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Mention Flamengo to most sports fans and they will think of Zico. Talk about Vasco and it won't be long before Romario enters the conversation. And get on to Botafogo and surely Garrincha, or nowadays Clarence Seedorf, will be top of the list. But before the footballing greats of Rio de Janeiro, there was another story. And it was played out on the water, way back in the 19th century.
The intense rivalry between Rio’s great sports clubs, which today is seen most vividly in the fiercely contested football matches at the Maracanã Stadium, arose on Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. This lagoon in the centre of the city, located under the gaze of the Christ the Redeemer statue, was the setting for memorable regattas between the boats of Flamengo, Vasco da Gama and Botafogo – hugely popular multi-sports clubs in Rio that still reference rowing in their names: Clube de Regatas do Flamengo, Botafogo de Futebol e Regatas and Clube de Regatas Vasco da Gama.
The clubs have a statutory obligation to maintain competitive rowing teams and their badges can be seen proudly painted on boathouses at Lagoa – which will host the rowing, canoe sprint and para-canoe events at the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
In the 19th century, rowing was the most popular sport in Rio. The clubs of Botafogo, Flamengo and Vasco were born when rowing teams were formed the neighbourhoods in Botafogo, Flamengo and Saúde, respectively.
Rowers from these three teams account for more than half of the Brazilian national team. The clubs have produced some of Brazilian rowing's most prominent names, such as world champion Fabiana Beltrame and Pan American medallist João Hildebrando, who compete for Flamengo, and the Botafogo duo of Alison Eraclito da Silva, who won a silver medal at the under-23 world championships, and Pan American medallist Anderson Nocetti.
Nocetti, 39, represented Brazil in the past four Olympic Games. Originally from the state of Santa Catarina in the south of Brazil, he is proud of his involvement with the famous Carioca club.
“It’s been a great experience to be part of Botafogo's history and represent a club with such a great tradition in rowing,” he said. “I had never experienced that before in my career and I realise that the club has a very strong attachment to the sport. Regattas that gather Botafogo, Flamengo and Vasco always include a lot of rivalry, as in football, and the presidents of the clubs usually attend them, such is their importance.”
The tradition of Carioca clubs in rowing has been recognised by some of the sport’s leading names. In a visit to Rio de Janeiro in March 2013, Briton Sir Steve Redgrave, who won five gold medals in five consecutive editions of the Games between 1984 and 2000, showed his admiration for the clubs.
“Rowing is very much in the culture in Brazil, as you see with how the rowing clubs are attached to other sports,” he said. “Flamengo football club are world famous and they have the rowing blades on their crest! No other country in the world has rowing blades on football shirts. It’s very special.”
The scenery around Lagoa has been one of the inspirations for the city’s rowing tradition. The lagoon, where many people row on a daily basis, was originally inhabited by the Túpi indians and is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by narrow canal. Buffeted by the up-market neighbourhoods of Ipanema, Leblon, Gávea, Jardim Botanico and Copacabana, it is framed by the lush vegetation of the Tijuca Forest, whose peaks include Corcovado Mountain, atop of which sits the Christ statue. It promises to be a special stage at the Rio 2016 Games.
“It’s a marvellous setting, it’s absolutely stunning,” said Redgrave. “In our sport normally we compete outside the city – we never get to compete in the heart of a city, but here in Rio we have got that chance. We will be very much in the middle of it, with the Jesus Christ statue looking over the rowers. It will be very, very special from a rower’s point of view, and I’m sure it will be special for the spectators too.”