Last week I developed a blood clot in my right calf muscle, imperiling my first trip to the Olympics. It took a while for two specialists to sign off on the journey and for me to obtain the correct blood-thinning medication, and by the time I arrived in Rio late Friday night, the opening ceremony had ended, and I felt like I had missed out on a party that all my friends were raving about. (My mood wasn’t helped by having picked up a nasty head cold en route, perhaps during a seven-hour layover at the frigid airport in Panama City.)
My first day in Rio was full of disasters large and small. I began by ordering a breakfast sandwich at a corner café, and when it arrived, the server apologetically explained that they had run out of ham… and eggs. He was nice enough to have put a few sprigs of spinach on my otherwise naked English muffin. I spent an hour crisscrossing Copacabana trying to find the pickup spot for my shuttle bus. The markings were so subtle I never did find the right spot and, defeated, ordered an Uber to take me to the Olympic Village.
The driver got lost. Twice.
After two hours we finally figured out where we needed to be, but since his car didn’t have the proper decals we couldn’t penetrate the many layers of security. I hopped out and limped the final two miles. My plan had been to watch swimming in person that night but I was so exhausted I headed back to my hotel, wondering if this trip was the biggest mistake of my life.
Saturday night in Rio the party raged all around me, but I was drooling on my pillow by 9:15 p.m.
And then, blessedly, a new day arrived. In the long run-up to these Olympics the portrayal of Brazil had been brutal, the country painted as a lawless failed state teetering on the edge of anarchy. But Sunday morning, strolling through Copacabana, was the picture of normalcy—folks were jogging, sweeping their little stoops, walking their dogs, chatting with neighbors, drinking coffee and otherwise enjoying a warm winter morning. There was no sense of menace, only smiles.
I made it down to the beachfront and by 9:30 a.m. the joint was jumping, not least because there are Caipirinha (Brazil’s national cocktail) stands every 100 yards or so. (I recommend extra lime.) As far as the eye could see there were pickup soccer and volleyball games being played on the sand, a United Nations of weekend warriors. The locals stood out by their Speedos and vastly superior skills.
The opening ceremony had perceptibly changed something in Rio. A populace that was ambivalent at best about the Games had been utterly charmed by the tasteful spectacle, and a dormant national pride reawakened. I heard this from bellhops and baristas, shuttle drivers and bodega clerks. All over Copa, Cariocas sported green and yellow. Strictly for journalistic purpose, I also counted a quartet of long-legged beauties sauntering about in the *other* national uniform, a teeny-tiny thong.
In the middle of Copacabana beach a temporary temple has arisen, to serve as the venue for beach volleyball, a kind of local religion. The second match of the morning featured Brazil’s medal favorites Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes against the Russian duo of Ekaterina Birlova and Evgenia Ukolova. The line to get in had to be a quarter-mile long.
The stadium is not beautiful but it is wondrous, looking like it was put together by very clever children with an endless supply of metal piping. It is basically three-sided, opening up a vast vista of the ocean, dotted with dramatic rock outcroppings, sailboats and, in a lone nod to the pre-Olympics doom and gloom, a smattering of ominous-looking grey military vessels. Perhaps the water is not the purest but it sure looked pretty shimmering in the sun.
The match itself was more of a party than an athletic contest, a celebration of national identity set to a samba beat. As at a bullfight, sometimes the crowd cheered at times that were inexplicable to a causal observer; in fact, these sophisticated fans were appreciating the smallest subtleties. It could have been an intriguing match, as the Russians were the taller and more powerful hitters, but the Brazilians had stronger ball skills and more dangerous serves. But Larissa and Talita won easily in straight sets, and the primary difference seemed to be the brio with which they played—after almost every point they hugged and sometimes threw in ornate low-5 routines, just for fun, while the Russians were grim and stone-faced.
After the match Talita was still covered in sand, as if she had been breaded. I asked her what her sport means to Cariocas. “When you talk about beach volleyball you think about Copacabana, about Rio,” she said. “It is special here. The people support us, they cheer us. They are the third player.”
As for the secret to the Brazilian women’s success—they have won six medals since the sport was added in 1996—Talita said,”In beach volleyball the Brazilian plays with passion. They have great heart. Beach volleyball is like this. You have to play happy.”
A couple hours after the match ended, at the other end of Copacabana Beach, the women’s cycling road race began. The riders displayed the same awesome combination of agility and explosiveness as their volleyball brethren. It’s doubtful many Rio natives grew up as Olympic cycling fans but throngs turned out to cheer on the riders as they roared through the canyons between high-rise hotels. They were frozen in the pose of modern fandom: one hand in the air, a smartphone in the other, recording the scene. The race made for dazzling TV, showcasing all of Rio’s breath-taking topography.
Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands conquered the demanding 136.9 kilometer course in 3:51:27 to take the gold medal. The wonderfully named Flavia Maria de Oliveira Paparella was the lone Brazilian to place, coming in seventh. Her countrywoman Clemilda Fernandes did not finish. Before the race Fernandes was realistic about her chances but still moved by the magnitude of the opportunity. “I know I won’t win, but to be here is something bigger,” she said. “To have your Olympics in your home country is a dream. It's incredible to be here racing. I am so happy. This is such a big moment for our country."
At the end of a long, wondrous day in Copacabana, my leg was throbbing, my neck was sunburned and I was almost dizzy with jet-lag, but I had to agree with Fernandes. This is a big moment, for Brazil and for sport. And I am so happy to be here.