RIO DE JANEIRO: Football superstar Neymar will lead Brazil’s charge for gold medals at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics as the country seeks to forget its political and economic blues.
The country of 200 million people faces a nervous 100-day countdown to the start of the Games where it is counting on winning about 30 medals. That would put it in the top 10 sporting powers for the first Olympics to be held in South America.
The Olympic torch set off Thursday from Athens on a circuitous tour through Greece, eventually winding through scores of Brazilian cities before arriving at Rio’s Maracana Stadium for the August 5 opening ceremony.
Brazil won a record 17 medals at the 2012 London Olympics. The same year, the government launched Operation Brazil Medals, putting about one billion reals ($280 million/250 million euros) into training facilities for potential Olympic winners.
“In the past three years, Brazil has taken first place in 15 world events, which is part of our plan,” Marcus Vinicius Freire, executive director of sport for the Brazilian Olympic Committee, told Agence France-Presse.
Brazil, the most successful football nation, has never won the men’s Olympic soccer gold. They lost to Mexico in the 2012 final.
But it has negotiated a deal with Barcelona so that Neymar will play in the Olympics but be rested for the Copa America Centennial in the United States in June.
The country has still not got over its disastrous 7-1 defeat by Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals in Rio. National coach Dunga will only be in charge of the Olympic side if the Copa campaign goes well.
Brazil’s women have also never won an Olympic or world title and led by the legendary Marta, now 30 and in probably her last bid for glory, hope this is their turn.
Brazil suffered a blow when Cesar Cielo, the country’s only Olympic swimming gold winner, failed to qualify for Rio.
The 29-year-old, who took the 50-meter freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Games, was beaten in his favorite contest by Italo Manzine Duarte and Bruno Fratus.
Fratus is considered a real contender for the Rio Games along with Felipe Franca in the 100m breaststroke.
Etiene Medeiros—Brazil’s best women’s swimmer of all time, who set a 50m backstroke world record at the 2014 world championships in Doha —should also be watched.
And the country does have sports where—barring more catastrophes —it knows it can count on success.
Robert Scheidt, who has two golds, two silvers and a bronze from laser class yachting at five Olympic Games, “will be our biggest chance of a medal,” according to Marco Aurelio, president of the Brazilian Yachting Federation.
Martin Grael and Kahena Kunze won the 2014 world championships in the 49er FX class and are also part of Brazil’s plan.
In beach volleyball, Larissa Franca, the most successful women’s player of all time, has come out of retirement to team up with Talita Antunes to bid for Rio gold.
Alison Ceruti, who won silver in London, is a hot contender in the men’s contest on the legendary Copacabana Beach with his new partner Bruno Schmidt.
But the Brazil Medals Plan has not been all smooth sailing. The 16 medals won in all sports at the world championships in 2015 is the same number as the year before the London Olympics.
Volleyball and judo, normally two Brazilian strengths, have been big disappointments.
Brazil’s men’s volleyball team lost the world league last year to France. The women face intense competition from the United States.
Brazil’s judokas won four medals in London. But the fighters have since been losing bouts. Brazil is looking mainly to its women—Mayra Aguiar, Sarah Menezes, Erica Miranda and Rafaela Silva—to lead a fightback in Rio.
Marcus Vinicus Freire—who took a silver medal at the 1984 volleyball contest in Los Angeles —tipped wrestling, archery, water polo and tennis, modern pentathlon and boxing as other areas where Brazil could forget its troubles.