The reality of post-Olympic Rio

When Ricardo Cintra gets up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water, he is still amazed. Along the dark path to the kitchen, he sees the Olympic medal pinned to the wall in the living room and shakes his head in disbelief.

“I look and think, ‘Wow. It’s true. Poliana did it,'” he says.

Cintra is one of the few coaches in the world who have the privilege of having an Olympic medal in their home. That’s because he is the coach and husband of open water swimmer Poliana Okimoto, who won a bronze medal in Rio. Okimoto initially finished fourth in the 10K race, but the disqualification of second-place finisher Aurelie Muller after she impeded another swimmer at the finish bumped Okimoto to bronze and made her the first Brazilian female swimmer to win an Olympic medal.

Okimoto had a plan for success leading up to the Rio Olympics. For four years, she was able to pay a team of professionals to help her. A physical therapist, dryland trainer, psychologist and massage therapist were all on hand to help her reach her goal. Part of the expenses were paid thanks to a $4,100 monthly payment she received from her sponsor, the Brazilian Postal Service

But just like with Wu, Okimoto’s competitive life is now filled with confusion. With every stroke, she feels the effects of the financial crisis and corruption scandal.

In September, her sponsorship contract ended and was not renewed. Now she pays her team using the $1,000 she receives from the army, her own $4,800 monthly government stipend and money she receives from her club team, Unisanta. (For contractual reasons, the club will not disclose Poliana’s compensation.) She still trains at the same 25-meter Esperia Club pool in São Paulo where she and her husband pay roughly $160 a month to be members. There is no competitive team at the club, meaning it’s perfectly normal for Okimoto to train in one pool while elderly women take water aerobics classes in another.

To train at Unisanta, which is located in Santos, a coastal city some 50 miles from São Paulo, Okimoto would have had to move and share the pool with her biggest rival, Ana Marcela Cunha. It’s a situation neither of them wanted. This summer, Poliana didn’t even make the Brazilian world championship team, while Cunha won gold in the 25K, bronze in the 5K and tied for bronze in the 10K.

“I dreamt about the Olympic medal since I was 13 years old,” Okimoto says. “I thought it would change my life, or at least my life would be easier. Nothing has changed. On the contrary, I’ve lost. A lot.”

She still carries the memory of standing on that podium a year ago. Through the tears of the moment, she watched hundreds of fans cheer her name and wave the Brazilian flag. But today it’s bittersweet. At the Maria Lenk Trophy, the first national competition held after the Rio Games, Cintra asked organizers to announce that there was an Olympic medalist at the pool.

“It was a chance to remind the young people that there was a medalist there, that we should value the accomplishments of this Brazilian athlete,” he says. “We go to competitions in the USA and they stop everything to announce that there is a medalist in the stands. Everyone applauds.”

He paused, thinking of everything that’s happened in the last year, and added, “How can I motivate Poliana to continue until Tokyo 2020 if the only [outcome] is to be disappointed?”

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It’s a fair question. And perhaps no segment of Brazilian sports has been hit harder by the post-Olympic downturn than aquatics. For 26 years, the Brazilian Postal Service sponsored Brazil’s entire aquatics federation. But after Rio, that investment was slashed by 67 percent, from $5.2 million to $1.7 million a year.

Earlier this year, the president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, Carlos Arthur Nuzman, admitted that economic investment in Brazilian sports has recessed to where it was in 2000, nine years before Brazil was even awarded the 2016 Games.

The postal service predicts it will close 2017 with an operating loss of $400 million. The postal workers union wanted to slash its support of sports entirely but was talked out of it.

“If it was up to them, we would [have] had zero support,” Guilherme Campos, ECT Chief Executive of the Brazilian Postal Service, told ESPN. “It’s not about the athlete’s performance, it’s about our economic situation. What led us not to completely reset was our history of 26 years supporting Brazilian aquatics.”

At the world championship in Budapest, Hungary, last month, Brazil fielded a team of just 16 swimmers, its smallest since 2007. That was double the number of competitors Brazil initially thought it could afford to send.

While U.S. athletes receive no funding directly from the government, most Brazilian athletes couldn’t support themselves without their government stipends. And although the cracks in Brazilian government started long before the Rio Games, the funding continued through the Games. Today it’s as much a political move as anything because it’s the only money that goes directly to the athletes.

“At the end of 2014, after the soccer World Cup, the country was already breaking,” Okimoto says. “If the Olympics hadn’t been in Brazil, our dream would have ended right there. The investments would have stopped. It didn’t stop. But when that all ended, nobody had a plan. Nobody knew what to do in this new reality.”

Leonardo Picciani, the Minister of Sport in Brazil, disputes the notion that there was no plan. According to research done by the Sports Ministry, more than 70 percent of Brazilians agree there should be public investment in sports — it just has to be administered the right way, free of corruption.

“I do not think Brazil failed in Rio 2016,” he says. “The basis of Brazilian sport was planted in terms of infrastructure and conditions for athletes to train. But the governance has to be improved. We have to waste less money and have less bureaucracy and administrative issues and instead have more athletes in more competitions.”

The aftermath of the Rio Games has left many Brazilian athletes worried about their competitive future.
Mauro Pimentel for ESPN

Rafaela Silva still has trouble getting out of the house to take a walk along one of Rio’s famed beaches or even go to the mall. A year after she won Brazil’s first gold in Rio, the 25-year-old still isn’t used to the attention that has come along with her 57-kilogram victory in judo.

The cruel, racially driven messages that followed a disappointing performance in London 2012 led her to almost quit the sport, but they have been replaced by words of encouragement and pride. Her social media followers have jumped from 10,000 to 307,000 in Instagram and she also has just over 72,000 Twitter followers. She trains at Institute Reacao, a nonprofit organization that promotes human development and social inclusion through sports. She is one of the children who benefited most from the project and has added a major sponsor in Nike. Though she won’t say how much her sponsorship is worth, she and the owner of the institute, former Olympic medalist Flavio Canto, charge $10,000 to speak together.

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She knows her reality is not the norm. “In Brazil, only the gold medal is really appreciated,” Silva says. “The athletes who won silver, bronze or didn’t medal at all are having far more problems. These are the ones to think about.”

Of the 19 medals Brazil won in Rio, only seven of them were gold, including men’s soccer and volleyball, sports that already had strong support in Brazil.

“Before the Olympics, the crisis was already big, but the Olympics helped people forget about it for two weeks,” Silva says. “Afterward, the athletes wanted to celebrate their accomplishments, but the country was waking up in the middle of more and more scandals. The media turned quickly to political issues, the economic crisis, and the athletes lost sponsorships and attention. They’ve been forgotten.”

Before the Games, Silva and her judo teammates decided they would equally divide the prize offered to Olympic medalists by the Brazilian Judo Confederation, an amount that totaled $166,000 for its one gold and two bronze medals. Instead of pocketing at least $55,000, Rafaela took home about $11,000.

“Of course I would like to have had more for the medal, but we thought it would be more fair to split between everyone,” she says. “We all fight the same way. This money helped those who had no sponsor.”

The help was needed after Rousseff’s replacement, Michel Temer, suspended certain stipend programs for six months — blocking pay to medalists from national, continental and world championships while keeping Olympic medalist stipends intact. The chance to apply for new stipends is slated to restart in August; so, under the best-case scenario, athletes will begin receiving their funding again in December. Silva worries about the impact this will have on Brazilian sports in the run-up to Tokyo.

“Everybody will want a good performance in 2020, but sports are no longer a priority,” Silva says. “We understand the government had to decrease the investment. How can you justify the expense of millions on sports when we have no hospitals?”

The “Seeds of Hope” plants have been held up in a local greenery with no rollout plan in sight. Courtesy Biovest

The Opening Ceremony in Brazil’s famed Maracanã was the most watched in Olympic history. More than 2.5 billion people from around the globe tuned in as 11,000 athletes marched on the stadium floor holding a cartridge of soil and a seed from a native Brazilian tree. The athletes placed the cartridges into mirrored towers. Olympic organizers called the procession “Seeds of Hope,” explaining the containers would be planted as part of an Athlete’s Forest in the Deodoro neighborhood of Rio.

But now, just over a year later, there is perhaps no greater example of the Rio Games’ complicated legacy. The seedlings sit in planting pots under a sheer black canopy on a farm 100 kilometers from Rio. Prior to last week, Marcelo de Carvalho Silva, the director of Biovert, the company responsible for the seeds, hadn’t heard from Olympic organizers in months. He had no idea what the plans were for the seeds, but he painstakingly watched over them for free, knowing what it would mean for his company — and the country — if something happened to them.

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That’s when the TCU, following up on the Olympic promises made for Rio, started asking questions. And then, sure enough, Olympic officials finally reached out. Twenty-four million seedlings were supposed to be planted to offset the environmental impact of the Games. But that has not happened. The trees that were part of Olympic Park are dying from a lack of irrigation and maintenance. The mayor blames the organizing committee; the organizing committee the government. And, as a result, there is a stalemate.

“The planting of the 12,000 seedlings in the park is only a memory of a beautiful image in the Opening Ceremony,” the TCU report said. “The Rio 2016 committee made a promise to the world and has now been linked, morally, to this duty. To not plant the seeds would cause significant damage to the country’s image.”

The plan had been for the organizing committee to stage some sort of ceremonial year-after event in August or September, with big-name athletes, celebrities and volunteers coming together to celebrate this positive environmental piece of Brazil’s Olympic legacy. Nothing has been planned. Silva says if August or September were the goal, he would have needed to start preparing the new soil in April.

“There are still no guarantees there will be the financial resources needed for this,” he says. “I don’t know if this is going to happen.”

The organizing committee insists it has the budget to properly plant the seeds. The TCU keeps a watchful eye to make sure promises are kept and money is spent wisely. But that is the problem in Brazil: How do you invest in sport when everything else is falling apart? How do you pay to plant a forest when you can’t pay the police? Where did the budgeted money go?

The promises made have become impossible to fulfill, and yet the spin continues. Everything will happen as planned, they say. The venues will be used. The schools will be built. The seeds will be planted.

Brazilians, however, have learned to know better.

“At another time or in another country, the Games might have been different, but not here and not now,” says University of São Paulo professor and longtime Olympic analyst Katia Rubio. “We climbed that initial roller-coaster ramp and took that big dive, but, in the end, there was nothing else. It was a big boost that ultimately led to nothing.”

Wayne Drehs Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print Media.

Mariana Lajolo Lajolo is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. She previously was a columnist for Folha de S. Paulo.