Rio de Janeiro hosts the Olympic Games this summer and pays homage to the cult of the body
There’s a cylindrical concrete block on each end of the 35-kilo barbel, but Napoleão Gonçalves Filho lifts it as if it were made of styrofoam. He brings it to his chest, holds it there briefly, lowers it again, then repeats the exercise 20 times before taking a break. The muscle man is working out on Rio de Janeiro’s most beautiful spot. On the left, Praia do Diabo (Devil’s Beach), where a couple of surfers lie in wait for a wave. On the right, glittering through the palm trees, Ipanema Beach. Between them, Arpoador Rock rises from the ocean, a place of pilgrimage for tourists and locals who come to witness the spectacular sunset.
It’s early morning, but already there are dozens of joggers down on Ipanema Beach. There’s not a cloud in the sky, either, and the bodybuilders training with Filho sweat in the heat of the sun. Filho, a 48-year-old history teacher from Copacabana, prefers the beach to the gym. “I train here every morning,” the athlete says, “because the landscape is fantastic. I like hearing the waves and feeling the breeze – it makes strength training more fun.” Rio de Janeiro, home to seven million and a veritable sports amphitheater, is hosting the Olympic Games this summer from August 5 to 21.
With the first rays of sun, the wave-patterned walkways and cycle paths along Rio’s 91 kilometers of beach fill with joggers, inline skaters and cyclists of all ages. Fit young men do pull-ups and push-ups at the sparkling steel stations that line the boardwalk at regular intervals. Older ones train under the supervision of self-proclaimed fitness trainers, pulling on straps attached to palm trees and tripping through brightly colored plastic rings. The goal: a perfect body to display on the beach.
In Rio, daily life and social life are played out mostly on the city’s 23 beaches, where Cariocas, Rio’s inhabitants, come to escape things like poverty, crime and political corruption. The beach is a democratic space, it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white. It’s a sacred site for those who worship the cult of the body, a weight room and a catwalk, too. Every third Carioca exercises regularly, according to a Brazilian health department study, yet for most, attaining a bikini figure remains a dream. Brazilians eat too much, they love meat and fries and drinks lots of beer. According to statistics, 54 percent of men and 46 percent of women are overweight. The upper classes pay much more attention to their weight than the lower classes do. In certain social circles you exercise in order to stay young.
Rio is also home to many surfers, and they ride the waves between Arpoador and Prainha even in the rain and cold. “Surfing in the worst conditions is always better than an excellent day at work,” says Thiago Paschoa, a 35-year-old stage actor who came to Rio from São Paulo 15 years ago in search of surf. Today, he makes ends meet with acting jobs – and spends a lot of time on his board. Paschoa is looking forward to the Olympics. “Sure, many of the promised developments will not be completed in time. The concrete is already crumbling off some of the buildings and our awesome cycle path collapsed after only three months, but nevertheless, the city will be better and more beautiful afterwards,” he says. Not everyone shares his optimism. Despite their protests, slum dwellers were forcibly moved to make way for Olympic buildings. Critics fear that the investments will mostly benefit the rich and widen the social divide. “The Olympics will give the city a boost,” believes Marcelo Silva, Brazilian frescobol champion. Frescobol, or Brazilian paddle ball, is a sport in which you hit a rubber ball back and forth with a wooden paddle. It was invented in Copacabana shortly after World War II.
“It’s one of the few games in which the aim is not to force your opponent to miss the ball,” Silva explains, “but to keep the ball in the air as long as possible while hitting it hard.” Competitions consist of making as many contacts as possible in five minutes. The world record is 544 contacts, 272 for each player. Marcelo has been playing for 20 years. Today, the 34-year-old has a school on the beach, a strip of which is blocked by nets to the left and right so you don’t have to constantly run after the balls. Officially, frescobol may not be played by the water between 8 am and 5 pm so as not to disturb the sun worshippers, but on days when the beach is relatively empty, officials look the other way. Rio is proud of the game of frescobol. In 2015, the city elders proclaimed it part of the city’s cultural heritage, worth preserving along with samba and carnival parades.
On Sundays, the seafront between Leme and Leblon is partially closed off to cars, and the Avenida Atlântica in Copacabana turns into a fitness trail. Half the city seems to be represented here, either on foot, on bikes or on skateboards. Rio already has over 430 kilometers of cycle paths. Dozens of sports schools on the beach profit from the fitness craze and offer instruction in everything from stand-up paddle boarding to beach volleyball. Many of the schools are run by former athletes who have found a new way to make money after their professional careers ended.
These days, futevôlei is the most popular beach sport. A combination of soccer and volleyball, they play it all over the country, even in places that have no natural beach. Futevôlei is played over a volleyball net, usually in teams of two. Players may not touch the ball with their hands or arms, and you rack up points just like in volleyball, except that a regular sets run to 18 points. In the mid-1960s, when futevôlei was invented, it was played mostly by men. Now, women have increasingly joined the game. “Futevôlei is not just about technique and a feel for the ball,” says Aninha Manhaes. “It’s a really tough sport. If you’re not fit, you’ll be right out of breath after a couple of plays in the deep sand.” Manhaes is a star of the futevôlei scene: For the last five years, she and her partner Vânia Moraes have remained one of the three top teams in Brazil. Most recently, she won the South American Championship in Paraguay for her club America FC.
Manhaes trains three times a week and plays matches on Sundays on Ipanema Beach. “The technique is different from that of soccer,” she explains, saying that soccer stars like Ronaldinho have been known to take a try – and have embarrassed themselves immediately. The Brazilians are trying to get futevôlei accepted as an Olympic sport, like beach volleyball in its day, but so far unsuccessfully. The purse at competitions is comparatively small (the equivalent of 4000-5000 euros), which often isn’t enough to cover travel costs, the 28-year-old explains. Because Manhaes is a top athlete, she receives a state sports grant, but it’s not very much: the equivalent of 500 euros. So she works as a school gym teacher and is dependent on her sponsors – a local sunglasses producer and a shoe company.
Nevertheless, the city will be better and more beautiful afterwards
Manhaes pushes some sand together with her foot to create a small mound, and places the ball on it. Then she serves it across the net with the inside of her foot. Rodrigo Freitas takes it on his chest and lets it drop to his partner, who sets it with his knee. Freitas heads the ball across the net, scoring a point. The young Brazilian comes from Cantagalo, a favela directly above Ipanema Beach, where he lives with his mother and four siblings in a tiny, red-brick house. Freitas has no formal job training and works sporadically selling beverages on the beach. A common love of sports brings people here together for a couple of hours, and your performance is what earns you respect. It’s a little bit like the Olympic motto: “The important thing is taking part,” whereas actually, everybody wants to win.
Activities and sports
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Surf Rio is a school in Arpoador, one of the city’s best surf spots.
Explore the city via 215 artfully decorated steps.