Opening Shot: Beach volleyball and other outdoor activities and sports are key to the “Carioca” lifestyle in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Scott Hamilton
By Camila David
Tropical weather. Breathtaking beaches. Lush green nature. These and many other features earn Rio de Janeiro the nickname “A Cidade Maravilhosa” (The Marvelous City). Many will recognize Rio as host of the 2016 Olympic Games, the 2014 World Cup, and the home to world-renowned Maracanã stadium. Rio and its residents, “Cariocas,” prioritize sports as a key component of their lifestyle, making it one of the most athletic cities in the world. The U.S. Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro has tapped into this valuable connection by using sports diplomacy as a vehicle to engage with key audiences and advance strategic goals in the region. Not even a global pandemic could hinder these efforts.
Before the arrival of COVID-19 in Brazil, Rio hosted 10-season Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) veteran Ebony Hoffman as part of the Department of State-funded International Sports Programing Initiative, March 2020. The Women-Win organization managed the visit in honor of Women’s History Month. Hoffman joined 12 other U.S. coaches participating in the “Advancing the Playingfield: Empowering Women through Sports” program, which focused on developing participants’ playing and coaching skills. In collaboration with local NGOs, Hoffman led a basketball clinic with 60 youths from three underprivileged communities in Rio. Her career trajectory served as an inspiration for young people in the community, proving that success in sports does not see gender, color, race, or social background, but determination and commitment.
As the pandemic worsened in Brazil, ConGen Rio de Janeiro transitioned to digital platforms for audience engagement. These platforms included electronic gaming, specifically through the game “Madden NFL,” to promote U.S. culture and values through a classic American pastime. American football is becoming increasingly popular in Brazil, which has captured the attention of the National Football League (NFL). The U.S. Mission to Brazil also noticed the potential for football to serve as a platform for sharing information about U.S. programs. Rio de Janeiro assumed the lead and developed a game plan, creating a mission-wide American football working group. This group empowered local mailroom, consular, and facilities staff to build fan bases, engage the NFL and other leagues in civil society activities, and boost broadcasting and publicity opportunities. The Mission partnered with the Brazilian Football League to launch the first-ever “U.S. Embassy Bowl Madden tournament,” which premiered on YouTube and safely capitalized on enthusiasm for football during the height of the pandemic. The working group tapped well-known Brazilian NFL player Durval “Duzão” Quieroz of the Miami Dolphins as an important cultural link, connecting American football with a Brazilian fanbase. In a prime-time media engagement, the working group facilitated a live on-air interaction between Ambassador Todd C. Chapman and Duzão on ESPN Brasil, ushering in an iconic American sport for a Brazilian audience.
The pandemic brought new opportunities into focus, and Rio capitalized on other online methods of audience engagement. The consulate partnered with professional Brazilian ballerina Ingrid Silva to celebrate the 2021 International Day of Dance, April 29. A native of Rio de Janeiro, Silva is the principal dancer at the Dance Theater of Harlem in New York City and has inspired other black dancers. Silva founded the NGO Blacks in Ballet in conjunction with fellow Rio-natives Ruan Galdino, senior soloist at Joburg Ballet in South Africa, and Fábio Mariano, a teacher at the Collage Dance Collective in Memphis. The public affairs section in Rio and Blacks in Ballet orchestrated two online masterclasses for 40 young dancers from various disadvantaged communities across Brazil featuring the participation of American Broadway dancer Dione Figgins.
“This project opened my horizons and took me to where I am today,” said Silva. “Opportunity is the first step. That’s what we are giving these young people today.”
Public Affairs Officer Paco Perez affirmed that this project helped to advance diplomatic efforts, especially under difficult and unusual circumstances.
“In such a challenging setting imposed by the pandemic,” said Perez, “the masterclasses for ballet students across Brazil showcased our success in bridging Edward R. Murrow’s ‘last three feet’, which has increased to 6 feet of social distance during the pandemic.”
While football and dance projects have had success, there is no sport more popular in Brazil than soccer. Consul General Scott Hamilton received a warm welcome to Rio after juggling a soccer ball at the iconic Maracanã stadium. Through a partnership with the One World Play Project, the public affairs section presented dozens of ultra-durable One World balls stamped with the American Flag to local children. The One World ball costs $25 and lasts for approximately 30 years, allowing a soccer ball to pass through generations. It has been suggested that if you give one to a child, his/her children will play with the ball, and his/her grandchildren will likely play with it as well. These soccer balls leave a lasting impression, as demonstrated by Dainer Hernandez, a 6-year old Venezuelan refugee who proudly held his new One World ball during a visit by staff members of the consulate, June 2021. The One World balls were also a hit during the celebration of 2021 Pride Month when Rio raised the Pride flag at the consulate alongside BeesCats Soccer Boys members, the first gay soccer team from Rio.
While soccer may be king, Brazilian Italo Ferreira put Brazilian surfing on the map with the first-ever gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In fact, Brazilian youth from impoverished backgrounds were the main contributors to Brazil’s most successful performance at any Olympic competition thus far. With seven golds and 21 total medals, Brazil broke its record for overall medal count. Perez capitalized on the enthusiasm for the sport by riding a 16-foot wave in August, which was shared on post’s social media and widely viewed by their followers.
One reason sports are so popular among Cariocas is because of the extreme inequality between social classes. Against this socioeconomic backdrop, sports pave the way for young athletes from Rio to survive daily struggles and provide a ticket out of poverty. When athletic talent and the knowledge of the English language are combined, a wider set of opportunities abound, even creating paths to studying in the United States. Brazil was ranked ninth among countries that sent students to the United States between 2018–2019, representing a growth of 9.8 percent—the second highest increase among incoming international students. The consulate continues engagement through the binational center and its 20 branches, two EducationUSA offices, and innovative online English language learning resources. Rio hopes to facilitate even more opportunities for Brazilian students in the United States once travel returns to normal. For now, ConGen Rio de Janeiro, in partnership with Embassy Montevideo, is developing plans to host surf legend Kelly Slater in December to continue riding the wave of sports diplomacy.
Camila David is press and media specialist at the U.S. Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro.