The (Big) Olympic City

Here is another Olympic update from Rio by Daryle Williams, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland and co-editor of The Rio de Janeiro Reader: History, Culture, Politics.  Follow him on Twitter @DaryleWilliams and with the hashtag #RioReader.


Brazilians (and Brazilianists) possess a deep fondness for top rankings. Brazil is the world’s fifth largest in territory. The Amazon is the world’s biggest river. The national soccer team has the most World Cup victories. The highly distressed national GDP still ranks above all but eight other countries. The City of Rio de Janeiro appropriately follows suit. Carioca Carnaval has branded itself A Maior Show da Terra [The Greatest Show on Earth]. The city was recently ranked third in the world for traffic congestion. By some measures, Rocinha is the largest favela in Latin America. The XXXI Olympiad has brought to Rio the largest contingent of female competitors in Olympic history.

At 486 square miles and approximately 6.5 million inhabitants, Rio is not the Brazilian federation’s largest in territory, population, or economic output. Nonetheless, The Marvelous City is Big. The Olympic City is Really Big.

Since arriving last Thursday, it’s been hard for me to wrap my mind around the size and scope of Olympic Rio. I was comfortable enough with the map of venues dedicated to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, archery, sailing, beach volleyball, and rowing  — an arc from the close-in neighborhoods of the Zona Norte and Zona Sul that basically map the Rio that I know as a historian and sometimes resident. From futebol at Maracanã to a samba school desfile in the Sambódromo, from the Brazilian National Archive off Av. Presidente Vargas to the Brazilian Historical and Geographic Institute in Glória, and between my former apartments in Laranjeiras and Copacabana, I can easily envision the principal locales and locals of the central Olympic zones. On the other hand, my grasp of the Olympic Park in far-away Barra da Tijuca is tenuous, having been to the region just a handful of times over the past quarter-century. My knowledge of Engenho de Dentro — home of track and field competitions at the Olympic Stadium (Engenhão) — is purely theoretical. Deodoro — site of dressage, pentathlon, and various extreme sports — is absolute terra incognita for me.


Since the start of competition, I have attended men’s gymnastics at the Rio Arena in Barra and watched Teams China and Japan roundly beat Italy and Cameroon, respectively, in women’s volleyball at Maracanãzinho. (The crowd was decidedly in support of the losing teams.) Although I was disappointed to witness a sudden wind storm scratch Sunday’s rowing competitions on the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, the setting was a pure picture postcard of a Rio known the world over. Engenho de Dentro is on the agenda for Friday morning, and I just purchased tickets to Thursday’s canoeing and kayaking in Deodoro. By week’s end, I will have stitched together a more expansive geography of Olympic Rio.

Thus far, we have traveled around on a familiar mix of bus, metro, taxi, and private car (hello Uber!). There’s been a sense of comfort with the streets and tunnels of my movement. I have tried to map Rio Antigo onto modern Rio. The recent wholesale reorganization of municipal bus lines has not squelched an obsessive urge to recall former routes and itineraries. A ride along the Aterro do Flamengo’s stunning combination of speed and beauty is still a thrilling journey through two centuries of urban evolution along Guanabara Bay.

rio light rail

Rio’s new light rail line, which began operating in June

But there’s been something new and disruptive to these travels through an Olympic City that appears ever bigger and larger. The 90-minute trip to Barra involved a new metro line between Ipanema and Jardim Ocêanico, followed by a rapid bus to the Olympic Park. “Where are we?,” I wondered aloud. “Where do we go now?” A evening stroll along the Boulevard Olímpico, in the renovated port region, revealed a once-prohibited streetscape liberated from a soul-destroying elevated freeway. The long-forgotten enchantment of Av. Rio Branco returned with a ride on the new light rail line. For me and my fellow passengers, including Cariocas who quizzically asked where to get off or how to use a transit pass, these travels afforded the opportunity to re-discover a familiar city in unfamiliar ways. (Whereas the revelation of the bay shore has been especially striking for a historian working on the nineteenth-century slave trade, the specialist of Belle Époque Rio will be struck by the restored rights to walk downtown streets without fear of being flattened by a truck.)

In combination with new signage and crowd control barriers, a legion of uniformed Olympic volunteers, ticket booth vendors, transit police, and Força Nacional soldiers impose a certain order and discipline to these itineraries of discovery. Nonetheless the trips from my hosts’ apartment in Laranjeiras to the competition venues to meals at Largo do Machado, Vila Isabel, and Botafogo have enabled an unscripted opportunity to grasp a cityscape upended by massive urban reforms and new means of urban mobility. With new eyes, we see a city that was already there, and one in the making. These travels show a metropolis 450 years in the making whose sites of historicity, cosmopolitanness, and Carioca-ness cannot solely be reduced to comparisons with my provincial circuit along MetrôRio’s Linha 1, from Tijuca to Ipanema. Olympic Rio is a city much bigger and more varied than any of us can grasp all at once.


A protest sticker found by the author

Yet the rights and delights of this Olympic flâneur have already unmasked the unfulfilled promise of a unifying Games of Inclusion. The impressive vastness of the Olympic Park in Barra makes known a larger truth of a city of physical separations and environmental injustices. Across long elevated walkways, tall iron fencing, wide streets turned over to automobiles, and sewage-choked canals, the Park and nearby Olympic Village isolate the Olympic City from the rest of the Zona Oeste. They exclude city residents without the proper means to get there in the first place. The destruction of the Vila Autodrómo, immediately adjacent to the Park, figures into the larger narrative of removals that have opened up spaces for competition venues, transportation corridors, public arts, high-end residential towers, and places of consumerist sociability.

Exclusionary urban renewal is hardly new to Rio. A more inclusive Olympiad would have still left behind a human landscape of social difference, layered upon the landscape of earlier reforms. I wonder if it’s even fair to measure inclusion at the Olympic Park and its highly specialized rules written by sporting federations, security officials, global media conglomerates, and corporate licensing. Perhaps the measure of the Games’ in/ex-clusivity is the way that Cariocas and Rio scholars will be drawing their own cartographies of the Big City once the Games conclude. For the present, we continue our itineraries of discovery in the Olympic City, both scripted and unplanned.

Learn more about The Marvelous City by reading The Rio de Janeiro Reader . Buy a copy now and save 30% with coupon code E15RIO or purchase an e-book from one of our partners.

Gisela Fosado’s Top Ten Books about Brazil


It’s less then 2 months until the Olympic games in Rio, and with the end of our sale approaching there’s no better time than now to read about Brazil. Editor Gisela Fosado wants to help you understand Brazil better. Check out her recommendations and enter coupon code STOCKUP at checkout, now through June 20.

color of
Barbara Weinstein, The Color of Modernity: São Paulo and the Making of Race and Nation in Brazil

The Color of Modernity is a pathbreaking work. Barbara Weinstein’s exhaustive research and nuanced analysis of twentieth-century Brazilian political and social history will substantially reshape the field. The Color of Modernity will be required reading for all students of modern Brazil.” — Bryan McCann, author of Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro


bruno.jpgRobert Gay, Bruno: Conversations with a Brazilian Drug Dealer

“In telling the story of Bruno, sociologist Robert Gay succeeds in demystifying not only gangs and the drug trade but also an entire country. This is a carefully crafted study of a criminal career embedded in a society that for generations has denied citizenship to large numbers of its population…. This is an important book that skilfully utilises ethnographic interviews to tell the story of one man in the trenches of the global war against drugs.” — Dick Hobbs, Times Higher Education


Daryle Williams, Amy Chazkel, and Paulo Knauss, editors, The Rio de Janeiro Reader: History, Culture, Politics

“Prepared by three leading Rio de Janeiro scholars, The Rio de Janeiro Reader offers a sweeping and in-depth exploration of the city. Lively and interesting, it provides a gateway into understanding the social, economic, political, and cultural diversity of the city over the last 500 years.” — James N. Green, author of We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States


samba.jpgMarc A. Hertzman, Making Samba: A New History of Race and Music in Brazil

“A sublime example of social history at its best. . . . Of special interest for samba enthusiasts is the magnificent, if lamentably brief, photo gallery of musicians. The book is ideal for the scholars of the music industry, Brazilian music, and the creation of popular music. With commendable English-language translations of idiosyncratic phrases, Making Samba is entirely accessible to those who are new to the Brazilian context.” — Michael Iyanaga, Ethnomusicology Review

John F. Collins, Revolt of the Saints: Memory and Redemption in the Twilight of Brazilian Racial Democracy

“Honest, engaged, and theoretically informed, Revolt of the Saints will take its place among the very best ethnographies of recent years. It represents original thinking of the first order and committed engagé scholarship. John F. Collins manages not only to produce a remarkable account of the multiple and changing ways that race and history matter in Bahia, but he also gives us all a lesson in the production of history and of historical memory. It’s a book that readers won’t soon forget.” — Richard Price, author of Travels with Tooy and Rainforest Warriors

hard timesBryan McCann, Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro

“McCann’s analysis is insightful, and his research brings exciting new perspectives to contemporary Rio de Janeiro’s urban history and, more generally, the history of Brazil, Latin America, the Global South, and urbanity.” — Peter Beattie, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

negotiating.jpgJeffrey Lesser, Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil

“[V]ery well written . . . . The clarity of the writing, combined with plentiful and well-chosen examples, guide the reader through the very complicated experiences of native Brazilians and immigrants. An impressive array of sources and careful documentation supports the credibility of Lesser’s arguments. Historians of Brazil, of immigration, and of ethnicity who ignore this book will be making a serious mistake.” — Gail D. Triner, Luso-Brazilian Review

we cannotJames Green, We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States

We Cannot Remain Silent is a valuable addition to the historiography of Brazil and Brazilian-U.S. relations. The presentation allows readers from various disciplines as well as the general reader access. Green is successful in exploring the role of nongovernmental actors in the U.S. fighting against human rights abuses in Brazil, thus providing a new narrative in U.S.-Brazilian relations.” — Monica I. Orozco, The Historian

in search.jpgSeth Garfield, In Search of the Amazon: Brazil, the United States, and the Nature of a Region

“Garfield is to be commended for shedding so much light on the cultural and eonomic history of the Amazon in the twentieth century. This book is a must have for all those interested in development policy in the Amazon.” — Nigel Smith, Journal of Historical Geography

the brazil readerRobert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti, editors, The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics

The Brazil Reader captures the history and culture of the South American country in small but powerful doses. . . [A] splendid work. . . . The scholar will find it a source of reference, while the general reader will gain a general knowledge of Brazil’s past as well as acquire an understanding of the country’s problems and prospects.” — Melvin D. Davis, South Eastern Latin Americanist

Head to our website now to buy any or all of these books for 50% off. Enter STOCKUP at checkout and save!

Fernando, the Peruvian Neymar by Orin Starn

978-0-8223-5210-5_prOur final World Cup guest post is by Orin Starn, author of The Passion of Tiger Woods and co-editor of The Peru Reader, as well as series editor for The Latin America Readers and The World Readers. He is Professor and Chair of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University.

I’ve  watched the World Cup from a shantytown in desert Peru.  

I’m here doing intensive ethnographic research—well, actually just hanging out—with my two-year old, Lucien. We’re living with a family I’ve known for almost thirty years. Back when I arrived in their village as a young anthropologist, the Córdovas lived in a mud farmhouse up in the Andes. They later followed the great Peruvian migrant trail, a million Joads, down to the big coastal cites. Their hot sandy slum is just a circle removed from hell, at least by regulation American standards. It’s a place of burning garbage piles and swirling dust storms where turkey buzzards, rats and scabrous dogs everywhere patrol for scraps. Life is still much better for the Córdovas. Now they live in a tin-rooved shanty with real matresses, a gas stove, running water, electricity, and internet pirated from a relative next door. There’s also a television that grabs the World Cup with only some good old-fashioned squiggly static.  I’ve found caring for a two-year old here to be sport in itself without the changing table, diaper wipes, and the Babies-R-Us rest, and an extreme one at that. But Lucien is a celebrity with his little blonde curls in a universe of black straight hair. And he gets passed around between houses and relatives in this world where people do not shut themselves off from each other as we so often do in the United States. 

Few here care all that much about the World Cup, contrary to the stereotype of a soccer-crazed subcontinent. Peru hasn’t made it to the World Cups for two decades. You see high shantytown skills in the fulbito, or mini-football,  played in the concrete schoolyard and sandy streets.  But poverty, league corruption, and bad facilities have kept the country from developing any real top-flight players since Teofilo Cubillas, the graceful Afro-Peruvian star who scored eight World Cup goals. Nor is Peru really much of a sports culture. Its genius lies in music, the arts, history, and, now food, with three Peruvian chefs ranked among the world’s top twenty. And then there’s also the gift and curse of Peru’s spectacular outsized geography of tropical jungles, Saharan deserts, and Himalayan peaks.

That doesn’t mean that soccer doesn’t matter. Consider the Neymar haircut of Fernando, a Córdova nephew:




Fernando wanted to dye the floppy top blonde for the full Neymar effect.  “But my parents wouldn’t let me.”   He’s still only ten. He’d had the straight line cut of Daddy Yankee, the reggaeton superstar, the year before:

Daddy Yankee

Now, Fernando says, four or five other boys in his fifth grade class have also gone Neymar. A  little Peruvian boy with the doo of a Nuyorican music idol and now the fallen Brazilian soccer superstar?  Hair has gone global like everything else.  

I ask Fernando why he likes Neymar. “I saw him in some games. He’s fatal, great – he always makes his team win.”   It’s television and the Internet, of course, that led Fernando to Neymar, the great enablers of global celebrity and sports circuits. “I found his pictures on Google. My Dad showed the barber on his phone.”

Hair, as the old school anthropologists liked to remind us, can stand for many things. Status: the Manchu queue and Sun King’s curly wigs. Rebellion: Cromwell’s roundheads, the Rasta’s dreadlocks, and the punk’s mohawk. Religion: the monk’s tonsure and Sikh’s uncut turbanned hair. And even, by its absence, the darkest human suffering,  as in the chemotherapy patient’s baldness or the concentration camp prisoner’s shaved head. Hair may be the most flexible and polysemous sign in the cabinet of body politics.

But for Fernando, hair is as much as anything about idol worship, the little boy’s eternal copycat desire to be like the mythical Olympians.  He was rooting for Brazil, but mostly for Neymar, though he didn’t seem too distraught about his hero’s injury. The day after, he came to show me this meme on his cousin’s laptop.  It had gone viral in Latin America:

Gone viral

The rhyme that makes the meme funny, at least to non-Brazilian fans, only works in Spanish—between ardilla, squirrel, and rodilla, knee. 

Zuñiga asks, “Neymar, did you see the squirrel?” 

“What squirrel?,” Neymar replies.

“The squirrel,” Zuñiga says, “that’s kicking you in the back.”

Fernando didn’t seem too stricken by Brazil’s black day against Germany. He got bored halfway, going out to ride his skateboard on a cracked chunk of sidewalk.

There’s little pan-Latin American solidarity in football fandom. National allegiances trump continental ones; the global south remains a term more for postcolonial academics than a felt sentiment here.  Brazilians have something the reputation of the old ugly Americans here, the arrogant tourists.  Argentina seems very far away, and it has treated its Peruvian immigrants poorly—maids and construction workers. There was a sprinkling of Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and even Dutch supporters among the Córdova clan, though no one was going to lose any sleep over the results:

  Brazilians watching

One cousin, Cristina, did say she felt sorry for the Brazilians, a touch of human kindness.

Fernando’s sister, Made, 11, is a Messi fan, rooting for Argentina.  She was the secret weapon for her the sixth grade team at the Nuestra Señora de Lourdes school. Her coach would bring her in to play right wing when the team had to have a goal.  The other coaches complained that having a girl violated school rules, however, and Made didn’t like some of the boys shouting insults at her either. In Peru’s brand of soccer sexism, boys play soccer, and girls, if they play sports at all, play volleyball (and, it should be noted, the Peruvian women’s volleyball team took home the silver medal in the 1988 Olympics in a great underdog story of modern sports).  Made doesn’t play anymore, though with her gold-studded flatbill hat and cool funky look she’s not heading for Barbieland either.

  Fernando and cousin

I ask Fernando how long he’ll keep his Neymar cut. He’s not sure. Until, smiles his father Yonny, something new comes along from the  “fábrica de los suenos—the dream factory,” the shining online world of myth and fantasy by the gigabyte.

It seems to me enough worth recording the moment to snap one last picture of Fernando outside the house.

He holds his ball in his own little World Cup fold in time.

Fernando and ball