on well-oiled joints. They talked a lot and laughed out loud, the rounded vowels of Brazilian Portuguese tumbling out like marbles.
After a year surrounded by the discreet monochrome of Muslim women’s concealing chadors and the men’s loose jalabiyahs, the physical exuberance and informality of Brazilians was always shocking at first. This was a place where life happened at close range. Apartments were small, stuffed with too many relatives, and breathless on hot afternoons, so much of what elsewhere was private was conducted outdoors in Rio: people kissed, drank, danced, even groomed themselves in full view. Accustomed as I was to the high walls and modesty of Muslim society, the people of Rio de Janeiro—the Cariocas, as they are called—seemed almost obscene and entirely fascinating. But our visits were always too short, and before I could grasp what it meant to be of this place, we were on our way to the airport again.
Now this city that had mesmerized me for very personal reasons was drawing attention of a different sort in a world where the power balance was tilting, making a little more room for up-and-comers.
Brazil was living a unique moment in its history. It was forging an independent foreign policy with stronger ties to other emerging nations, and demanding a voice at the world’s important roundtables, including a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. But the biggest novelty was the economy. China’s appetite for Brazil’s main exports—iron ore, soy bean, sugar, meat—seemed bottomless. Foreign investment was pouring in. As Brazilians emerged from poverty, they began to buy everything from stoves to cars to flights abroad. Suddenly flush with cash and credit, they were going on spending sprees in New York and Miami. Those who’d moved to other countries during the lean years were going back home, where there were not enough engineers, architects, or accountants to meet demand. Brazil was on its way to becoming the world’s sixth-largest economy.
Petroleum was a big part of this boom. A huge new discovery showed there was enough of it trapped underwater, 180 miles beyond Rio’s coast, to heave the country onto a higher geopolitical echelon. A big spread in the Wall Street Journal brought over by one of the AP business editors lay on my desk: Brazil had long teetered on the edge of energy self-sufficiency, but this find could catapult the nation into the top tier of energy producers, making it an exporter —and an international force to be reckoned with.
“God is Brazilian,” Lula said, celebrating the oil discovery with a popular saying that refers to the country’s natural bounty.
The country had already been chosen to host the 2014 World Cup. Now it had the Olympics, too. The enthusiasm was catching—I felt it from California.
But what did all this mean? From afar, the whole thing seemed to veer between a well- founded optimism and a giddy sky’s-the-limit euphoria. Good news came in daily and by the handful. For the first time in generations, there was money and political will to push through substantial reforms. The World Cup and the Olympics gave Brazil—and Rio in particular— concrete deadlines and a long to-do list; social and economic change was transforming the landscape and the expectations of the population.
This was a unique experiment. Its results mattered—not just to me as a Brazilian, but to me as a reporter. Urban chaos, poverty, pollution, and an indifferent state were not exclusive to Rio. Other megacities in the developing world faced these same challenges. Would Rio find original answers within the high-pressure crucible of the next few years? Or would it crack in unforeseen ways?
There’s a Brazilian expression for something that’s only a façade: para inglês ver, or “for the English to see.” It comes from the years after England abolished slavery and campaigned to end the human trade. Brazil signed an international treaty and passed a law promising to stop, but the traffic continued. The laws were meant for the English to see—a nicety for foreign eyes. Would the changes of the next few years be just para inglês ver, or were we looking at a transformation that would go to the core, reforming the violence and inequality that had historically hobbled the city? Whatever the case, I didn’t want to just read about it in the news.
I applied to be the Associated Press’s Rio de Janeiro correspondent and got the job. Within three weeks, I rented out my apartment, sold my car, gave away my books. On November 4, 2010, I checked in at the United Airlines counter in San Francisco with a one-way ticket to Brazil. After twenty-one years, I was going home.