Few sports rival Brazil with football, but in the past few days, a cycling race has become a battleground in the nation’s capital over what many consider the ultimate symbol of athletic prowess.
The training ride was supposed to be a chance for Brazilians to come together, celebrate common goals and enjoy the monotony of a long road trip. As it turned out, another country almost derailed it all.
Hundreds of angry locals mobbed the bus that brought the 28-rider team to Brasilia from La Paz on Monday after it finished up the two-day race from Cuiaba.
“This is absolutely insulting. Have the decency to speak Brazilian,” Miriam Fagbouho, president of the cycling association of Brasilia, told the O Globo newspaper. “Who are you defending?”
The location of the race, inside the capital of a nation increasingly split by a long-standing economic crisis, has exposed long-standing tensions over how to run this vast nation.
Some residents were overjoyed by having the team visit the parliamentary building, applauding its foundation when it was closed to guests as part of the cycling festivities.
A few miles away, where the team stopped for lunch, residents criticized the cyclists for coming to the city, perceived as a symbol of privilege, and not coming to poor neighborhoods in the city.
Brazil’s Postal Service team has stirred controversy in the past, after offering the capital a similar appearance fee to ride on Copacabana beach earlier this year. The team paid the invoice after debate erupted over the legality of such spending. Postal is owned by billionaire Carlos Slim, who has lived his entire life in the United States.
“It’s hard to believe that in the capital of Brazil you can’t run a bike race without offending someone,” said Jean-Pier Villeneuve, the team’s head of sports and marketing. “It shows a deep, deep, deep division in the country that has been causing enormous problems.”
The tensions come as the country struggles with stagnant growth, sky-high inflation and rising unemployment. The devastation caused by a fire on a sugar plantation in late July killed at least 175 people.
Prime Minister Paulo Guedes announced he would visit the region, including the capital, to discuss the disaster with Gov. Gilberto Kassab.
And “It’s not just in Brasilia that there is a separation between the haves and the have-nots, that is generalized,” noted Guedes. “Brazil was basically an American phenomenon in the past: the Gringos, people of wealth and professionals, and the world watched.”
Few countries have been more devastated by the recession than Brazil, which in the three years since Rousseff took office has experienced negative growth of about 3 percent, plummeting inflation and a currency that has plunged in value.
Rousseff’s government was engulfed in a corruption scandal that revealed decades of graft between Brazilian politicians and their business allies. The scandal engulfed her inner circle, eventually forcing her to resign in August 2016.
Guedes, an ally of Rousseff’s, has since led his party back into power.
The current president, Michel Temer, is facing mounting pressure to resign. He was impeached in July over accusations of taking bribes and match-fixing.