RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — “Go to bed,” my grandmother implored. “It is late, and these Olympics are very far away.”
I was 6 years old, a boy in working-class Sao Paulo already obsessed with the Olympics, staying up to watch the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea. Grandmother Lazinha — we called her Zica — was right. It was indeed late for a kid. But what she also meant, I understand now, was that no one living in the Brazil of those days was expected to go very far. Nor was my homeland itself.
Now the games are here, and with that debut comes a renewed sense of possibility and hope — a feeling that perhaps Brazil has finally arrived. Yes, there is economic and political turmoil, Zika, crime and the many other blemishes outsiders see. But for us brasileiros, hosting the games itself is like winning gold. As one volunteer, an unemployed engineer, said to me after the opening ceremony: “We can do great things here, too.”
It wasn’t always that way.
As I watched my first Olympics on TV, Brazil suffered even more than it does now. There was hyperinflation, with everyday items costing up to 600 percent of their worth. After decades of military dictatorship, we had returned to civilian leadership but under an unpopular president we blamed for the economic crisis.
A renowned economist referred to us as “Belindia,” a country where the rich lived like those in prosperous Belgium and the poor like the worst off in India. And yet … we have always been far more complex, and better, than that.
Flash forward to 1992. I’m 10. The Olympics were in Barcelona that year and still a personal obsession as I began to dream of a career as a journalist like my uncle. At home in Brazil, my mother was a maid. And a manicurist. And a door-to-door saleswoman. The state school I attended in the South Zone of Sao Paulo was not that bad, but others in the same region were more a territory for gangs than places for learning. Brazil was still stumbling.
That year, our Congress impeached President Fernando Collor over a money-for-influence scheme. Protesters then, like now, took to the streets to demand an end to government corruption. Those Olympics in Spain were truly a world away for us. With inflation still high, my mother would run to the supermarket each payday to stock up on supplies for the month, not knowing if the cost of milk might skyrocket the very next day.
In those next few years, change did come. Brazil adopted a new currency and an economic plan that brought some stabilization and growth.
By the time the Atlanta Games opened in 1996, my family had saved so much that we started a little restaurant near Rio de Janeiro. College, and my dreams of reporting, seemed closer. When Sydney played Olympic host in 2000, I was teaching English and taking a college preparatory course. Two years later, I managed to enter a good private university. Then came Athens in 2004, and the chance at a sports internship that included a special assignment: Helping to cover the Olympics from afar.
From 2004 to 2008, Brazil improved so much that we started feeling overconfident. Social programs and a minimum wage policy dragged tens of millions out of poverty. We felt as if we were about to become a global player. Amid a commodities boom, we spent big on flat-screen TVs, cars and expensive vacations. Lost your job? You could get another quickly.
That’s what led me to wave goodbye to steady work and pay my own way to Beijing for the Summer Games of 2008. I wasn’t even accredited to cover sports, so instead I wrote about protests and Brazilian spectators as a freelancer. All I wanted was to tick that box and tell my grandmother that the Olympics were indeed far, but I could now go there. And so I did.
It only really sank in that I was at the Olympics the night Usain Bolt won gold in the 100 meters, setting a world record. I was in an area of Beijing called Sanlitun, and I celebrated with fans from all nations. In a way, that seemed to be what the Olympics are all about: an excuse to bring different people together.
When I returned home, the global economic crisis began and Brazil, like everyone else, was hit — although not nearly as hard as others. When the world sneezed, Brazil usually caught pneumonia. Now the world had pneumonia, and Brazil only a cold.
Another remarkable thing happened that year: Rio de Janeiro was picked as a finalist to host the 2016 Olympics, alongside Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid. In modern times, Brazil had bid — and lost out — on the games three other times, for 2000, 2004 and 2012. We Brazilians never thought we really had a shot, especially against President Barack Obama’s city of Chicago.
So on Oct. 2, 2009, when then-IOC President Jacques Rogge opened the envelope and the card inside read “Rio de Janeiro,” back in my newsroom in Sao Paulo I yelled: “YEAH!”
Because I walked the same rocky but successful path of so many Brazilians of my generation, I never felt that the International Olympic Committee was making a concession when it awarded the games to Rio. We did not get this honor because the IOC took pity on us. It was a deserved victory for a country that was more promising then than it is now. As a nation, Brazil should have the opportunity to show our rise, resilience and, yes, the shortcomings that remain.
Friday night, when the fireworks went off and the games of the 31st Olympiad were declared open, I saw it all from the press box — where I helped write the story of the first Olympic opening ceremony in my beloved Brazil. I felt proud, but tense. I wanted us to put on a good show. We didn’t hide our flaws even as we exhibited what we do best through our love of music and dance, and in the message about our environment.
Brazil celebrated the Olympics as it needs to be celebrated.
My grandmother did not live to see the games come to our native soil, but I am sure that if she were here, she’d smile knowing that the Olympics are no longer so very far, and that Brazilians like me helped make faraway so close.
Mauricio Savarese is an Associated Press reporter who writes about politics, crime and, yes, sports. He is a native of Sao Paulo, based now in Rio de Janeiro. He has covered, in person, three Olympics: Beijing, London and, now, Rio.