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Brazzil - Behavior - January 2004

When It Feels Good Being Brazilian

The New Year's celebrations in Brazil can be inspiring. Rio presents
the world's biggest outdoor party with fireworks, music and thousands
dressed in white throwing flowers to goddess Iemanjá. São Paulo's
São Silvestre marathon is a show of camaraderie, which makes a
heartening change from the town's usual rat race life.

John Fitzpatrick


Brazilians are a social people, never happy when they are alone but as cheerful and noisy as a tree full of parrots when they are together. This is all well and good if you are part of the happy chatterers but, as a foreigner, I have often wished I was far from the madding crowd. However, there are times when it is inspiring to be part of the group and think you are a Brazilian, even if it is only for a few hours. The New Year is a good time for this.

I remember I spent my first New Year in Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. I could not believe the enormous crowds thronging Copacabana and the adjoining areas of Ipanema and Leblon. On one side we had the dark rushing sea, pinpointed by the lights of small boats inshore and petrol tankers and other maritime beasts of burden in the distance. Thousands of people dressed in white waded into the surf and threw flowers to the African goddess Iemanjá.

On the other side, we had the light and color and noise of a city preparing for one hell of a party. When midnight arrived and the fireworks started to explode over Rio's graceful hills and the statue of Cristo Redentor, the biggest outdoor party I have ever seen started.

This year I swapped the midnight dancing and singing in Rio for the São Silvestre race in São Paulo. This event was celebrating its 79th year and was as thrilling as the party. The 15-kilometer run starts in Avenida Paulista, turns down Rua da Consolação and heads towards the old downtown centre, passing the Teatro Municipal, Viaduto do Chá and Largo São Francisco before a grueling uphill stretch up Avenida Brigadeiro Luiz Antônio and back to Paulista.

Unfortunately I was not able to participate but went along to watch a friend perform in the female race, which started about two hours earlier than the men's event. The day started ominously, very hot and with strong sunshine, great for spectators but not for runners, but by the afternoon things had changed.

Thick black clouds loomed over Paulista, scraping the tops of the high-rise buildings, a strong wind got up and there were flurries of rain. The runners loved this but the spectators did not. However, the weather was almost irrelevant since everyone was in a good mood and the most important people were the thousands of runners.

Although the São Silvestre is called the São Paulo International in English it is really a Brazilian affair. There were some professional runners from Kenya, but virtually everyone else was a Brazilian. Many of them came from distant parts of this vast country, including the Amazon, the Northeast and the South.

You could see runners in Indian headgear, others in traditional Northeastern garb—one was dressed like the legendary bandit Lampião in leather hat, bandoleiros and clutching a rifle—and others in gaucho gear. Thankfully, there was none of the irritating brand name flashing which makes a certain kind of Brazilian appear shallow and materialistic.

The whole center was closed to traffic so we were spared the usual pollution, noise and bad manners of drivers who see themselves as kings of the road. Most of the entrants looked as though they were from modest backgrounds and there was a wide age range, with people in their 70s running. I have noticed this camaraderie and disregard for social differences at other races and marathons here. It makes a heartening change from the usual rat race life of São Paulo.

The absence of the commercial hard sell is another good point about the São Silvestre. The sponsorship is split over a number of companies and the logos are discreet. The prize money is also modest by international levels—just under US$ 6,000 for the winners compared with US$ 100,000 for the New York marathon—which probably explains the lack of well-known international runners.

The fact that the race takes place on the last day of the year may be inconvenient for international athletes but it makes the event a great run-up, if you will pardon the pun, to New Year. Although Kenyans took the first two places in the women's race, the first two to compete the men's race were Brazilians, which gave the crowd an extra reason to cheer and start celebrating.


John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações - www.celt.com.br,   which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at jf@celt.com.br

© John Fitzpatrick 2003

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