An opening weekend diary from an Olympic rookie in Rio
- Since it's my first time doing any of this on the ground, I decided to see as many Olympic events and venues as I could.
The Summer Olympics are like the Super Bowl. They arrive with massive media attention and no human interest story is left untold. They appeal to diehard fans and casual viewers alike. There is an ungodly amount of sponsorship. For most of the athletes involved, this is the biggest stage of their lives, and a two-week window they've been working toward for decades. And for all these reasons and more, both the Super Bowl and the Summer Olympics are perfect events for television.
Of course, it's an entirely different experience in person. In person, all the tidy packaging melts away and with 200 countries thrown into one city for two weeks, it's more like barely controlled chaos. This is especially true in Rio, and it's especially true if you've never experienced any of this before. That's me this week. Everything else about this is new, and generally overwhelming. I'm full-on rookie. And since it was my first time doing any of this on the ground, I decided to see as much as I could, and keep a diary of the first weekend.
Here's how it went.
Friday Afternoon (Day 0)
12:50 P.M.: Basketball practice just ended and my cab driver is lost on the way back to my hotel. He doesn't speak a word of English, I don't speak a word of Portuguese. I show him an English version of my hotel's website. I show him a Portuguese version of my hotel's website. None of this seems to be working, but we're driving at least.
1:05 P.M.: We both give up trying to make this work. He says he'll drop me off at the beach. Cool.
1:10 P.M.: On the walk home, there's a huge crowd across the street. There's cheering on both sides of this little path. There's a police truck and a few motorcycles in the middle of them, making their way down the street. Is this ... the torch? The opening ceremony is tonight. They run through the city, right? Isn't that how this works?
1:12 P.M.: It's not the torch. It's a protest. The crowd seems to be divided between local protesters yelling about the Brazilian President, and other locals who are yelling at the protesters for inconveniencing everyone.
1:15 P.M.: One person says this particular crowd isn't necessarily mad about the the Olympics. They're just using the Games to draw attention to their problems with the President, Michel Temer. There are "Fora Temer" signs sprinkled through the crowd. I look up "fora" in Portuguese on Google translate. It means "OUT."
1:18 P.M.: About 150 yards down the road there's an even larger protest, and judging from the giant "WE DO NOT WANT OLYMPICS" banner, that one is more about the Olympics.
1:21 P.M.: My favorite person here is the guy selling cotton candy in the middle of these protests. There's gotta be a heavy-handed Olympic metaphor in there somewhere.
1:30 P.M.: I'm speed-walking home to check on tickets for the opening ceremony. I'm also looking at my phone to see whether I got any good pictures of the protest. And this is when I walk headfirst into a tree trunk that's bent at 45 degrees across the sidewalk. My head hits hard. Phone and iPod go flying. With my head throbbing and dignity gone forever, I try to keep it moving. A teenage couple behind me burst out laughing, and the old lady next to me tries to keep it more respectful, but she's laughing too. I hope there's a Vine of this somewhere on the Brazilian internet, and I hope it's called, "Somebody Please Rob This Man."
1:50 P.M.: Tickets are tight for the opening ceremony, and I'm not on the list. I send one more hail mary e-mail to see if anything opened up.
2:30 P.M.: Get out of the shower to see a missed call and two e-mails. "There's a ticket for you, but you have to get here ASAP."
2:45 P.M.: Now waiting for an hour-long bus to the media center ("ASAP" is relative in Rio), and then there will be another hour-long bus from the media center to the stadium. All of this sounds great. I'm in.
Friday Night (Day 0)
4:30 P.M.: We're on the bus to the ceremony. A colleague is checking Twitter and giving us updates on a protest outside the stadium. "They just blew up a Brazilian flag with firecrackers." OK!
5:00 P.M.: For the people who think it's wrong to host an Olympics in a city and country beset by pockets of extreme poverty, the bus ride to the opening ceremony underscores that point. To get to the stadium and its $100 million light show, we go through a neighborhood full of buildings that look abandoned but are clearly being used. It's pretty jarring. And I have a feeling the neighborhood we're seeing isn't close to as rough as Rio gets.
5:15 P.M.: The line to get in the stadium is a few blocks long. Worth it. I'm pumped.
5:20 P.M.: We're waiting in line behind five Australian Olympic committee members. Four young women, and one man in his 40s. The man starts telling us about his countryman from Rupert Murdoch's organization who set his video camera down, only to get it stolen seconds later. "The guy grabbed it," he says. "And he just jumped in a car waiting around the corner. Boom, gone. Not sure what he's going to do down here. Can't just buy a $30,000 camera at the store."
5:30 P.M.: The women in front of us are wearing the official Aussie blazers. They're also wearing skirts, which means they're more comfortable than the rest of us, but are carefully applying bug spray to each other's legs at the moment. They have a stuffed animal, too—a kangaroo with boxing gloves they call B.K. To pass the time in line, they're taking pictures with B.K.
5:35 P.M.: The inside of the Australian blazers include the names of every Aussie gold medalist ever.
5:45 P.M.: There's an argument of whether Pele is the most recognizable living athlete in the world. I say no way. With Ali gone, Jordan is definitely no. 1, right? And then Kobe Bryant before Pele, because A) Asia, and B) people under 18 years old don't necessarily have a reason to know who Pele is.
6:00 P.M.: Made it into the stadium. Haven't eaten since 8:30 A.M.. Need food immediately.
6:15 P.M.: The menu at the concession stand says there are cheeseburgers and hot dogs, but the workers there say there won't be any food until later.
6:30 P.M.: I wind up walking downstairs. I don't think I'm supposed to be here, but it is amazing. First of all, there is free food down here—mini pulled pork and roast beef sandwiches, with cornbread, and ice cream. Trying to play it cool while talking to a man from Bermuda, I only grab one mini sandwich. Then I watch the foreign dignitaries enter. There's an older couple from Liberia in full African robes. There's a Saudi in his thobe. There are three Russians: two in track gear and an orthodox priest. The dutch all wear Dutch orange polo shirts. Others walk in draped in flags from Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, and Great Britain. I wish I could stay down here forever.
7:47 P.M.: So far we've had the international kiss (Bejio) cam, the pre-ceremony MC telling the crowd to make animal noises, and a team of dancers teaching us a dance. Now the MC tells the crowd to hum for unity and love. The Olympics are great.
7:49 P.M.: They have warned us about the emergency exit procedure at least five times. Maybe the Olympics won't be so great.
8:12 P.M.: The show is underway. There are lights everywhere and I have no idea what's happening. I think this is the history of Brazil and we're starting in the jungle?
8:28 P.M.: I don't understand the historical significance of this one, but that's a plane! A plane of paper and wood being guided across the stadium. Did Brazil invent planes?
8:30 P.M.: Gisele is in the building. She strolls 200 yards across the stadium, by herself on an empty floor, to the "Girl from iPanema". The amount of swag is incalculable.
8:46 P.M.: Now we're talking about global warming. Maybe this issue was shoehorned in to make everyone feel better about how corrupt the Olympics are.
9:01 P.M.: The opening show is over and it's time for the parade of nations. The guide says this will take 1 hour and 50 minutes. This seems like a long time, but the opening ceremony is as insane, ambitious and self-indulgent as holding a fitness competition with 200 countries in one city for two weeks straight. It's perfect.
9:05 P.M.: There's a German reporter sitting next to me, and he has a stuffed animal on his desk. It's a husky. He says he bought it at the 1998 bobsled world championships. He was named Speedy, but has since been renamed Olly Speedy, for the Olympics. Between this and the boxing kangaroo, I'm really regretting not bringing a personal mascot to Rio.
9:23 P.M.: Every country is being introduced with a bike that looks like it's from a Tim Burton movie. All I want is one of those bikes, or one of the Croatian jumpsuits.
9:29 P.M.: 30 minutes in and we are only at El Salavador. There are a lot of countries out there.
9:34 P.M.: United States is the 70th country announced. Official order is Spain, Micronesia, United States. The in-stadium camera cuts to John Kerry straining to take an iPhone photo.
10:20 P.M.: My colleague is excited for the entrance of the Russian team. They've been in the middle of a widespread doping scandal for the past six months. Will they be booed? On the one hand, I generally feel like it's crazy to care about doping. It's much healthier to assume that everyone's bending the rules. On the other hand, if you assume that everyone's bending the rules, Russia's doping program had to be pretty extreme to get caught.
10:24 P.M.: No boos for Russia. Everyone is in a good mood tonight. I should have eaten more of the mini sandwiches in the foreign dignitary section.
10:41 P.M.: WHOA, the flag bearer from Tonga is shirtless and lathered in oil and here to get the entire stadium pregnant.
11:09 P.M.: The parade of nations is over but we still haven't lit the torch. Someone says "[W]e believed in the sex ... success of the Rio 2016 Games." Come on, that's the perfect line to end on. This has been a great night. Light the torch.
11:13 P.M.: "We are living in a world of crisis, mistrust and uncertainty," says IOC President Thomas Bach, describing his organization to a tee. According to Wikipedia, Bach is a German lawyer and a former Olympic fencer. He reminds me of one the South African villains in Lethal Weapon 2.
11:30 P.M.: My German friend is using a selfie stick to take pictures of his husky. He's my favorite person in Rio.
11:42 P.M.: There's a pounding drum and a bunch of little armies in different colors just emerged from the tunnel. I think I'm on mescaline. They still haven't lit the torch. How are we still doing this?
1:05 A.M.: The scene outside the stadium is chaos. There's gotta be 800 people trying to get on these media buses. May never get home.
2:15 A.M.: Is our bus lost? Where the f--- ARE we?
3:15 A.M.: I'm so hungry. The McDonalds in Copacabana closed literally as our bus pulled up to the curb. We pass a cafe that has cold pizza, mixed drinks, protein smoothies, and what looks like flan. I order the probably-flan. This was a good night.
Saturday (Day 1)
11:00 A.M.: On the bus again. In reading about last night's ceremony I find out that Brazil does claim to have invented flight, and there's been a longstanding national beef with the Wright Brothers. The more you know!
1:57 P.M.: Planning to attend the first basketball games today, but I can't find the basketball stadium. I'm wandering around Olympic Park along with thousands of other people. Through the throngs of people, I spot someone wearing a Bismack Biyombo. No one wears a Bismack Biyombo jersey to the Olympics without going to the basketball games. He helps me find my way.
2:05 P.M. - Biyombo and his friends are from Sao Paolo. They drove six hours to Rio to hang out for the weekend. They all speak decent English, and they're huge NBA fans, so we ignore the dozens of sports around us and talk about basketball for a few minutes. They demand that I find them tickets to the U.S. game later. Meanwhile, a French player's family walks in next to us, and they're all wearing his jersey.
2:10 P.M. - Feeling a pang of responsibility as a reporter, I ask my new friends whether they're upset about having the Olympics in Brazil. The four of them shrug. "It may not be great for Brazil in general," Biyombo says, "but it's still fun. It puts everyone in a good mood. And you know, you have to spend to make that happen." They seem cool with it. Then again, they don't have to live in Rio.
2:35 P.M. - After parting ways with my Sao Paolo friends and winding through Olympic Park, I'm sent in the wrong direction about five different times. I finally find a stadium worker who lets me into the stadium, 30 minutes late to Australia-France. The first play I see is a Matthew Dellavedova three, and then one of those annoying Dellavedova steals where he rolls on to the floor to harass someone on the ensuing inbounds. Definitely cheering for Australia today.
2:39 P.M. - This Brazilian PA announcer is really leaning into the French pronunciation of Tony Parker's name, and we should all do the same.
2:46 P.M. - Another American writer arrives late after making the same odyssey through Olympic Park. We start talking about food. I came here excited to try everything, but I just haven't enjoyed most of it. I feel guilty about this. He says he came here for vacation a few years ago and was disappointed with every meal he had. That makes me feel better. He also says that he just ate at a restaurant called "Practicita" that will blow my mind. That's on the top of my to-do list for the next week.
3:31 P.M. - Friday night's Bejio Cam has been replaced by Saturday afternoon's Bongo Cam, and it's not the same. 61-48 Australia. Are the French sedated, or just genetically predisposed to be napping at this hour?
3:35 P.M. - Andrew Bogut looks five years younger than he did in Golden State. He finishes two straight alley-oops from Dellavedova. I might defect to Australia at the end of these Olympics.
3:41 P.M. - Fourth quarter. French straight up gives up guarding a screen, and Andrew Bogut is cleared for takeoff. He sails in for a dunk that would've seemed impossible two months ago. Australia up big. This game is officially over.
4:15 P.M. - Waiting for interviews in the mixed zone afterward. Tony Parker skips this process entirely, but the Australian team is hanging out. "What's up man?" Bogut says to reporter Sam Amick. "You gonna watch me piss? That you?" All the talk is about how good he looked. I ask how he felt on the dunk to seal it. "Not great." He laughs. "I didn't get very high."
4:20 P.M. - As I head to the media center, I see Doug Collins and Marv Albert talking outside the bus stop. It feels like 1996 all over again.
5:45 P.M. - Back to the basketball arena. Me and a female Chinese reporter are looking for the right bus. We decide to follow a reporter from Denmark wearing a Knicks Porzingis shirsey. Note: The Olympic village will need twice as many condoms when Porzingis takes Latvia to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
6:40 P.M. - Team USA takes the floor for the night, and a cascade of Drake begins pouring from the PA system.
6:47 P.M. - The cheers for the Americans are loud, but not quite as crazy as expected. As far as international fans are concerned, this is very much a team of excellent NBA players who are not quite as famous as LeBron or Steph. Even Kevin Durant doesn't seem to hit that level. Maybe this is why he left OKC.
7:06 P.M. - The Chinese reporter in front of me has already taken three selfies, so there's still a decent amount of excitement.
7:37 P.M. - There's a wet spot on the floor and as a volunteer bends down to clean it up, an oblivious Boogie Cousins kicks his heels up and almost nails this woman in the face. Glad we avoided that visual.
7:41 P.M. - The Americans have been sluggish, and a helpless Chinese team has kept things slightly more competitive than expected. Then Durant wakes everyone up with a flurry of buckets, and China is officially hopeless.
7:42 P.M. - KD follows two straight threes with a pull-up heat check from 30 feet. He really is a Warrior now.
7:45 P.M. - Bored with the game, the Brazilian crowd breaks into a roaring rendition of the wave that includes stomping the bleachers. Then they start chanting for the Chinese team, "OLE OLE OLE OLE, Cheeeee-nahhhh, Cheeeenahhhhhhhh"
8:21 P.M. - Three Chinese guys just finished doing speed-Double Dutch to a techno remix of "Hello" by Adele. Good halftime.
8:35 P.M. - Watching the Chinese try to score on the Americans might be the closest we ever come to watching regular humans play against NBA stars. They are twisting, leaning, pump-faking, fading away, and none of it really works, but I love all of it. The Chinese team are like me in a pickup game. Lots of ambition, not quite enough execution.
8:45 P.M. - Sitting with Alex Wolff, and he tells me the spread for this game was 50. The Americans are up 40 in the second half. Will they cover?
8:50 P.M. - Kyrie Irving scores 12 points in about 120 seconds. Yi Jianlian can only do so much. The Americans win by 57. I don't know if my friends from Sao Paolo made it, but if not, they didn't miss much.
11:45 P.M. - I got off at the wrong bus stop and am in a part of Rio I've never seen before. On the bright side, there's an Italian restaurant right next to the bus stop, it's still open, and it has pizza. Let me get this food and find a cab.
Sunday Morning (Day 2)
10:40 A.M. - Walking to Women's Beach Volleyball with SI Olympic expert Chris Chavez. It was beautiful outside about five minutes ago, and now there are clouds on the horizon and I swear to God the wind is blowing at 30 miles per hour. How is it possible for weather to change that quickly?
10:45 A.M. - Joga Bonito.
10:47 A.M. - DOGA BONITO.
10:51 A.M. - I'm sorry.
11:00 A.M. - Made it to the stadium, which is set entirely on scaffolding. Don't feel unsafe, but don't feel safe. In the end, the view is phenomenal enough to make this worth the risk.
11:15 A.M. - It's only been 15 minutes, but beach volleyball is great. Most of the points have five or more different moments where one team looks totally screwed, and then that team nonchalantly returns it and somehow take the advantage. It goes back and forth like that over and over again. I could sit here for the next eight hours.
11:18 A.M. - "Someone's an Olympian in this row," Chris tells me, pointing down our row. "See? She's got the rings tattoo. You can only get the rings if you're an Olympian." I don't know if this is true.
11:24 A.M. - Three straight blocks for Poland. After the third block the PA system drops a hip-hop beat with a chorus that goes: "Mon-ster BLOCK, mon-ster BLOCK, mon-ster BLOCK." Rio knows how to do beach volleyball.
11:38 A.M. - Poland takes the second set, and the crowd is all-in. There are "POL-SKA" chants all over the stadium. One of the best parts of attending the games in-person is gauging the crowd's allegiances. Most of the fans here are Brazilian, and theoretically neutral. But as games unfold, villains and heroes emerge and the crowd always picks a side. Personally, I'm torn between love of my country and love of these POLSKA chants.
11:52 A.M. - Poland dominates the third set, and wins the match. On the way out, one American asks, "Does Poland even have beaches?"
12:05 P.M. - Walking back to the hotel, and ...
12:05 P.M. - BEHOLD, MY ENEMY.
12:43 P.M. - Waiting for a bus from Copacabana to the media center and Olympic Park. A bird just pooped on my hand. Or at least, I hope that was a bird.
12:57 P.M. - We meet a mother and son from Georgia. The mother says they went to London in 2012, and they're just really into the Olympics. We talk for a few and then her 10 year-old son asks whether I play Pokemon Go. I don't, but he's still excited to tell me that Rio has set up Pokemon Go stops all over the city. Then he tells me that he's been surfing since he was 4 years old. Then he tells me he's going to get his PHD one day. This kid is going to be president one day.
Sunday Afternoon (Day 2)
2:42 P.M. - No, I don't have the courage for media dining hall sushi.
3:35 P.M. - The diving venue is outdoors and it's held in a venue that looks like it could be a middle-tier high school football stadium in Texas.
3:48 P.M. - The MC of this event just broke into a song. "Lettttttttt's get, letttttttt's get, INTO IT." This is to the tune of "We Will Rock You" by Queen.
3:49 P.M. - It's not just the chorus. First verse: "This is the Olympics at Rio 2016, thank you alllllll for coming, please help us keep the stadiums clean, please the thank the volunteers in yellow and green." And then the second verse is in Portuguese. All to the tune of "We Will Rock You". I've never loved the Olympics more than I do right at this moment.
3:58 P.M. - "Those two," Chris tells me of the Chinese synchronized diving tandem of Shi Tingmao and Wu Minxia. "They are the GOAT."
4:10 P.M. - Synchronized diving is less entertaining than volleyball, but definitely more incredible. The divers are basically flawless, and watching two people do it together is mind-boggling. This is also an event that becomes twice as impressive with HD Replay.
4:12 P.M. - Either the judges are haters, or I'm easily impressed. These dives deserve way better than an 8.0.
4:13 P.M. - Before the Chinese's second attempt, the video board shows the Italian swimmers messing around in a hot tub. Does that help? "Funny you should ask that," Chris Chavez says. "They did an investigation and found out that it doesn't actually do anything for them. They just like how it feels." Fair enough!
4:15 P.M. - Wu and Shi are running this. They just did a flip in sync. They are LeBron in the Finals right now. They are Bird in the three-point contest and everyone else is coming in second. I would include the slow motion video that I just took on my iPhone, but NBC and/or the IOC would come to my hotel room and kidnap me.
4:25 P.M. - We're headed to the fencing medal round.
4:30 P.M. - Wait, we're trapped in a maze of industrial fences and ambulances.
4:43 P.M. - We enter the wrong stadium, but we're just in time to see an Italian man win his judo match as the entire stadium chants along with him. We're counting this as our third event of the day.
5:05 P.M. - Made it to the arena, Carioca 3, where it looks like there's about to be a Daft Punk concert.
5:10 P.M. - I meet some Team USA family members who explain that there are three fencing disciplines—epee, saber, and foil. This is the medal round for the foil division. "My daughter does another one," one dad tells me. "Honestly, I have no clue how this one works." One of the competitor's sisters explains the rules to me. "So, I only learned this yesterday," she says, "but basically, there are different zones you can hit in different divisions, and the blades they use are different. In foil you can only hit the chest, and whoever hits first will have their side light up in either red or green."
5:14 P.M. - An American is trying to become the first foil gold medalist since 1904, but first there's a bronze medal match between Richard Kruse (Great Britain) and Timur Safin (Russia). Some good salsa music keeps the crowd awake, and then the fencers approach.
5:19 P.M. - Confused by the French announcers calling the match, I turn to the Team USA dad for an explanation. "French is the traditional language of the sport," he says, "And also the language of the governing body."
5:22 P.M. - Safin just bullrushed Kruse off the platform. Isn't fencing supposed to be a gentleman's sport?
5:27 P.M. - Safin takes another point, and tears off his mask. He's fist-pumping and gesturing to the crowd, while also arguing with the ref. He's such a good villain, and he's dominating. The fans here are openly booing him now.
5:35 P.M. - Kruse wins again! 14-13, and I just found out that the first to 15 wins. Fans stomping across the stadium. End of round two. One minute break. Let's do this Kruse.
5:38 P.M. - Damn. Safin wins and throws his mask across the ring fist-pumping to the crowd that was booing him 90 seconds ago. This feels like every Floyd Mayweather fight I've ever watched.
5:43 P.M. - Gold medal match. Alex Massialas from the U.S. vs. Daniele Garozzo from Italy. Massialas took the year off from college to prepare. He competed in the 2012 Games at 18 years old and finished 13th. Now he's the No. 1 fencer in the world.
5:44 P.M. - The samba intermission music from earlier has been replaced by the Star Wars theme.
5:47 P.M. - Garozzo goes up 1-0 and the crowd erupts into "I-TAL-IA" chants. Massialas ties it up, "U-S-A" chants get going, but the crowd drowns them out with boos. Where did this come from? America hasn't won a gold in 100 years. Can these people let us live?
5:50 P.M. - Garozzo takes the lead, crowd goes nuts with more Italia chants. I'm disgusted with everything that's happening here.
5:58 P.M. - Now it's 14-7. Not looking great for your boy, but Chris tells me that Massialas did come back from down 14-8 earlier in the day. There's hope?
6:02 P.M. - 14-10. I can't watch.
6:03 P.M. - 14-11. I can't breathe.
6:04 P.M. - Are we doing this? Garozzo and Massialas both hit each other. Both sides of the panel light up—meaning both players scored—but Garozzo takes off his mask, sprints off the platform, and is already celebrating with Italian fans. The judges double check to see who hit first, but I already know how this ends. Italy wins.
6:05 P.M. - PA system breaks into techno remix of a "We Are The Champions". Big day for Queen in Rio. Fencing was way more intense than expected, and I'm not sure how I feel about it after dealing with that disappointment.
6:30 P.M. - We stay for the medal ceremony, and the medal ceremony is honestly not very interesting. Maybe I'm still too heartbroken about the Massialas match.
Sunday Night (Day 2)
7:00 P.M. - We're here for Croatia-Spain. After walking and bussing all over Rio and then the Olympic Park, I need food and a bed. How does anyone keep this schedule for two-and-a-half weeks straight? Croatia is the most exciting team in the international field, and my loyalty to Mario Hezonja is the only reason I made it this far.
7:10 P.M. - Pau Gasol banks in a three from the top of the key and backpedals down the court doing the Jordan Shrug. That sentence is the best possible advertisement for FIBA basketball.
7:21 P.M. - End of first quarter at Spain-Croatia, and an inflatable mascot just finished break dancing to "Turn Down for What." It's time to go back to the hotel.
7:52 P.M. - Halftime. We have to find a bus to the media center, and then get on an hour-long bus back to the hotel to start writing. This game is fun, but it's been a long weekend. There's no way Spain's losing, and Croatia will play another five games before this is over. I'm going home.
9:10 P.M. - ROOKIE MISTAKE.