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Brazil has a word for believing that a wildly ambitious project like the Olympics would be a good idea

People celebrate after Rio de Janeiro won the nomination to host the 2016 Olympic Games at the Copacabana beach, in Rio de Janeiro
AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo
Yay! We won! We… er… we won?
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Contrary to Brazilians’ worst fears, hosting the Olympics didn’t turned their country into an international laughingstock. But it left Rio residents, who’ve endured weeks of low-flying security helicopters waking them at 7 am, with a question: Why did we bother?

There’s a simple answer: ufanismo, Brazilians’ word for a euphoric, chest-thumping nationalism. When the International Olympic Committee selected Rio over Madrid, Chicago and Tokyo in 2009, 50,000 locals turned out for a party on the beach. Then-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva talked about what it meant for the national psyche: “We aren’t second-class any more, we are first-class.”

Luiz Carlos Ribeiro, a Brazilian historian, says ufanismo and mega-projects have gone together hand in hand, in an effort to forge a sense of unity in a country vaster than the contiguous US and starkly divided along race and class lines. “Our political elites feel they must do something grandiose, wrapped in nationalist rhetoric, to legitimize themselves,” Ribeiro says.

Starting in the late 1950s, Brazil poured massive resources into building its modernist capital, Brasilia, on barren scrubland in the center of the country. It took just 41 months. “You Americans would do this differently,” an engineer told a New York Times reporter. “First, you would get plans drawn, then have engineers survey the site. Only then you would start building the capital and it would take you four years to get under way. But with us it’s improvisation.”

Proponents dubbed Brasilia “The Capital of Hope,” but the extravagant cost of building it—estimated at 2.5% of Brazil’s output over six years—helped fuel high inflation that would long dog Brazil. The economic turmoil triggered political discontent, culminating in the 1964 military coup.

Unchastened, the military government in the late 1960s spent untold amounts subsidizing the establishment of a huge electronics manufacturing center in, of all places, Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon rain forest. Electronics and motorbikes are still made there, despite a dubious economic rationale and the occasional poisonous snake on the production line.

In the 1970s, Brazil built the 4,000-kilometer (2,500 mile) Trans-Amazonian Highway to connect isolated jungle towns with the rest of the country. That set the stage for massive deforestation. For several decades, Brazil also aggressively invested in a space program. It was set back after a rocket blew up on a launch pad in 2003, killing 21.

Under Lula, ufanismo really flourished as Brazil discovered massive offshore oil deposits and became a favorite on Wall Street. Lula brought the 2007 Pan American Games and the 2014 World Cup to Brazil. Brazil spent $300 million to build a 44,000-seat stadium in Manaus for the World Cup, but last year only seven games were played there with an average of fewer than 4,000 spectators.

“There’s this instinct of megalomania in doing these enormous events,” says Lawrence Pih, a Brazilian industrialist. “But we are still a developing country and have so much homework to do to get up to a level that is even adequate. Our ambition is way beyond our capital.”

Aided by a commodity boom, Lula’s government did bring millions out poverty and into the middle class. But those gains are now jeopardized by the massive corruption scandal roiling the government and by the worst economic downturn seen in Brazil since the Great Depression.

The contrasts between the Olympic pomp and the harshness of many Brazilians’ lives were jarringly on display in Rio. Just 50 meters from the Olympic Village, a handful of families lived in huts and scratched out a living raising chickens. An estimated 30% of the 50,000 people—mostly Brazilians—who had trained as volunteer guides for the Games didn’t show up for work.  Many bowed out because their personal finances were too strained.

“Sometimes I wish we were like Norway, a small country quietly doing what they do and doing it happily,” says Jose Antonio Cheibub, a Brazilian political scientist at Texas A&M University. “But because Brazil is so big in numbers and territory, there’s a sense we have to do things on a grand scale.”

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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