Jealous of the British-inspired Commonwealth Games and the Jeux de la Francophonie for nations of the former French empire, Portugal has created the Jogos da Lusofonia. In a world of soft power, pole vaulters and sprinters are the new ambassadors for old colonial clubs.
The sun long ago set on the Portuguese empire, but a crepuscular glow still lit a pageant of tunics and tracksuits entering Lisbon’s Atlantic Pavilion. Inside, the opening ceremonies for the Jogos da Lusofonia would inaugurate a nine-day mini-Olympics improbably designed to unite the 12 nations of the Portuguese-speaking world. The cheerful young voices parading in – São Tomé hurdlers and Macanese judo masters, Brazilian high jumpers and Guinea-Bissauan point guards – made that sound easy, demonstrating big-hearted bonhomie towards the fallen crown that once held them together. “We have good relations with the people of Portugal. We are brothers,” volunteered Arsénio, the 19-year-old captain of Angola’s football squad. “Brazil is the same,” added Esmael, 21, a teammate who plays professionally in Belgium. “Brazil is like our home.”
On the other side of the pavilion, the sports administrators who comprise the Association of Olympic Committees of Portuguese-Speaking Countries, or ACOLOP, wore the fruits of hard-won statehood on their chests: flags pinned to lapels and crests on blazer pockets. Many of them were middle-aged men, who had lived through their various nations’ mid-century battles for independence and the anti-climatic way it was finally granted: a liberal coup in Lisbon, the so-called Carnation Revolution of 1974, that toppled Portugal’s fascist regime and freed many of its foreign holdings.
“The current generation has forgotten what was there,” says Jovito Lopes, India’s chief of mission at the games, where he represented athletes from Goa, the small state that India took from Portugal’s grasp through air strikes in 1961. “Some people thought there should never be friendly relations. But after the revolution, we said we need to forget the past and go into the future.” The Lusophone Games – whose first instalment took place in Macau in 2006, with the second in Lisbon this July – stand alongside more serious government efforts to patch together remnants of the old Portuguese empire into a modern commonwealth. A “community of Portuguese-speaking countries” (CPLP, according to its Portuguese initials) formed in 1996 now coordinates everything from student exchanges to crime-fighting partnerships and special passport lanes at member airports. “The whole thrust behind CPLP, the political and cultural integration, comes from the Brazilians and Portuguese,” says David Morton, a historian and writer in Mozambique. “The Brazilians because they want to situate themselves in a world other than their own, and Portuguese because – just like in the colonial era – their colonies make them seem more important than they are.”
During the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Comandante Vicente Moura, the president of Portugal’s Olympic Committee, pulled aside his peers from Angola, Brazil and Macao. He had been looking at the Commonwealth Games, descendant of the British Empire Games that began in 1930, and the Jeux de la Francophonie, which began in 1989 as a French-speaking counterweight.
Why, Moura asked, couldn’t the Portuguese world develop its own games? Moura knew the countries he sought out would understand the benefits of joining forces. An alliance of distant countries would be an original bloc of votes in international sports bodies, one that national officials say has already hung together in leadership elections. They expect to show strength as Brazil competes for an Olympics. “All our Olympic members support the bid of Rio in 2016,” says Moura, now ACOLOP’s president. Without the association, he says, such solidarity “wouldn’t have been as easy as it is. Brazil’s ties with Portugal were always strong, and with Africa they had some ties. But with the Asian Olympic committees they were almost nothing.”
In 2004, the countries agreed to hold inaugural games in Macao two years later. But the word ACOLOP was kept out of the festivities’ name out of respect for political sensitivities. Lusophony was more palatable to members than something with the word “Portuguese”. “Thirty years ago, Portugal was at war with most of these countries,” says João Ribeiro, the games’ executive director. “So they were not too ethnocentric, Eurocentric – in the end, everyone agreed it was a neutral name and that everyone could see themselves in the name.”
For small nations struggling to assert sovereignty, the games extend the illusion of equality. Most of the athletes in Lisbon never lived under Portuguese colonial rule: Macao being a notable exception. Since its 1999 handover, Beijing has blocked Macao from fielding an Olympic team; the Lusophone Games are one of the few places its athletes compete under their own flag. For East Timor, reconnecting with its Portuguese heritage was key in shaking off Indonesian control: the young state has traded one history of conquest for another. After its 2002 independence, the country asked to be recognised by its Portuguese name, Timor-Leste, and introduced the language in schools. “Not only to participate, but it’s a dream to come to Portugal – a country that’s been our ruler,” says Francisco Amaro, Timor’s chief of mission. “Now we are two nations, we support each other.”
At the opening ceremony, a dance presentation mixed Wikipedia-quality semiotics (Brazil was represented by a totem picturing its top three staples: manioc, maize, beans) with historical narration deftly overlooked any mention of colonialism. It invoked the “sound of a melodic language” as though it had wafted passively across the planet. “Twelve countries of the four corners of the world are in the old continent,” a voice intoned as young Portuguese dancers pirouetted with national flags. “For several centuries, we have sailed together.”
The ceremony introduced the games’ motto, “Union is stronger than victory”, preemptively acknowledging that athletic parity still lagged. Among the 29 gold medals awarded over two days of athletics, only once did a country other than Brazil and Portugal mount the winner’s platform for a gold medal. (It was a Sri Lankan distance runner.) Brazil went on to win 75 medals, edging out Portugal’s 71. Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, and Timor-Leste all got none.
After Timor-Leste’s table-tennis doubles consecutive 3-0 losses to Brazil and Portugal, Elmano Caldas, who was their chaperone, raised spirits by reminding them of Aguida Amaral, a marathon runner who represented Timor-Leste at its first Olympics. She came 43rd out of 45 runners who finished in Sydney, but remains a national icon. “You’re the first ones to compete for East Timor in table tennis,” said Caldas. “That’s special.”
The Timorese pep talk was delivered in Tetum. Sri Lankans bantered in Sinhala, and the Indians spoke precise English; only a half-dozen of their 70 athletes knew any Portuguese. “In this world, there are not too many countries speaking Portuguese,” says Charles Lo Keng Chio, president of Macao’s sports and Olympic committee, whose coaches clucked at their athletes in Cantonese. That may be true, but nevertheless there’s an impressive 200 million Portuguese speakers across the world.
The fastest-growing group at the Lusophone Games may be non-Lusophones. “We’re a little different. They speak Portuguese – we speak Spanish,” says Bonifacio Esono Abaga, an 18-year-old sprinter from Equatorial Guinea, gesturing towards a pack of Cape Verdeans stretching nearby. Abaga expected to feel more comfortable when he visited Beirut in September to represent his country at the Francophone Games.
In 2007, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema made Portuguese Equatorial Guinea’s third official language even though Portugal has not had a presence there since 1778. Obiang Nguema’s ambition to tighten ties with Angola, Brazil and Portugal, among its largest oil customers. Human-rights groups attacked the CPLP for including a repressive dictatorship, but ACOLOP was flattered. “It’s the only country in Africa that has Spanish as an official language, so they are quite isolated,” says Ribeiro. “Between the Anglophone and the Francophone bloc, they prefer to identify with the Lusophone bloc.”
In Lisbon, Mario Rosa de Almeida, secretary general of the Angolan Olympic Committee, heralded Equatorial Guinea’s presence as an example for the games’ future. Almeida says the group has received preliminary outreach from Spain’s Olympic committee – a move that could bring a rush of Spanish-speaking competitors from Latin America. He imagines an enlarged “Latin Games” to rival those of the English and French-speaking worlds. “We want to get the public recognition those games have,” says Almeida.
The games could easily expand to include other countries with “cultural similarities or affection or the will of friendship based on a common background,” according to Ribeiro. The list of potential candidates is long: South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, and the Indonesian island Flores have already contacted ACOLOP, while Mauritius and Senegal share Equatorial Guinea’s observer status at CPLP. Another proposal would allow other countries with large Portuguese-speaking immigrant populations – such as France and the United States – to field teams, as well.
It is not difficult to trace these proposals to the self-interest of the countries that push them. “It is related to their own strategies of expansion in their own continents. Obviously the more African countries you have in ACOLOP, the more power you have for the African countries. The more Asian countries, more power for Asia,” says Ribeiro. “It’s a big influence, lobbying, power thing, really – normal in all organisations.”
ACOLOP officials were united, however, in the desire to get the next installment of the games in place. (The games have no permanent staff or infrastructure, so host countries assume all costs. This year, after sponsors withdrew because of economic troubles, the budget dropped to $3m, less than one-fifth of what Macao spent in 2006.) With the prospect of a three-way competition to win the 2013 games – Brazil, India, and Sri Lanka showed interest – the countries cut a deal. Brazil agreed to delay its bid until 2017, so Goa could host the next round. The games will be held every four years from now on.
The choice of India suggested that the sporting Lusosphere was working to broaden its reach past old boundaries: Indian sports authorities required an interpreter to translate their English-language bid presentation. Goa Olympic Association president Subhash Shirodkar expressed satisfaction when he noted that – along with the election of a Macao official to the group’s presidency – the vote showed the centre of power was shifting east. “It will be a beautiful combination of India, China – and Portugal, in between,” he said.
Angola: Has maintained close business ties to Portugal since 1974 independence.
Brazil: Briefly a seat of the Portuguese empire during the Napoleonic wars and home to the bulk of the global Lusophone population.
Cape Verde: A hub for the slave trade between Africa and Brazil, independent since 1975.
Guinea Bissau: Known as Portuguese Guinea until it declared independence in 1973.
Timor-Leste: Invaded by Indonesia days after the Portuguese withdrawal in 1975, again autonomous in 1999.
Equatorial Guinea: Transferred by Portugal to Spain in 1778 as part of a land swap for South American turf.
India: Home to Portuguese trading posts until Indian capture of Goa in 1961.
Macao: Last European colony in Asia, granted to China in 1999.
Mozambique: Despite four centuries of Portuguese rule, only one-third of the population is now Lusophone.
Portugal: First and last country in Europe to maintain overseas colonies, from 1415 to 1999.
São Tomé e Príncipe: First settled by the Portuguese in 1493 and was later developed into a major sugar exporter.
Sri Lanka: A 150-year Portuguese presence ended by Dutch East India Company in 1658.