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In Paralympics, Brazilians find a particularly timely message

spirit of humanity

Brazilians have found inspiration in the athletes' prowess as well as Brazil's strong performance. The Paralympics have also provided a respite from a steady diet of bad news.

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Daniel Dias of Brazil reacts to his finish in the Men's 50m Freestyle at the Rio Paralympics on Sept. 12, 2016

Sergio Moraes/Reuters

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In a video released in the leadup to the Rio 2016 Paralympics, a swimmer born with one leg shorter than the other tells viewers that if people are going to pity her, she hopes it’s for all the early mornings and hard work she’s put into her sport – not her disability.

It’s one of the many ads posted and shared before the Paralympics, which kicked off Sept. 7 and run until Sept. 18, in an effort to fill venues and get viewers excited for more athletic feats and inspiration following the Olympic Games.

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And while Brazilians have flooded Paralympics stadiums the past week and a half – exceeding expectations and purchasing the second-largest number of tickets in Paralympics history after ticket sales hovered at just 12 percent all year – they’re not just soaking up the prowess of athletes with disabilities overcoming stereotypes or in some cases even beating Gold-medal times registered by this year’s Olympians. The games have also served as a welcome escape for Brazilians from political scandals, corruption, a struggling economy – and perhaps the nation’s own sense of being pitied by a global community that not long ago labeled it a rising star.

For some, the Paralympics are evidence that Brazil can pull through this challenging time.

“What these athletes are able to do shows us that we can not give up on our country. We fight. We believe things in Brazil will improve,” says Alessandra Alves, a shopkeeper at the Rio Olympic Park, earlier this week. 

Budget shortages, impeachments

For the past few years, Brazil has been bombarded with bad news. The headlines range from budget shortages shuttering schools and public salaries going unpaid to the Zika epidemic and an enormous corruption scandal that’s implicated hundreds of top businessmen and politicians – the most recent being beloved former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, labeled by prosecutors this week as the kingpin of the multi-billion dollar kickback scheme. Brazil removed a president from office via impeachment for the first time in its history in the short weeks between the Olympic Games and the Paralympics.

“The best way to describe the mood in Brazil today is nausea,” says Marcos Troyjo, a former Brazilian diplomat and co-director of Columbia University's BRICLab.  It may be a sinking feeling, particularly compared to the highs of 2010, but he notes that there’s “something positive” to it, too.

“It means your system is working toward expelling something that’s not right. It’s the notion that something’s very wrong, but you’re managing” to move ahead, Mr. Troyjo says.

The Paralympics themselves essentially launched amid scandal: As the Olympic Games were wrapping up, news broke that the Paralympics were hanging on by a thread due to budget shortfalls. They were barely saved by a stopgap bailout from the federal government. And others have questioned the Paralympics effort in Rio, asking whether there will be any kind of lasting legacy for the city’s disabled residents.

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But even with a slashed budget, reduced staff, and less seating, Cariocas, as Rio locals are known, have gotten into the Paralympic spirit from seeing their countrymen’s amazing feats – like swimmer Daniel Dias, born without feet or hands, who won his 20th Paralympic medal on Monday.

Ms. Alves, the shopkeeper, and her two cousins attended the Paralympics for the second time Tuesday night. They first attended on Sunday, when 170,000 fans made it the largest Rio Olympic Park turnout so far for both the Olympics and Paralympics.

The three women showed their support by wearing handmade matching shirts that read “Paralympics Rio 2016” with an outline of Brazil, filled in with the flag.

Cri Sá, one of Alves’s cousins, says watching the Paralympians amid the country’s turmoil has been an inspiration. “The Brazilian people are trying to overcome this” difficult time in the country’s history, she says. “Like the Paralympic athletes, breaking the barriers.” 

“Brazilians want to forget a little, you know?” says Claudia Vieira, who is one of the roughly 11 percent of Brazilians who are unemployed. “The Paralympics have provided some relief from our situation – they’ve taken away the stress a little from the financial crisis, the president’s impeachment,” she says on her way out of the Olympic Park Tuesday night.

The price was right

The Rio 2016 Committee launched an aggressive, last-chance Facebook campaign for Paralympic tickets the day after the Olympic Games ended, hoping to ride the wave of post-Olympics excitement and also highlight Brazil’s history of success at the Paralympics. The effort boasted Brazil’s triumphant moments in past Paralympics and enticed locals with underdog stories that pulled heartstrings.

But there was one other key factor: the price. After the tear-jerking ads, the screen flashes, “tickets starting at R$10” (about $3). 

That price tag has made the Paralympics much more accessible for average workers in Brazil, where the minimum wage is about $270 per month.

Contrary to the Olympics, which were widely criticized for being exclusionary and catering to corporate interests and wealthy, foreign audiences, the Paralympics aimed to be more inclusive.

“Sport is always a distraction from reality, but the Paralympics are a much more inclusive event than the Olympics, and as Brazilians are really keen to cheer on the underdog it makes for [an] especially engaging sporting environment,” says Christopher Gaffney, a senior research fellow at the University of Zürich who spent six years in Brazil studying the impacts of mega events on cities.

“The message [in the Facebook ads] was that the Paralympic Games are accessible and affordable for everyone. We wanted to attract people from all different parts of society,” says Philip Wilkinson, a spokesman for the Rio 2016 Committee.

Paralympics swimming attendee Jovino Ferreira de Oliveira agrees. “The Olympics were for foreigners, the Paralympics are for Rio locals.” Part of that local pride comes from the fact that while there were several victories for Brazil during the Olympics, Brazilians have been on the podium every day during the Paralympics.

“During the Olympics they encouraged us leave – to go on vacation, stay at home. But for the Paralympics they really encouraged us to participate, with the campaign messages saying, ‘let’s all come together and fill all the seats,’” says Mr. Ferreira de Oliveira.

“Rio was in need of this pick-me-up,” his son, Matheus dos Santos Ferreira de Oliveira, says of the Paralympics.

But with the games wrapping up on Sunday, tough times certainly await Brazil. “Once the Paralympics are behind us, the importance of politics will take center stage [again] and the general mood will decrease,” predicts Troyjo. “It’s all going to be about the economy. We are facing a bitter, long period of recession.”

But some, like Mr. dos Santos Ferreira de Oliveira, are hopeful that the Olympic and Paralympic spirit will buoy Brazilians a little longer.

“The people were so discouraged with the political situation, the state being in a financial crisis,” he says. The Paralympics have “helped the citizens' self-esteem.”


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