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Members of Brazil's women's Olympic rugby team (from L) Isadora Cerullo, Raquel Kochhann, Tais Balconi and Juliana Santos pose at Deodoro Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 4, 2016, ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.PASCAL GUYOT/AFP / Getty Images

Isadora Cerullo's parents fled Brazil 35 years ago, in the last years of the country's military dictatorship. They were young intellectuals who saw no future in the country, so they went to the United States where they built a new life and raised an all-American daughter. In 2014, she was graduating from Columbia University and on her way to being a doctor.

And then she had to break some news to her folks – she wasn't headed to medical school, but rather to Brazil. To play for the national rugby squad. "My mom said, 'You're doing what?'" Ms. Cerullo, 25, recalls with a rueful giggle. "They didn't think this was a great idea." To put it mildly.

But Friday night, Ms. Cerullo will march into the Maracana Stadium as an Olympian, part of Brazil's first Olympic rugby squad, and her parents, here to cheer her on, admit that Brazil is not the country they left, and much is possible here today.

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As the host country, Brazil qualified automatically to compete in sports for which it otherwise would not have been eligible – and that created a scramble for athletes.

The athlete shortage reflects the fact that Brazil is not, at heart, an Olympic country. There is really only room for one sport, soccer, in this country's heart, with a bit of attention leftover for beach volleyball.

The Games do not normally attract wide television viewership (the London Olympics drew just more than half the viewership of a typical men's club-team soccer-game broadcast). Rio ticket sales to Brazilians also reflect this – soccer and beach volleyball sold out fast. Sports with some big-name participants, such as sprinter Usain Bolt and tennis star Serena Williams, also sold quickly. But the Rio 2016 organizers were reduced this week to pushing last-minute advertisements for sports such as fencing and synchronized diving, with the campaign "Get to know something new!"

Ms. Cerullo is one of 19 athletes recruited from around the world to join Brazil's largest-ever Olympic delegation. Some of the recruits are like her, with at least some link to Brazil, such as a parent or spouse from the country. Others, like Slobodan Soro, who will guard the net for the men's water-polo team, had no connection to Brazil at all before they were recruited for the sport. Ms. Cerullo, who had visited Brazil once when she was 9, is a top athlete who had done tryouts for the U.S. national team. As rugby sevens makes its Olympic debut, she will play with a well-ranked squad. But many of the athletes who have adopted Brazil's flag are seizing a chance to be an Olympian that they never would have had in their home country.

"The French team is very strong – I had the best year of my life and I did not qualify for the Olympics in London," said Ghislain Perrier, a fencer who was born in Brazil but adopted by French parents as an infant. "So I approached the Brazilian federation." Brazil, which had three fencers in London, but now was allowed to enter eight more, took him happily, and recruited a couple of other foreigners, as well. There was controversy, however, when one Brazilian native cut from the team went to court to block her spot from going to a Hungarian, whom she accused of faking a marriage to a Brazilian to get the place.

Mr. Perrier says competing in Brazil is "returning to the beginning of the story" for him, and that while there has been sniping in the French media about whether he is Brazilian or French, he feels "100-per-cent Brazilian" and embraced by the country. "I will compete with Brazil in my heart."

And while he benefits personally, with a chance to be in the Olympics, he also hopes to boost his sport. "Fencing is not known in Brazil, not at all – so it's a chance to show it to people."

The International Olympic Committee opposes athletes changing nationality when the motivation is financial, but permits it for athletes who hold multiple citizenships or who have a direct link with another country such as a spouse from that state. In most cases, the sport's international federation must also approve that change. This kept Mr. Soro, the Serbian water-polo player, from playing for Brazil until just weeks ago: While he became a naturalized Brazilian last April, the water-polo federation wouldn't let him play for more than another year.

Field hockey and golf also recruited foreigners, but the Brazilian Rugby Federation was the most brazen in its Olympic preparation: It launched a global campaign on rugby websites and chat boards with the slogan "Rugby Players Wanted."

Agustin Danza, chief executive of the rugby federation, says the women's team easily qualified for the Olympic competition on its own merits, but the men's side would never be in the Games if Rio were not hosting. This was a great chance to build the profile of the sport, and take advantage of extra resources to build the team. "This is not a rugby country," Mr. Danza said, with a mix of resignation and a certain hint of challenge. There are four players on the Olympic men's side who are newcomers, through Brazilian parents or wives. "We went looking and we found players with Brazilian roots in other parts of the world," he said. (The Federation also recruited internationally for its leader: Mr. Danza is from Argentina, the reigning rugby power on the continent, but he says there is no conflict. "I'll be cheering for Brazil.")

One of those who applied was Ms. Cerullo. She had never heard of rugby five years ago; a friend took her to a men's student match at Columbia, and someone in the audience noticed her fascination. It was the school's women's team captain, who soon recruited her. And now she is training at the Olympic Village in Rio.

"I fell in love with the sport, and then I had the opportunity to move and get to know the country that my parents had to leave," she said. The team welcomed her, she says – she had pretty good Portuguese from speaking with her parents, but she had to lose her gringo accent and brush up on her slang. Now, she says, she feels like she fits right in. "I've worked hard to prove I belong where I am."

Mr. Soro played for the bronze-medal-winning Serbian side in London, but he was pushed off the national squad by younger players. A Brazilian friend suggested he consider joining a club here in Rio, where there was a rush of new funding, and he came to Brazil for the first time in 2013. "Right away, we started talking about building an Olympic team."

That team has a Croatian coach (a gold-medal winner in London) and players from Cuba, Spain and Italy. Mr. Soro, 37, says it will be weird when he suits up to play against Serbia next week, and he knows there is some speculation that he doesn't belong on the Brazilian squad – but he disagrees. "Everything I have in life is from water polo, and this was a chance for me to do something for water polo, not just Brazilian but world water polo – bringing up one more strong and respectable national team."