We saw no mosquitoes, plenty of U.S. gold
Ever since attending the London Olympics with my son I wanted to take my family to witness the Games in Brazil. It was the perfect opportunity to show them the streets I walked for two years as a Mormon missionary and to feel the magic of the Olympics.
During the weeks leading up to the Olympics I kept a keen eye on the reports coming from Brazil. Body parts washing ashore near the beach volleyball venue on Copacabana, filthy water in Rio’s harbor (one of the seven natural wonders of the world), police welcoming tourists at the airport with a “Welcome to Hell” sign, street violence, security concerns, Zika, and unfinished venues and infrastructure dominated the headlines. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.
When Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Olympics in 2009 it was to be a coming out party for the South American giant. Its economy was strong, its socialist president was adored, and its residents were excited to share its cultures and customs.
Three years later, and with Olympic preparations well underway, I visited Brazil as part of an MBA program I was attending. In São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro we met with political and business leaders, including the world’s seventh richest man, Eike Batista, who all shared confidence and an optimism for Brazil’s continued success and the prospect of it soon becoming a world power.
However, the past four years have not been kind to Brazil. Crumbling infrastructure, a pattern of revolving and escalating off-the-book loans from government banks to the government itself, and falling oil prices have left the country in turmoil. Brazil is in the middle of an economic meltdown and a political crisis. Its President, Dilma Roussef, resigned her post, and half the members of congress are under investigation as part of a massive corruption scandal involving the state oil and gas firm Petrogas.
Meanwhile, Mr. Batista’s net worth has evaporated. According to Forbes, he lost over $35 billion in one year and by 2014 held the rare title of negative billionaire, owing $1.2 billion to creditors.
With so many uncertainties and problems I was very curious to see personally how Rio’s Games would compare to London’s.
Even in the middle of crisis Brazil was determined to put on a successful Games. The organizers vowed an austerity that has been absent from recent Olympic games. Many of the venues are temporary. And several of those that are permanent will later be converted to other uses, like schools. A majority of the events are being held at the Olympic Park in Barra Tijuca, a former redevelopment district about 12 miles west of Copacabana. The government gave land to developers who built the Olympic Village using private funds. When the athletes leave, the apartments will be sold as residential units. Void of the extravagances seen in London and Beijing, the Opening Ceremonies instead shared messages that the organizers found important, like global warming, and introduced Brazil to the world.
With a landmass the size of the continental United States plus Texas again, Brazil is an enormous country that boasts a variety of different types of geography and climate. Prior to arriving in Rio I wanted to provide my family with a taste of the country. We swam with dolphins and fed monkeys in the Amazon rainforest, visited South America’s largest water park on one of the many pristine beaches of Fortaleza, and were awed by the natural beauty of Iguazu Falls (if you’ve never heard of these falls, take the time to look them up!).
We arrived in Rio on day three of the Games. Arrival at the very-modern international airport was smooth and hassle-free. Signs adorned the building welcoming visitors and directing athletes, officials, and tourists to the proper locations.
The owner of the apartment we rented through AirBnB (our “host”) met us at the airport and drove us to what would be our home for the next week. On the way there he showed us the “Olympic lanes” on the freeways and roads. The green-striped lanes are reserved only for public transportation and accredited Olympic vehicles. As we waited in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Olympic vehicles sped past us doing our 80-minute commute in around 20 minutes.
The apartment complex was abuzz with visitors from all over the globe. Our host explained that 80 percent of the apartment complex was being rented out to athletes, families of athletes, fans, media, and others connected to the Games. As was the case in London, we experienced an international camaraderie that’s hard to explain. While based on competition, I have found that the Olympics are more about unity. Complete strangers ask each other where they’re from and have brief conversations while riding in elevators or standing in lines. The language barrier doesn’t impede swapping phones to take photos of each other in front and inside of Olympic venues.
People dress up in their country’s colors, wave their flags, sing and dance all while wishing best of luck to others. It was evident from the very beginning that the international unity felt in London was alive and well in Rio.
However, even more than this international camaraderie, attending the Olympics in person is about walking. Walking, walking and more walking. Despite the fact that we were staying directly across the street from Olympic Park we walked between 6 and 10 miles each day. This is not unique to Rio. Both previous Olympics I’ve attended, also Salt Lake City (2002), have included a healthy dose of walking as well. However, it seemed excessive at times in Rio as planners seemed to have created the most circuitous route possible to many of the venues.
Besides the sometimes mind-boggling walking mazes, the Olympic Park was well organized and in good condition. The only major complaint was the lack of food options. Once inside Olympic Park it’s not convenient to leave for lunch or dinner. In addition to other options, London’s Olympic Park featured a huge two-story temporary McDonalds. The McDonalds in Rio’s Olympic park only served ice cream. The other food options, chicken sandwiches, hamburgers, and hot dogs, were of such poor quality that they were barely edible. These same few and poor food options were the only options available at all the Olympic sites.
One of the keys to holding a successful Olympics is transportation infrastructure. As opposed to London with its world-class subway system (The Tube), Rio’s mass transit options are limited and inadequate. Also, because of the notoriously terrible traffic congestion in the city, getting a taxi is not an option. Organizers understood early that they simply couldn’t move hundreds of thousands of visitors through their city with efficiency like London. Instead they came up with a solution where most of the games were held in a central location with a few events held at quintessential Rio locations like Copacabana beach.
Part of the preparation for the Games was building a new subway line to connect Barra Tijuca (Olympic Park) and Copacabana. The well-over-budget and far-behind-schedule line opened just a few days before opening ceremonies. Unfortunately, even with the new line, the commute from Olympic Park to the beach volleyball venue in Copacabana was still around 90 minutes and included two trains, one bus, and over two miles of walking
Another big difference between Rio and London was the presence of security and armed soldiers. Rio is using twice the number of security personnel than London, and it’s noticeable. From the moment we got off the plane it seemed like we were always in view of a soldier with a rifle. They could be found on the corner of streets, in bus and subway stations, at the entrances to and inside venues, on the side of freeways, patrolling in trucks, and anywhere else you can imagine. I was thankful for their presence and never felt uncomfortable or in danger.
And Zika? I didn’t see a single mosquito the entire time I was in Rio. Not one.
We tried to go to as many events as we could. We enjoyed going to several of the non-primetime events. Watching the world’s best compete in table tennis, judo, fencing, rugby, trampoline gymnastics, and water polo was truly enjoyable. My seven-year-old daughter, Daisy, loved watching weightlifting and one competitor in particular who yelled as loud as she could to pump herself up prior to each of her attempts.
We were also lucky enough to see some marquis events. My son, Jett, and I, both huge basketball fans, loved watching our NBA players struggle to win against outmatched but clearly inspired opponents.
In gymnastics it was thrilling to watch Simone Biles and the rest of the Final Five in the women’s team finals. Even to the untrained eye it was clear that she was in a class of her own. My daughter, Coco, couldn’t stop talking about Simone. Watching her solo dominance in the individual all-around was incredible and a completely different experience than watching Gabby Douglas win gold against the odds in London.
Brazilians made up the majority of the fans at each event (as would make sense), and it was clear that they were fans of whoever was playing against the USA. I don’t believe this was any hostility toward the USA; it was more about rooting for the underdog (even when the USA wasn’t technically the underdog).
The blaring exception to this was when Michael Phelps swam. Everyone was cheering for Phelps. It seemed like everyone in the building understood that we were having the rare opportunity to see the most decorated Olympian of all time compete in his last Olympics. The roar of the crowd and energy in the building when he came from behind and won the 200 M butterfly was equivalent to any sporting event I’ve ever attended.
We also had the unique opportunity to see Katie Ledecky shatter her own world record in the 800 M freestyle even though she wasn’t being challenged at all, nearly lapping the silver medalist. The crowd could tell that she is something special.
On several occasions we had the privilege of watching as the stars and stripes — accompanied by the national anthem — were hoisted high into the building honoring American athletes who had claimed the gold. This is a moment that when first experienced will give goose bumps to nearly anyone. I thank the athletes whose work and dedication provided me with those moments.
While reflecting on my experiences in Rio and in London in 2012 I believe that through the first week of the Games, Brazil has succeeded in delivering a world-class event worthy to be held under five interlocking rings. There were parts that they didn’t do as well as London. But there were other parts that were far better. Rio recognized and accepted its limitations early and found ways to work around them. For those who defied the dire warnings and defecting athletes, attending the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was a safe, entertaining, inspirational and rewarding experience, if not a culinary delight.
Robbe Lehmann lives in Minden with his family.