Illustration by Joe Lai.
Illustration by Joe Lai.

Last week, the president of one of the world’s largest democracies, a man who has championed universal health care and whose loyal constituents include unionists, grassroots activists, leftists and socialists, traveled to Copenhagen to make the case that his country should host the 2016 Olympics.

But his name wasn’t Barack, and until last Friday, few outside South America had ever heard of him. His name, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is a mouthful, and his efforts to eradicate poverty, equalize education and provide basic medical care to all his country’s 191,241,714 citizens would make Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spit fire and cry for a crucifixion.

Da Silva, known as “Lula” to his countrymen and now the world, fought back tears as he announced “The world has recognized that the time for Brazil has come.”

This was after an exuberant delegation and nation, watching on the sands of the Copacabana resort, learned that Rio de Janiero would host the 31st Olympiad.

Lula’s words were a far cry from the national joke: “We’re the city of the future — and always will be.” Brazil, endowed with abundant natural resources and an industrious population, and committed as much to consumption as production, has since the early 2000s struggled to even broach its potential. Corruption and crime, from the slums to the Senate, has kept the country mired in mediocrity.

Now it has been granted the chance to prove just how far it has come.

With a robust economy and social programs that have, for example, made it possible for public schools to feed kids at least one meal during the day, ensuring that even the poorest don’t go hungry, Brazil has long been making progressive strides. Now the Olympic Games will turn this star-crossed country, as one analyst put it, into a glowing example of what Latin America has to offer.

What Brazil has done to get to the point of being the honored host of the largest international operation anywhere on the globe has been out of sight to most Americans.

After the United States, Brazil is the world’s largest producer of sugar cane-derived ethanol fuel. Lula has forged synergetic relationships with developing countries, mostly in the global South, giving places like Mozambique biofuel technology and, in Nigeria’s case, the chance to build an ethanol plant and a “biofuel” town. Brazil is getting its day thanks to the Olympics, but it’s been giving the unrecognized and disenfranchised nations of the world theirs for years.

Together Brazil, Russia, India and China comprise the BRIC, a term coined by global investment bank Goldman Sachs to describe the fastest-growing developing economies in the world. A global economist at the firm theorized that by 2050, these rising countries would represent the four most dominant economies in the world.

Brazil’s AIDS program, which guarantees the provision of free antiretroviral medication for citizens, launched innovative prevention campaigns targeting intravenous drug users, sex workers and the gay community. These programs not only halved the estimated number of turn-of-the-century infections, but also served Lula and his administrators well in creating and strengthening South-South cooperation.

For too long, the countries below zero degrees latitude have been denied starring roles — or even supporting ones — on the world stage. Instead of sitting on their hands waiting for handouts from the globe’s Northern powers, nations like Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil have established relationships with one another and the rest of their disregarded brethren.

Rio de Janiero, we all know by now, is the first city in South America to host the games. The only other Latin American country to host them was Mexico. Forty years ago.

America, when it rises from the ashes of economic disaster and the quagmire of the Middle East, will be positioned much lower on the international totem pole. Already a world power shift is occurring, evidenced in part by China’s outstanding Olympics, South Africa’s redemption in hosting the 2010 World Cup and now Rio’s triumphing over last century’s super stars — America and Japan — to snag the 2016 games that promise to be a sporting spectacle for the ages.

Obama and his second city may have been shunned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). He and the United States Olympic Committee may have taken his popularity and their global position for granted. And while it would have been cool to hit the Windy City for the Games, the IOC, which one CNN commentator referred to as aging, cynical and far removed from reality, seem to be acutely aware of the times and global winds of change.

So, obrigado, International Olympic Committee. Thank you. We look forward to Rio de Janiero, 2016.