Olympics in Rio worth the trip
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.
With so many uncertainties and problems I was very curious to see personally how Rio’s Games would compare to London’s.
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.
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.
Another big difference between Rio and London was the presence of security and armed soldiers. From the moment we got off the plane it seemed like we were always in view of a soldier with a rifle. 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 7-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 towards 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 Lehman is a Genoa resident and Douglas County School Board trustee