RIO DE JANEIRO – Japan may be riding high in the medal table at the Rio Olympics, but the host country is not having the same luck.
By the end of Saturday’s events, Brazil had won only one gold medal — through Rafaela Silva in the women’s 57-kg judo competition — as well as one shooting silver and two judo bronzes, at a sporting festival that cost the country an estimated $12 billion to host.
That put Brazil 26th in the overall medal table, far behind fifth-place Japan and well short of the Brazilian Olympic Committee’s target of a top-10 position by the time the competition ends on Aug. 21.
“The Brazilian Olympic Committee (COB) is steadily working to change Brazil into a true Olympic power,” the COB told The Japan Times in a statement.
“COB has set the target of placing Brazil among the top 10 countries in the medal table at Rio 2016 and will only talk about Team Brazil’s performance on Aug. 21.”
Olympic host countries have traditionally enjoyed a boost to their usual medal tallies. China jumped from a total of 63 medals in 2004 to 100 when it hosted the games in 2008, while Britain’s medal count rose from 47 in 2008 to 65 on home soil four years later.
Brazil, however, is struggling to follow suit. Medals in soccer and volleyball — perhaps the country’s best chance of success — are not awarded until the end of the second week of competition, and until then local fans may have to make do with scraps of success where they can find them.
“Historically, Brazil is not a good medalist in the Olympics, so why would it be different?” said 40-year-old doctor Jose Cohen, who was visiting the Olympic Tennis Centre with his family. “Even if the Olympics is here, Brazil doesn’t have any tradition in the Olympics. It takes a very long time to get better. There is not a lot of investment in sports here.
“This country is very weird. Some things we don’t understand. We were expecting a lot more medals. I think Brazil has gotten better, but the other countries have gotten even better.”
Judoka Silva has proved to be Brazil’s standard-bearer so far, giving the country a feel-good personal story to go with her gold medal on the third day of the competition.
Silva grew up in Rio’s notorious City of God favela — one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Brazil — and her story has resonated with the general public.
“It was fantastic,” said 32-year-old advertising worker Daniel Barbosa. “It was a really good moment for the country because she’s from a poor community and trained hard. People were really happy and proud and I think that’s a good thing to happen more often.”
Brazilian fans have done their best to will their athletes on to success, turning the various venues into cauldrons of noise whenever a home favorite makes an appearance.
“The people in Brazil are very happy and make a lot of noise, and it’s very important for the athletes,” said Marco Martins, a 39-year-old veterinarian visiting the tennis arena, one day after Brazilian tennis player Thomaz Bellucci almost upset Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal, only to lose in the decisive third set.
“Unfortunately, yesterday the tennis player didn’t win, but he played well and the crowd was very good.
“I’m very proud of my country. First because of the organization. The gold medal is not so important. With this organization, and welcoming people from all around the world, I am very proud of my country. It’s more important for the country.”
Others think the behavior of the crowds at Rio 2016 — booing rival athletes and making noise at inappropriate times — is doing Brazil’s international image few favors.
“Of course they have to support our athletes but I don’t think it’s fair to try to make noise to distract the other athletes,” said Cohen. “This is not the way to win anything. Brazilians can support their athletes but they shouldn’t try to distract the others. It doesn’t make sense to me. The crowd doesn’t win any games.”
Perhaps the soccer-match atmosphere at many of Rio 2016’s events is hardly surprising given the sport’s overwhelming popularity in South America’s biggest country, but the Olympics are giving Brazilians a chance to discover new sports and broaden their sphere of interest.
“I think we’re seeing a change because we’re seeing all the other sports, and what can be accomplished in sports,” said Barbosa. “The emphasis is changing right now. It decentralizes from the men’s soccer team and goes to all the other sports.”
For some Brazilians, however, what actually happens on the sporting field at Rio 2016 is simply incidental.
“I don’t know much about sports, actually,” said 25-year-old medical student Anna Saldanha, wearing a green Team Brazil T-shirt. “I love to see people from all around the world and feel the energy. It’s so much nicer. It’s so good to have so many foreign people from all around the world here. I love that. That’s why I came here.
“Of course it’s important to win, but it’s not the only thing. In the news they talk about all the bad things about Brazil and especially Rio, so it’s good for people to come here and see that it’s not all that bad.”