Timing right for X Games in Brazil

Phil Orlins / ESPN

The Iguau Falls will serve as a dramatic backdrop to the Vert competitions at X Games Foz.

As you see the majestic 269-foot waterfalls splashed across your flat screen this week, the question might cross your mind.

Why Brazil?

Why was this nation, with its thriving and colorful action sports culture, selected as the site for the only Southern Hemisphere X Games this year -- and, more specifically, in a tucked-away city 10 hours from the ocean named Foz do Iguaçu?

More kids are skating than playing soccer [in Brazil].
Skateboarder Bob Burnquist

We should start with the country. If you haven't noticed, Brazil is kind of buzzing these days on the world sporting stage. Soccer's World Cup will be held in stadiums across the nation next year, and, in 2016, the Summer Olympics are set for Rio de Janeiro. So this week's inaugural Global X Games stop in Foz do Iguaçu is only the start of a three-year stretch that will make Brazil a regular backdrop for some of the world's top sporting events.

Foz do Iguaçu is not the epicenter of Brazil's action-sports scene; that would probably be Sao Paulo, a massive metropolitan area 12 hours by car to the northeast with some 20 million residents and skate parks scattered throughout shopping malls, on highway medians and abutting the favelas, or slums. The city has produced so many of the country's star athletes.

Foz holds its own in the action sports world and is home to a core motocross and skateboarding contingent, but the city's hallmark is its waterfall system: a mesmerizing sight on the border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay that stretches across 1.67 miles and contains more than 200 falls, peaking with a 269-foot drop.

Sadly for the daredevil set, X Games Foz will not include a whiskey-barrel-over-the-falls competition. But it will showcase the world's best competitors across BMX, skateboarding, surfing, freestyle motocross and rally car racing (including drivers from Formula One and NASCAR, notably the never-a-dull-moment man himself, Travis Pastrana).

In a sense, holding the X Games in Brazil would be like holding the World Series in the Dominican Republic -- largely because of Brazil's ever-expanding zest for skateboarding. In a country of 195 million people, soccer has long been the biggest draw, both professionally and among next-generation athletes. 

Garth Milan / ESPN Images

Pedro Barros, who hails from the oceanside Brazilian town of Florianpolis, is a favorite to win Skateboard Park.

Don't tell Pelé, but Brazil's five-time World Cup champion soccer (OK, fútebol) side just dropped to 19th in the FIFA world rankings, three spots below Belgium. Skateboarding, meanwhile, has never been more popular in Brazil. As the country's unofficial godfather of the sport, Bob Burnquist, recently told ESPN's Alyssa Roenigk, "More kids are skating than playing soccer."

It would be tough to fact-check the claim from the 22-time X Games medalist, who enters Thursday's Big Air competition as a favorite to win gold. But he has a point. Look at fellow Brazilian Pedro Barros, who is favored to win Skateboard Park on Sunday. He grew up in a surf town, Florianópolis, on an island off Brazil's coast. He adores surfing and paddles out every day with his father. But he also started skating when he was 4. Now, at 18, he's one of the world's best concrete bowl skateboarders.

To get an expat's sense of Brazil, I called an old college football teammate, Paul Shull, who moved to Sao Paulo last year with his wife and three kids. He works in development for Manitowoc Food Service, a U.S. company that, like many American businesses, has taken steps to expand its operations in Brazil, whose booming economy is the world's seventh strongest.

Paul grew up surfing on the East Coast, where waves are finite and territorial behavior isn't unheard of. After a handful of days in Brazilian waves, he marveled as much at the limitless surf spots as he did at the local talent. "There's miles and miles and miles of beach here, up and down the coast," he said, voicing one reason the nation's surfers annually contend for the world title. "But," he added, "not everyone can afford a surfboard."

That, in essence, is why Brazilians who rise to elite levels in action sports are so celebrated. Paul told me of a local television show he recently stumbled across while channel surfing late at night. While chronicling the early Sao Paulo skateboarding scene, the narrator told of how pro skaters who grew up there became tougher and grittier than many of their peers. "They learned to ride on shoddy concrete with rocks and stones all over the place," Paul recounted.

Many of those pocked skate parks still exist, but, as a whole, the sport has come of age in Brazil, just like the others to be contested this week in Foz. And more often than not, the local athletes gunning for gold with the waterfalls in the background will have played at least a small role in getting their sports to where they are today.

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