SAO PAULO (AP) — Rugby player Isadora Cerullo never lived in Brazil. Fencer Ghislain Perrier speaks very little Portuguese. Golfer Miriam Nagl played abroad most of her life.
They’ll still be parading under the host nation’s flag at the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Games come Aug. 5.
Cerullo, Perrier and Nagl are among several athletes who will be fulfilling their Olympic dream because of Brazil’s shortage of athletes in sports it automatically qualified for as host. Without an Olympic tradition to fall back on, the country was left to rapidly recruit an international band of athletes for events such as field hockey, golf, rowing, wrestling and rugby.
Their ties, in many cases, are weak. Some have lived away for most of their lives but were born in Brazil. Some were born abroad but have Brazilian parents or grandparents. Some had almost no links to the country but were hired by local federations and became naturalized.
“I would have very slim chances of participating in the Olympics if I hadn’t made the switch to play for Brazil,” said Nagl, a Brazilian-born golfer who left the country when she was 8 years old and had always played for Germany. “When this idea came up and I realized that I had a chance to make it to Rio, I started dreaming about being at the Maracana Stadium during the opening ceremony.”
The 35-year-old Nagl, who plays in the Ladies European Tour and is No. 445 in the women’s world rankings, said she hadn’t given much thought about representing her native country until being contacted by golf officials after Rio was awarded the games.
“By making the switch, I gave myself a chance to be in the Olympics, but I also thought about how this could be good for Brazil, about how I could become a good ambassador and help the game develop,” she said.
Brazil had only two foreign athletes in its delegation at the 2012 London Games – American basketball player Larry Taylor and Chinese table-tennis player Gui Lin. Now about 20 “international” athletes will be taking advantage of the many extra spots available for the home nation in Rio.
Rugby is one of the sports in which Brazil lacks tradition but will compete anyway. Hoping to put on a good show in front of the home fans, the local federation launched a worldwide campaign – entitled “Brazilian Rugby Players Wanted” – to attract athletes playing abroad.
A few who responded to the campaign will be in Rio, including American-born Cerullo, who has Brazilian parents but had never visited the country until after contacting Brazilian rugby officials. Two Brazilian brothers who lived in France also made it to the team, as well a Brazilian-born athlete who lived and played in Argentina. England-born Juliano Fiori and France-born Laurent Bourda-Couhet, who has a Brazilian mother, will also play.
Brazil’s fencing team earned eight additional spots as hosts and included three international players for the games. Among them are Perrier, who was born in Brazil but left the country as a baby after being adopted by a French family, and Italian-born Nathalie Moellhausen, who competed for Italy at the 2012 London Games but chose to be with the hosts in Rio to fulfill the wish of her Brazilian grandmother.
“I don’t have many connections to Brazil,” admitted Perrier, who has lived and trained in France most of his life. “I spent vacation in Brazil a few times, but I know only a few people there.”
The fencing team will also have Marta Baeza, who was born in Brazil but had been competing for Spain, and reserve team member Katherine Miller, who was born in the United States.
Another foreigner, Hungary’s Emese Takacs, tried to make the team but she was dropped after her citizenship was contested in court by a Brazilian athlete who had been left out of the squad. Takacs was accused of faking her marriage in Brazil to become naturalized.
“She had the legal documents but we always suspected it was a fraud,” the Brazilian who had lost her spot, Amanda Simeao, told local media. “She was married to a Brazilian but had a boyfriend in Hungary.”
Takacs denied wrongdoing but lost her battles in court.
Another controversial case was water polo goalkeeper Slobodan Soro, a Serbian whose naturalization process was approved just before the games. He and center Josip Vrlic of Croatia were hired to play for Brazil despite not having direct connections to the country. They were among five foreign-born players picked to play for the Brazilian team by Croat coach Ratko Rudic, the gold medalist with Croatia at the London Games.
The others were Spain’s Adria Delgado, who has a Brazilian father; Italian-born Paulo Salemi, son of a Brazilian mother; and Cuban Ives Gonzalez, who is married to a Brazilian. The team also has Brazilian-born Felipe Perrone, who used to play for the Spanish national team before joining the hosts for the Rio Games.
“They have been playing for Brazilian clubs for some time, this is not something that just happened,” said Ricardo Cabral, who is in charge of Brazil’s water polo team. “We created an Olympic project to help the sport develop and make Brazil more competitive. Because of the Olympics in Rio, there is more investment available and we want to take advantage of that to give the sport more visibility.”
MORE: Rio Olympics schedule highlights, daily events to watch