Just a few days into the swimming program of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the world was astonished to see the diving pool had turned a vivid shade of green. How could this have happened? Would the games be cancelled? Drawing on new and unquestionably reliable sources, the true story of those momentous events can now be told. Read on if you dare! But first, a glossary.
Capybara – a big-ass rodent (up to 70kg!)
Anaconda – a big-ass snake (with a taste for capybara!!)
Favela – a bad-ass neighbourhood (where anacondas and capybaras fear to tread!!!)
Capoeira – a Brazilian martial art (combining acrobatics and some ass-shakin’ dance!!!!)
Maracana – football stadium (where dreams from the favelas can come true!!!!!)
“Skol, skol, skol, Yea-hay! vamos Steven, vamos.”
I slammed the empty glass down on the bench. Gripping the back of the chair to steady myself I gestured to my workmates to be quiet.
“Shoosh, listen up. I would just like to say, that Oswaldo here, is the best frickin’ boss in the entire frickin’ world.”
“Yee-hah!” the people at the bar yelled and hollered.
It was true though. After four successful days of the Olympic swimming program at Rio, Oswaldo had taken us to Toucan’s to celebrate. No boss in Australia would do that.
“So let’s all raise a glass,” I continued, “to the man who keeps the swimmers true and the pools blue.”
“Cheers!” they shouted amongst the tinkle of glasses.
We left Toucan’s in great spirits. Oswaldo was so happy with my work, he asked me to come back to the swimming centre to admire the pool once more.
The place was deserted. Oswaldo flicked on the lights and the waters of the Olympic pool sparkled.
“So blue, like the True Heart of Brazil,” said Oswaldo dreamily.
“What do you mean?”
“Look up there.” Oswaldo pointed to the Brazilian flag. “In the middle of the green and yellow parts, can you see a blue globe?”
“Yes. It has some stars and writing which says, Ordem e Progresso.”
“I like to call that globe the True Heart of Brazil. They say it will bring you luck if you kiss it.” Oswaldo was so proud of his country at that moment that his eyes misted over.
I would have shed a tear myself if I hadn’t begun to feel the effects of the drinking session. “Hey Oswaldo,” I said, “do those keys open the dunnies as well?”
“No, sorry Steven.”
This was not good, I really needed to take a leak. I walked past the springboards, took a quick look around, then pissed in the corner of the diving pool.
“Hey Steven, what the hell are you doing man?” screamed Oswaldo.
“Come on mate, it’s a big bloody pool, no-one will notice.”
Oswaldo’s expression flashed with an anger that didn’t suit his normally affable face. But it didn’t last long. He soon grinned then broke into peals of laughter. “Ok man,” he said, “I might take a leak as well. What harm could it possibly do?”
My head felt terrible and there was a sound like a capybara gnawing on my brain. I realised the noise was somebody cursing in Portuguese. The only words that I could make out were ’Steven’ and ‘idiot.’ I sat up in bed and whack, someone hit me with a thing that felt like a telephone book.
Oswaldo was standing there, wearing a dirty frown. “Read it, Steven.”
I picked up the copy of The Rio Morning Herald he had bashed me with and looked at the front page. Next to a photo of a garishly green diving pool I could make out the headline: BRASIL; VERGONHA DO MONDO. I don’t understand Portuguese but I could tell this was not good news.
Oswaldo said, “I’ve had the spokeswoman for the Brazil Organising Committee on the phone biting my ear off asking what happened.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Some bullshit story about a ‘chemical imbalance’.”
“Well there’s some truth in that, I was a bit chemically imbalanced last night.”
“Now’s not the time for your stupid Aussie jokes Steven. I need you to come right now and fix it.”
“You’re the frickin’ pool expert – you said so in the job interview.”
“Aw look, I might have exaggerated a bit. I did a week’s work experience at the Narrabri pool shop in Year 10.”
“I don’t give a shit Steven. The pool has to be clear by 8:00am tomorrow or the rest of the Olympics will be cancelled and I’ll end up in the Cemiterio Sao Joao Batista. Get dressed now and come downstairs. Jacinta is waiting to take us to the swimming centre.”
Jacinta was our driver and general helper. I knew she had come from the favelas, and the enthusiasm she put into every task made it clear she didn’t want to return there any time soon.
She had eyes like Colombian coffee beans and brown skin with a coppery sheen. No official Olympic uniform for Jacinta – every day her outfit was the same; a yellow Brazil football jersey and denim shorts that hugged her hips with a grip like an anaconda. Then there was that golden chain which dangled tantalisingly down the inside of her shirt.
Any chance I had with Jacinta had drowned in that green pool. Her gloomy look said it all. It didn’t help that the Brazilian women’s football team had lost last night.
She turned the car towards the swimming centre and floored it.
It was no use. Everything we tried was a failure and the pool remained green. In the evening I ran into Jacinta at Toucan’s.
“I feel terrible for what I’ve done Jacinta. I’m so sorry.”
“Look Steven, I spoke to my Mama. She told me the only thing you can do is ask for redemption. You know what that means, don’t you.”
“Arrgh. Do you know how to ride a motorbike? Come on, let’s go.”
I kicked the motorbike into gear and Jacinta hopped on behind me. She gripped me around the waist and we rode off down the Ipanema Highway.
The top of the hill afforded a stunning view of Rio de Janeiro. From here I could see the lights of Copacabana, the Maracana, Ipanema and in the distance the mysterious Atlantic, across whose waters so many of Brazil’s people had come: migrants from Europe and Asia, white Portuguese in carracks, black Africans manacled in the holds of slave ships.
I knelt in front of the floodlit statue of Christ the Redeemer, whose outstretched arms reminded me of Michael Phelps in the butterfly.
Jacinta gave me a nudge. “Come on, you must ask.”
I’m not really the religious sort but felt that I needed to do something to placate Jacinta. So I addressed the statue. “Um… I’m very sorry. Is there any way I can fix this mess?”
“Yes,” came a reply.
I looked wild-eyed at Jacinta who just nodded that I should continue.
“Can you tell us how?”
My heartbeat scudded like a boat bouncing over Atlantic whitecaps. A short man in a maintenance worker’s uniform stepped out from behind the statue’s sandal. He had dark hair, cropped very straight. His eyes had a kind of black makeup that resembled a mask.
“Who are you and what makes you think you can fix the chemical imbalance in the pool?” I said.
The man rolled his eyes. “My name is Taranoco and I’m from the Amazon. I moved to Rio because of frickin’ climate change. Our rainforests have been defoliated and our river has been polluted beyond repair – I know every frickin’ thing there is about chemical imbalances.”
“So what can we do?”
He wrote something on a piece of paper. “Go to the large building by the lake then follow these frickin’ instructions,” he said, handing me the paper.
Taranoco said something to Jacinta in Portuguese. “Steven, he said it takes eight hours to take effect. That means to clear the pool by 8am we must apply the fix by midnight. It’s now 11PM. We’ve got sixty minutes to save the Olympics. Best let me ride – you’re slower than my frickin’ grandpa.”
“There it is.” The neon sign on the large building up ahead read NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM.
Jacinta pulled up near some bushes and we crept around to a door at the back of the facility.
“I still don’t see how we’ll get past security,” I said.
She rolled her eyes at me then bent down, lifted a doormat, and picked up a key. “This is Rio security Steven.”
We made our way down a corridor and stopped outside a room with a sign above it that read AMAZON MEDICINES.
Inside was a laboratory with vials of liquid, steam coming from various vents and tubes.
I took out Taranoco’s instructions but could not make it out. It was written in a weird pictographic script.
“That’s Amazonian, Steven. Give it here.”
“You mean you can read this?”
“It’s surprising what you pick up in the favelas. Now let me see, it says, ‘four parts piranha blood and three parts tree frog slime.’ What does that mean?”
“Hmm. I’m not sure.” I looked around the lab. In the corner were a bunch of vials with the strangest coloured liquid I had ever seen. “Look, these purple ones have a piranha label on it and these orange ones have a tree frog label. This must be it.” I put the vials into my backpack and walked towards the door. I stopped dead.
Blocking the doorway was a burly security guard with a pistol levelled at my head. I put my hands up and waited as the guard fumbled at his handcuffs.
From the corner of my eye I detected a blur. Like an Olympic gymnast, Jacinta was executing a series of somersaults. With a final double flip, she karate-kicked the guard and knocked him out cold.
“Where did you learn that?” I asked.
“It’s call Capoeira – you can’t survive the favelas without it. Now stop gawking and let’s go. There’s only fifteen minutes till midnight.”
We headed back down the gravel drive and turned onto the highway. I couldn’t believe that we had managed to pull this off so far. The timing was going to be tight but it should be a smooth run from here on. I was looking back at the lights of the Museum when I noticed some other lights – blue and red flashing ones – moving at speed. There was a cop car and a police motorbike on our tail.
“Yes, I know. Hang on Steven.” She hit the throttle and we went at breakneck speed around a bend.
We couldn’t outrun them. The cop car had almost caught up to us as we came to a built-up area. Jacinta slowed the bike and with a jolt, mounted the kerb and turned down a steep stairway made of cobblestones. She rode on, my teeth chattering like castanets. They chattered even more when a cop fired off a couple of rounds that zipped past my ear.
The police car couldn’t continue but the motorbike followed us down the stairs.
“Do you know where you’re going?” I shouted into Jacinta’s ear.
“Trust me,” she shouted back. “I grew up in this favela. I know this place like the back of my thigh.”
We rode down an alley ducking lines of washing until we came to a plaza that was holding a night market. People scattered as Jacinta took a turn which was too sharp for the more powerful police bike. Over my shoulder I saw the bike and rider skidding into a barrow full of ripe melons.
Oswaldo was waiting for us at the swimming centre. I looked up at the clock. 11:58pm.
“Ok, we ready?” I said.
Both Jacinta and Oswaldo nodded. “Ready.”
We poured the vials into the pool and watched the water cloud up and swirl in all the colours of the Mardi Gras.
There was nothing more to do. We sat down on the stadium seats and waited.
Just before 8:00am Oswaldo shouted. “It’s worked! It’s worked! We have fixed it!”
Oswaldo slapped Jacinta and myself on the back. “Thanks to both of you. You have saved Brazil’s reputation and kept me in a job. Here, take this,” he said, handing me an envelope. “Two tickets to the men’s football final, my compliments!”
Jacinta was staring at the pool, a smile playing at her lips. Without changing her gaze she said, “do you know what that is Steven?”
I stared into the water. “No.”
* * *
Being an Aussie it was easy to blend in with the Brazilian fans at the Maracana. With a yellow shirt and Jacinta at my side I felt as Brazilian as I ever would.
During the anthem I pointed up at the flag. I made a circle with my hands and mouthed, “The True Heart of Brazil?”
“Yes. You kiss it for luck,” she said through her tears.
The match was tense, Jacinta alternatively gripping and pinching my arm. At one stage she half-choked me.
By the end of the game the scores were level. The gold medal would be decided by penalty kicks.
“I can’t watch,” declared Jacinta.
“Should we catch a cab home then?”
“No Steven you idiot, we have to stay.”
Neymar’s penalty kick was like a mirror to these games and the entire mad and beautiful country of Brazil. A confident run, then a nervous stutter, and finally a wild strike that hit back of the net. The crowd roared. Jacinta jumped up and down then pulled me to her and kissed me; her lips thick with the heat of the favelas and her tongue dancing to the rhythm of the samba.
An Atlantic moon lit up the sands of Copacabana. I was wondering if it was really any different from a Pacific moon when Jacinta pushed me down and straddled me.
She reached into her shirt and teased at the chain at her neck and held the medallion out towards me.
“Can you see what it is?”
Even in the moonlight I could make it out. A globe, with stars, and an inscription.
“Yes, I know what it is.”
She tucked the pendant back inside, then with a barely discernible movement, stripped off her shirt. For some reason I was reminded of the ripe melons at the night market. The pendant dangled deliciously between her breasts.
She looked at me with those coffee eyes then dropped her voice to a sultry whisper. “So now Steven, would you like to kiss the True Heart of Brazil?”
“Oh yes. I would like that very much.”