Written by Staff Writer by Isabel Ordóñez, CNN
Yellow faces are up on the Rio de Janeiro art deco skyscrapers, sprinkled between ads for Red Bull and Visa. Sometimes you can even spot one on the slums of Brazil’s favelas — the shanty towns where Sao Paulo native and winner of this year’s Tour de France, Geraint Thomas, grew up.
Yellow is the emblematic color of Brazil. The decorative treatment for Rio’s beaches and water fountains have been the signature of the Brazilian flag since the early 1940s. Until a lack of money forced it to be taken down for World Cup and Olympic ceremonies, it has stood proudly over the country’s faces for 50 years.
They have also become the emblematic color of ultra-rich Rio; French fast food giant McDonald’s calls their logo “high color,” and the statement usually flashes on its billboards. But that could soon change.
Now Rio is fighting back against what many residents see as the omnipresence of “white supremacy.” The decision to remove these kite-shaped flowers has not gone down well. The yellow man is truly Brazilian, an image of the spirit of a people, battling for the truth.
Paulo Costa, an artist who hails from the city’s poor southeastern neighborhood of Tibás, says it’s time to eradicate these symbols, and shift Brazil toward a more equal society.
“(There’s) no interest (among those) who have money in working for people in the favelas,” he explains. “They want to jump on the success of Geraint Thomas and white privilege. No-one wants to talk about inequality. This is the first time we’ve ever looked at racism.”
The flag bearer, who once worked as a gardener in a retirement home, says he was shocked by the pro-corporate sentiments of Rio police during Brazil’s Olympic march.
“All white people and men sang the English national anthem,” he recalls. “I felt like I was witnessing racism. There were a lot of people in the crowd, but you can see all the people singing together, united in one emotion.”
The white man, he says, has been “pensioned off” as a symbol of pride in recent years, replaced by more politically correct images of people’s faces and the country’s bull hair.
Brazil’s Olympic delegation paid homage to its “beach” and “city” symbols, with a dazzling display of Olympic material. It was “supremely praiseworthy,” according to Fifa President Gianni Infantino .
But nothing compares to the fervor behind Thomas, whose home city has changed for the better thanks to a construction boom over the past decade. It is also the city of his dreams — he says the city’s transport has become “better” thanks to better infrastructure and better food.
Asked how he would react if the colors he grew up loving were removed, he speaks of a different Brazil: one where those in Rio’s favelas and shanty towns do not feel they do not “carry the same heritage or history that people in the Olympic village and and Rio corporate towers carry.”
That, he says, is simply not the case. The Paris 2024 Olympics has decided to keep the France flag in its presentation, sparking controversy among some who would like the Olympic flame to shine again on French national colors. The Rio 2016 Olympics flag even draped the city of Athens during its Games opening ceremony in 2004.
Whether or not Yellow will disappear in Rio in time for the Pan Am Games in July, it is clear the red man is very much alive. Thomas carried the symbol through stages of Brazilian history and traveled around the country with it on his bike before the Tour de France; much of his evidence of his experiences on the road have been posted to his Twitter.
Yet Yellow could be a transient symbol of Brazil, and its inhabitants, as Thomas climbs on the podium to collect the trophy. Rio’s big event comes two years after the World Cup , and that story has not been simple. The official bodies responsible for organizing both have repeatedly been denied by courts if they can continue to bring the two events together, in what will inevitably become the second “Olympic year” in a row.
Thomas, meanwhile, has found time to make time for the struggle of his home city, throwing his energies behind the campaign to defeat a plan to close 1,700 shanty towns in Rio de Janeiro.