I’d known for years that I’d be in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016. As soon as the announcements came out in 2009 for the hostings of the World Cup and Olympics, I was already making sure that I’d be free for both.
How can you work your life around two events, five and seven years down the line, that last for a combined total of about two months? A reasonable question.
And the answer is that Brazil, from the moment I arrived for the first time in 2008 as a naïve 20-year-old, was always going to be a second home for me, a haven for when I needed time to stop and think about life, and recharge my batteries. Of course, it was my first experience living abroad, doing things my own way, and the firsts always retain a special place in your heart and head. Every time I come to Brazil I’m reminded of how interesting life can be, how vividly you can live each day. Every day I spend here makes me a more confident, wiser, warmer person, and I suppose being here gives me a sense of advancement.
Anyway, back to the Olympics, and I’d done a bit of research into tickets and found that buying them via CoSport as a British citizen implied absurdly high prices, especially when considering the lower cost to be found on the official Rio 2016 site for Brazilians. I’d tried to buy there, but it hadn’t allowed me to purchase tickets as a foreigner.
Thus, having heard news that not all tickets were selling as hoped, I figured I’d be able to get hold of some on the ground in Rio. And I was proved right.
Now, the Olympics for me is nowhere near as important as the World Cup was, so I wasn’t really bothered about what events I’d see. I kind of just wanted to be part of the spectacle. I mean, how often does one get the chance to watch the Olympics in a city you adore and have grown to know like the back of your hand?
Watching athletics would have been cool, but tickets started at 70 USD, and that wasn’t even on Usain Bolt day, so I opted to attend less popular sports. Therefore, as easy as pie, I acquired tickets at the booths opposite Copacabana Palace for group phase women’s hockey, a table tennis bronze medal match, and some canoeing heats, each costing 60 reais.
I’d never really taken much interest in hockey, but having tried my hand at it in a few summer schools I’d worked, I knew it was a sport that required excellent fitness and a high level of coordination. And most hockey players I’d met at Uni were in decent shape too. For this event I’d invited my good friend Valter along, so we jumped on the metro in Copacabana to get the train from Central do Brasil. Public transport is always an eye-opener in Latin America, so I was glad to see the presence of the Olympics hadn’t put paid to the trains being full of vendors, walking up and down the carriages and selling everything from beer, chocolate bars and peanuts to headphones and toothbrushes. There was a comical moment where one of the salespersons tried to offload his goods on a gentlemen from the US whose clothes were adorned with medals and memorabilia from previous Olympic Games. Needless to say, a packet of crisps wasn’t exchanged for a Seoul 1988 replica gold.
We got off a stop early at Deodoro station (the name of the stadium too, though not the nearest train stop to it) so as to drop by Valter’s brother’s house. Popular media has dined out to death on the topic of houses and communities being demolished to make way for the Olympic stadia, so I’ll just leave it as that; a passing mention. We passed by a new overpass put in place as part of a new high-speed bus service called the BRT, before walking for what seemed an eternity through the Vila Militar neighbourhood, aptly named as it is replete with military bases and academies.
Having finally got to the Olympic Village, Valter, holding his lower back in agony (he lives most of his life sat on his motorbike or in front of the computer), we took a few photos before getting to the hockey arena just about on time. The process was fairly straightforward, as queues moved smoothly through security checks (airport style scanners) and everything was well-signposted.
I hadn’t looked into which countries we were actually watching so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that we happened upon a match between Great Britain and the USA, in what was the final match of the group phase, merely to decide which team ended up as group winner and which as runner-up, as both teams had won all their games up until that point. I took a picture with someone else’s GB flag just as the match was about to kick off.
Great Britain came out of the traps quickly and dominated possession and chances, with the US goalkeeper having a stormer, blocking anything that came near her. Despite a number of short corners, which I now understand, though I’m still unsure what constitutes a foul or infringement in hockey, the GB team couldn’t take advantage. Typically, the US scored with their first foray into the opposing half in what I think was the third of four quarters.
This didn’t stop the drum-bangers sat right behind us, whose tinny-sounding instrument and constant singing left Valter with the rhyme ‘Let’s go GB, Let’s go’ in his head for the next few days. Though I must say the drummers, incidentally dressed in morph suits, received a rather lot of attention after the final whistle as Brazilians queued up to take photos with them.
In the final quarter, the game got a little feisty and I’m sure I saw one of the players stamp on the other and get away with it. The US women were starting to get frustrated and felt as if the referee was favouring GB. Despite the niggly nature of the match, GB continued to dominate possession and scored two quick-fire goals to turn the game on its head. The klaxon sounded to indicate the conclusion of play sounded soon after.
The girls came over one by one and received individual applause as they went down the tunnel, and we stayed until the end so as to see the most attractive player, the number 13, Quek, take the last of the plaudits.
Things I learned about hockey were that if the ball hits your foot, even if unintentional, you get penalised, so in some way I think you can play for penalty short corners. In this phase of play it’s also interesting to see the defenders (I think you can leave three back) throw on facial protection gear during the passage of play before discarding their masks and gum shields once the ball is cleared or in the back of the net. Another interesting thing is that you have to score from within the area, so there is a lot of hammering the ball into a crowded box hoping for a touch, a method which resulted in GB’s equaliser, as a player got the slightest of touches on a shot launched from distance and it was only given after being subjected to analysis of a replay. Finally, due to the intense nature of the game, rolling subs are a prominent and necessary aspect of the sport, and I reckon each player goes on and off about half a dozen times or more during each game.
Of note in the stadium area was the excessive price of food and drinks, and despite the steep 17 reais for a tiny burger, Valter’s hunger forced him to buy one in the interval, because as part of the ticket, you got to watch two games, the second of ours being New Zealand vs China.
I was rather tired during this game, yet still endured it, despite the novelty of the sport having worn off a little. To be honest, quality was lacking in this game, as China failed to take advantage of numerous penalty short corners and their defence was repeatedly picked apart by a New Zealand team unlucky to only record a 3-0 victory.
Now a slight mention of the Olympic spirit (or lack of) in the Brazilian support which pre-empted the more controversial circumstances under which a French athlete was booed due to being in direct competition for gold with a Brazilian in the pole vault. It has to be emphasised that Brazilians aren’t particularly used to sports other than football, and anyone who has attended a football game in the country will understand how crowds can be extremely vocal, and often quite scathing towards players, whether they be the home or visiting team. There are also the people that like to crack jokes all match, and on this occasion, some of the comments, which in turn became chants, directed towards the Chinese team, were a little disrespectful and definitely bordering on racist.
Put it this way: as opposed to other Olympics in other countries, the whole respectful silence rule usually obeyed in most sports went out of the window, especially if a Brazilian team or competitor were involved, and the boundaries of political correctness were definitely breached.
The team bronze-medal match between Germany and South Korea took place in Rio Centro, which is usually a conventions centre in Barra to the south of Rio and near the big Olympic Village housing athletes. To get there from Copacabana was straightforward as there was a special RioCard on offer for 25 reais (8 USD) which entitles to you to use the Olympic-specific transport as well as any other transport in the city on that day. However I was not aware that the ticket could only be bought at certain metro stations, so I ended up paying to get the starting point of the special Line 4 of the metro. From there you then caught a special bus service to Olympic Village. To use the special routes, you also needed to present a ticket for an Olympic event for the day of the travel, though I’m not so sure they rigorously checked the dates of everyone’s. I suppose the RioCard system made sense as it meant transport didn’t get congested by people on daily routes and also meant that opportunist pickpockets couldn’t board the packed trains and buses. Not that Rio is seaming with thieves, but I’d seen first-hand at the World Cup Fan Fests the number of people who had had their pockets emptied in tightly-packed venues.
Having disembarked the bus, there was a further 15-minute walk to the pavilions where the match was taking place, though much as with hockey match, the arena was sparsely populated and perhaps less than half full. As I’ve since discussed with friends, many of the sports were overpriced for the average Brazilian, and the less well-known ones suffered as a consequence. The only sports receiving real attention were football, volleyball, beach volleyball and judo due to Brazil’s involvement, and the sports such as athletics and tennis which featured big names. So I think it’s unfair to criticise local crowds unwilling to shell out around 30 USD to watch fencing or shooting.
There were scatterings of South Koreans amongst the crowd, who made noise as best they could, as well as a few Germans. The greater part of the audience was made up of Brazilians, even if the arena was only about half-full.
The match was a best of five affair. Sets are first to eleven and the first to win three sets wins the game. As it’s a team event, the first team to three points is the winner, the first two matches being singles, the third doubles and the fourth another singles match. What happens in the fifth I don’t know, as the dispute wouldn’t go that far.
Commentators explained that players were generally either attacking or defensive, and the first match featured two attacking players. There were various points in the match where the German player was distant from the table and on the back foot, but managed to win the rallies each time this occurred with some deft looping defensive lobs that forced an error from his opponent. It ebbed and flowed, and went to a deciding set which the South Korean player won, making it 3-2, despite at times being match point down.
The second match featured an extremely defensive South Korean veteran who stood back far from the table and depended on his opponent making mistakes. It ended up 3-2 to the German, the highest-ranked player in the match, despite the South Korean even taking one of the sets 11-2. I asked myself whether it was possible to really thrive in a sport if you are committed to playing defensively, and then remembered that that is the way I myself play racket sports, staying in the rally, wearing the opponent down, and waiting for an error or an easy smash. In my case, despite getting smashed around the table or court at times, I can often lull the opponent into recklessness, though I suppose at the top level players are a lot more clinical than my mates! I’m also renowned for my defensive play on computer games, whether it be football, fighting or racing, so perhaps deep down I was siding with the South Korean.
Next came the doubles match, which was quite frenetic and featured shorter rallies, due to players having to alternate shots and get out of each other’s way quite often. There was a break in play due to an injury to the German, Timo Boll, whose name I remember because he was the best player on the day, and I drifted off for a while in my seat and did my best impression of a nodding dog. The German pair eventually ran out winners, once again 3-2, with the final set being rather comfortable in the end.
The fourth game involved Timo Boll once again, who despite his injury, and having just played the doubles match, defeated the South Korean defensive player in four sets, his attacking play winning out in the end. Thus the Germans took the gold medal, the crowd applauded and everyone went home.
The sensation of going to a sports events as a neutral was a novel experience for me, as I’m used to siding with a team or individual. Although being impartial allows you to take in the game as a whole as the supporting aspect (for your guy(s) and against the others) is taken away and you end up merely applauding good play, in this case exciting, longer rallies and acrobatic shops. Interesting.
This was the third and final event I’d see and was a 9 o’clock start, but luckily it took place at Lagoa, the big lake at the back of Copacabana, so I didn’t have to get up excessively early. As with the other events, queues moved along reasonably and the crowd was largely Brazilian. Yet again, the stadium was less than half full and there didn’t seem to be any control over making sure you sat in the correct area. I think I ended up with grandstand seats, so got more than I’d paid for.
As for the canoeing, or kayaking, however you like to put it, there were singles, doubles and fours races ranging from the 100m sprint to a 1000m which started on the other side of the lake, meaning you only saw the athletes as there were about 400m remaining. What was rather surprising, given that the Olympic stage is for elite-level sportsmen, was that there was such a disparity between athletes, which was extremely obvious over longer distances. And it wasn’t just the so-called lesser nations, in one case the Mozambique pair, who were lagging behind, but an Australian crew, from a country with much more sporting prowess, were literally treading water too.
What didn’t seem to make sense was the heats system. It appeared that, say, in a distance with 15 competitors, 3 or 4 heats only whittled the field down to 12 in the semi, resulting in there still being a substantial difference between winners and losers. It seemed to be done for the sake of occupying time, and the only advantage to be gained from the initial heats was that the winners skipped the semis and went straight to the final. I’d argue that it would be better to only qualify the top athletes from each heat, much like in athletics. Perhaps there is a tactic in it all that involves conserving energy for the latter stages. That said, the finals would take place the following day.
In terms of the support, the Brazilian athletes were raucously applauded and the Brazilian pair that took part in one of the longer distances dominated their heat and semi-finals and the following day would go on to claim silver, missing out on gold by a whisker. Being quite soon after the incident involving the French pole-vaulter and a partisan Brazilian crowd belting out boos and whistles, it seemed the people present took it upon themselves to applaud all participants, especially those who came in last place.
Much because of the aforementioned qualifications system, it all got a little bit repetitive for me, and I admit to closing my eyes for various parts of the events. It reinforced that race-type sports can be somewhat boring, especially if you’re not seeing the sports’ elite athletes. The beauty of ball games, like football, tennis and basketball, for example, is that no one match is ever the same, as the conditions are completely open. Athletics, swimming and canoeing on the other hand are completely individual and the only effect the race itself can have is to make the athlete push harder to win, depending on what their opponents are doing. Evidently, top-class sprinters and swimmers find that extra bit on the big stage, but ultimately what is done on the track or in the training before the event is what will, for the large part, determine the outcome of the race.
The Olympics is clearly a big deal in the sporting world, but I must admit that for me it doesn’t quite have the pull of the football World Cup. In 2014, there was an energy in the city, and people from all over the world filled the streets with a myriad of colours, all backing their country. In the Olympics most spectators don’t even know the athletes competing and in some cases don’t even understand the sports they are watching. As a result, the only noise to be heard was in the stadiums where the sports were taking place. Olympic fever is nothing compared with football fever, and is arguably more for the sports themselves than the winners. Added to that, many of the sports arenas are distant from the tourist hotspots of Copacabana and Ipanema and events lasted for full mornings, afternoons and evenings, meaning you didn’t get that conglomeration of supporters in Fan Fest type spaces as in during the World Cup. At the Olympics there were more families, whereas the majority of football fans were solo travellers, more in the mould of backpackers. Throw in the media-created threat of Zika and insecurity and you’ll understand perhaps why the atmosphere was flat.
But then it’s not fair to compare the Olympics with the World Cup as I just have. They are separate entities; football is not just about the game, but about winning, supporting, shouting, creating and atmosphere and having a rivalry with other fans, whereas the Olympics are about sport and don’t carry the buzz beyond the venue.
Nevertheless, it was a fun experience for me, as I got to learn about new sports, and I enjoyed the sports for their own sake.
Rio was as always is for he who knows it and I suppose the final part of the 7-year jigsaw before I have to make a decision about the new course my ship will sail was worth it, if only not to have had to bear the what-ifs of not going.
Better to think why-did-I than why-didn’t-I.
I still have time for Brazil.