8.4.16, 8:45 p.m. CST, George Bush International Airport, Houston, Texas
“I missed her first steps, I’m not missing this,” says a woman behind me in line as we board our flight to Rio. Tears well in her eyes, smearing her makeup as she speaks to a stranger on my left who is wearing an Uncle Sam costume. Her name is Lynn Page, and she’s talking about her daughter, Danielle, who is starting for the Serbian basketball team at the Olympics. Though the family is from Monument, Colorado, near Denver, Danielle was recruited by Serbian coach Marina Maljkovic, who needed a power forward, last year. Page, who first met Maljkovic while playing for a club team in France, would be eligible to join the Serbian team if she became a naturalized citizen.
When first approached with the opportunity, Danielle was conflicted — her Mom and Dad are both decorated Air Force veterans, and she didn’t want to be perceived as betraying her country. Both parents urged Danielle to take the opportunity, wholeheartedly. “No one can argue with a champion,” they told her.
Danielle had to learn the Serbian anthem, brush up on the nation’s history, and weather some harsh opinions from Serbians who remain bitter about the country’s rocky past relations with the US. At last, in March 2015, her dual citizenship became official after a special vote by Serbian parliament. After four years at the University of Nebraska, one modest season in the WNBA, and eight successful ones in Europe, Danielle Page led the Serbians to a gold medal (and Rio qualification) at EuroBasket 2015. This week, she will finally be competing at the highest level of basketball in the world.
Still, the Page family nearly didn’t make it to Rio to see her. Their flight had been cancelled out of Denver due to mechanical failure; they had to scramble to get to Houston, even attempting to empty out their savings to book a private flight. Eventually they caught this plane, on standby, after hours of agony.
As we shuffle towards the airport gate, Lynn is a proud mom, shaking with emotion, scrolling through her iPhone and showing me photos of Danielle in the Olympic Village. “The water runs, the apartment is nice, the toilet works. I don’t know what else I should ask for,” Danielle told her.
At that moment, a large contingent of the USA gymnastics team boards the flight to rapturous applause. They’re flying coach. Then, the United employees at the gate stop in to ask Uncle Sam for a photo.
11:52 p.m., Brazil Time, UA Flight 129
The crew of American gymnasts on my flight are joined by Canadian swimmers and a couple athletes from the Philippines. “Do you think the body fat on this plane is lower than usual?” one Canadian asks me with a smile as we board. Later, I can’t help but wonder what the world’s most elite athletes are doing to pass the time as they face down the biggest moment of their career. On a walk through the aisle, I can see one swimmer reading an arduous-looking book about mental management. Another is watching Sally Field’s solid performance in Hello Doris.
8.5.16, 9:29 a.m., Galeão Airport, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
We fly into a hazy Rio airport. “Bring those medals home,” the flight attendant says. “Go USA!” More applause.
11:11 a.m., Outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
On the highway from the airport into downtown Rio there is an unobstructed glimpse of the favelas for about three seconds before a multi-colored, opaque wall blocks the view. The favela-blocking wall becomes transparent for about 200 yards when we pass a school. “This is closest you’ll get,” says Heitor, my guide and longtime Brazilian. Heitor has spent nearly 20 years in Rio, and seven in São Paulo before that. His English contains only a trace of an accent, and I find out that he spent a few years as a college professor before opening his own language school, and eventually getting into life coaching and tourism. Heitor is unwaveringly honest and sincere, even when we talk about the bad parts of Rio. His passion for Brazil seems to ooze from every word. He would later tell me he’s not worried about safety at the Olympics, but that he is bothered by the hypocrisy of Brazilian authorities protecting tourists for three weeks instead of its citizens year-round. I get the sense that he’s rooting for the city like a parent roots for a grown child.
At that moment, a large contingent of the USA gymnastics team boards the flight to rapturous applause. They’re flying coach.
Heitor describes the omnipresent construction that has characterized Rio in preparation for the World Cup and the Olympics since the city was selected in 2006. It went to the last minute. “Starting last week, we saw a new city,” he says. We drive through a fresh, shiny tunnel, named after former Rio politician Marcello Alencar, that opened just two weeks ago. Heitor says the path through this part of town, the waterfront, used to be an elevated road with underpasses that were dark, dangerous centers of crime (Here’s video of the overpass being blown up in 2013). Later, Heitor’s co-worker Adriana says she strongly believes the government negotiated a financial deal with the favelas to stop petty crime in urban areas for the month.
11:37 a.m., Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
I go for a run down the beach to try and get the lay of the land. The famous beaches, moving from east to west, are Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. This coastal area tends to be a hub for tourism and leisure, while the downtown area (which is about six miles away, or a 30- to 45-minute drive in Olympics traffic) is more of a financial and business center. In terms of cities, Heitor tells me that Rio slots in closer to Brazil’s L.A., while São Paulo is its New York. The Brazilian film and TV industry are headquartered here, and it is the plastic surgery capital of the country, too. Cariocas, as they call residents of Rio, tend to be easygoing and loose, with a flair for the dramatic. “Rio is the heart of Brazil; São Paulo, the pocket,” Heitor says.
Giselle Bundchen’s walk across the stadium floor, soundtracked by “Girl from Ipanema,” and the introduction of the Olympic Refugee Team earn the loudest cheers of the night.
After I run for about 10 minutes, the walking and bike path that traces the coastal road becomes choked with protesters. It’s a crowd of hundreds, possibly a thousand, blocking the street and spilling on to the path, with many holding signs that say “Fora Temer” (or, “Temer, get out”) a reference to interim president Michel Temer, who took over for Dilma Rousseff in May. Some signs also read “stop the coup” in English, which is a nod to the idea that Temer and his supporters are part of a sinister plan to depose the democratically elected Rouseff.
As I turn back to run towards my hotel, a distracted driver backs directly into a motorcycle cop, crushing his front tire and sending him hard into the asphalt.
8.5.16, 6:15 p.m., La Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The stadium that holds the Opening Ceremonies is seven miles from our hotel, but our guides tell us to allow four hours (two to drive there, two to clear security). All across the city, there are dedicated lanes for “Olympic traffic,” or those who have tickets to venues and events. Security for the Opening Ceremony is set up in tiers, and we face about four checkpoints on the walk in — three are ticket checks with supervisors peeking into bags, while the last one is a metal-detector setup reminiscent of a regional airport. Luckily, the four-hour prediction proves to be somewhat false, and we’re in 90 minutes before the ceremonies get underway.
Though beers inside the stadium are a reasonable $4 and a chicken sandwich runs about $3, the lines are pure chaos. Seemingly to eliminate theft, attendees can only pay certain free-roaming cashiers who then dispense food coupons. No monetary transactions take place at the food stations. Every roaming cashier is either surrounded by hordes of overeager, hungry civilians or holding court in front of a line that stretches for hundreds of feet.
The concerns and conversations leading up the Olympics ranged from sensational (“Everyone is going to get Zika!”) to legitimate (“Guanabara Bay is filthy,” “Rio is having a miserable year politically and economically”), but it never much centered on the athletes. The ceremonies were finally Brazil’s chance to control the narrative, and they did so beautifully.
It was an unflinching, technicolor look at the country’s history, with the plot of a Diego Rivera fresco and the aesthetic of a Yeezy arena tour. The section acknowledging the country’s deep, troubled history of slavery earned surprised looks and whispers from the audience. (Brazil was the last country to outlaw slavery, waiting until 1888. The country also imported about 4 million slaves, or 13 times as many as the US.) It was hard to imagine the United States taking responsibility for the same thing at our Opening Ceremonies.
Gisele Bundchen’s walk across the stadium floor, soundtracked by “Girl from Ipanema,” and the introduction of the Olympic Refugee Team earn the loudest cheers of the night.
After a couple hours, the Parade of Nations wraps with Brazil. Chants, flags, more fireworks. IOC President Thomas Bach steps to the microphone and salutes the Olympians. “We are living in a world of crises, mistrust and uncertainty. Here is our Olympic answer: the 10,000 best athletes in the world, competing with each other, at the same time living peacefully together in one Olympic Village, sharing their meals and their emotions,” he says. He then goes on, somewhat puzzlingly, to declare Rio a “modern metropolis.”
“We started learning to be proud of our culture, history and trajectory not so long ago.”
The Brazilians in the stadium are beaming with national pride. Is this a country blowing off steam, or a country healing? The few Brazilians I talk to lean towards the latter. They use words like “amazing” and “proud” and offer unanimous, eager nods of approval. “Brazilians are naturally humble, because of the many years of poverty, oppression, and the fact that so many of them come from families that are descendants of slaves and enslaved first-nation Brazilians,” Heitor tells me later when we trade emails. “We started learning to be proud of our culture, history and trajectory not so long ago.” A dazzling display of fireworks ends the night. Those who live in the favelas that sit high on the hill near Maracanã have front-row seats.
8.6.16, 9:42 a.m., Volleyball Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
“This is Brazil’s Roman Colosseum,” Heitor says with a laugh as we talk towards the beach volleyball stadium on Copacabana Beach. I can’t say I totally agree — but the sentiment is there. This seashore is already an iconic beach volleyball locale, and it was a bold, entertaining move to plop the massive metal truss of a stadium directly on the sand.
It’s a marquee event, with the Brazilians expected to contend for gold in both the men’s and women’s fields, and the line for people to get in with tickets stretches about a half mile. It doesn’t seem to be moving. I opt for a $2 coconut from a beachside kiosk and settle in for the wait.
Brazil’s men handle Canada with relative ease in their debut match on the sand, but the real headliner is the stadium’s DJ. Custom songs have been made for big plays, like “Side Out,” sung to the tune of Chic’s “Le Freak” or a parody of MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” adapted to celebrate an ace. When Qatar’s Cherif Younousse gets a kill, the DJ opts for “I Shot The Sheriff” by Bob Marley.
The songs noticeably change for the women, who get “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and Sia instead of the men’s stadium bangers. In spite of the the DJ miscues, I watch Australia take down Costa Rica, thanks in large part to Taliqua Clancy, who is the first-ever indigenous Australian volleyballer to compete in the Olympics.
3:37 p.m., Copacabana Beach
In an attempt to take in some culture, I join a local for a trip west to the hills above a beach called Leblon. Here, she tells me, we can stop in for a beer and get a view of the entire city, along with a contrasting view of a favela called Vidigal. Other locals will tell me Vidigal is the place to go for lively cafes, bars, and art. David Beckham even recently bought an ocean-view property in the favela. This might be oversimplifying, but it sounds like I’ve found Rio’s Williamsburg.
It sounds like I’ve found Rio’s Williamsburg.
Traffic has been overwhelming for most of the Olympics, and our few-miles’ drive to Leblon turns into an hour journey. However, as our car sits in gridlock, we catch a happy accident. The men’s cycling road race is about to come through on its homestretch after a harrowing descent that knocked out top riders like Richie Porte and Vincenzo Nibali. I sprint out of the stopped car, camera in hand, in time to catch Belgium’s Greg van Avermaet powering ahead of Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang. Van Avermaet never looks back, and takes gold only minutes later. Another big surprise surprise comes later, when I see Tour de France winner Chris Froome mired in the middle of the pack as they go by, well out of striking distance.
7:46 p.m., Oakley Safe House
If you don’t have an NBC credential, there is terrible access to interviews everywhere, but at the Oakley house anyone has a shot. The athletes are causal here, eating acai bowls, playing cornhole, watching obscure Olympic sports on one of five TVs in the air-conditioned lounge. I see the US beach volley duo of Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson and set up an interview.
“Seven minutes,” Gibb tells his media liason with faux-seriousness as he and Patterson step away from their families to talk. The pair are affable and good storytellers, so we spend most of our interview keeping it light. Eventually, Patterson reveals the pre-match regimen for his “suave-hawk” hairstyle.
Later on, Froome rolls into the Oakley Safe House with a contingent of friends and Team GB competitors. I ask for a few minutes with cycling’s hottest name, but he’s not keen to an interview after a twelfth-place finish. My ego is bruised, but I imagine his legs feel worse.
Spain has a long history of great golf exports — Seve Ballesteros, José María Olazábal, and Sergio García, to name a few — and the country’s next great chance is a man named Rafa Cabrera Bello. He walks into the Safe House for some food and drink and gracefully agrees to a chat. He’s humble, wide-eyed and earnest. We talk a bit about the course, but he mostly just seems excited to be in Rio amongst all the activity. He feels closer to a kid on his first day of college than an athlete competing for a sport’s ultimate prize. As the conversation shifts to golf’s biggest names ditching the Olympics, Cabrera Bello gives a classy, but firm answer. “I’m sure some of the ones that didn’t come are going to regret it,” he says. “I understand their position, I just don’t share it.” Eventually we devolve into analyzing the golf swing of his fellow countryman, Rafael Nadal. (He’s got a slice.)
10:17 p.m., Omega House
Just as Oakley seemed to be HQ for the athletes, the Omega House seems to be the meeting point for Rio’s social elite. As one Aussie journalist in our group put it, if there were a “Real Housewives of Rio,” it would be filming here. Eddie Redmayne walks out, mobbed relentlessly by fortysomethings seeking selfies, as we walk in. There are decorative limes by the urinal. The caipirinhas taste delicious.
8.7.16, Santa Teresa, 9:08 p.m.
The neighborhood of Santa Teresa is all old-world charm — winding roads, cobblestone streets, restaurants tucked amongst the trees and cafes that spill on to the street. A security guard with us says he once worked for Amy Winehouse when she lived nearby. She liked the privacy and quiet. Another one of our local guides, Claudia, would later add that Santa Teresa is one of the few places where upper-middle-class Brazilians live without significant separation from the favelas. “Honestly I don’t know why, but it works,” Claudia says. “It seems crazy, but as a Brazilian I can tell you it works.”
“Honestly I don’t know why, but it works,” Claudia says. “It seems crazy, but as a Brazilian I can tell you it works.”
The neighborhood’s story is one that will sound familiar to Americans, too. According to Heitor, the favelas around Santa Teresa began multiplying in the 1950s and wealthy Brazilians fled the neighborhood in favor of places like Ipanema, Copacabana and Leblon. After Santa Teresa fell into a state of neglect, property became cheap to rent or buy, making the neighborhood appealing to musicians, artists and writers. They gave new life to the area through the ’70s and ’80s. Now, in its revitalized state, it’s the only respite I find from traffic all visit.
8.8.16, Rio de Janeiro, 12:27 p.m.
I strike out on a few more interviews and pack up for the trip home. It’s an overcast, windy Monday and even the military guards on the corner seem to clutch their rifles with malaise. Some of the initial excitement from the Olympics feels like it has faded and the city has settled into a routine. I expect the rest of the Games will move in phases for the Brazilians, with moments of pure patriotism and joy contrasted with inconveniences and frustration.
I start to wonder how I could finish this story, when I notice my Uber driver takes a wrong turn. I mention to him that we should have taken a left. He waves me off. Seconds later, he finds a reprieve from the standstill traffic and begins accelerating up a highway onramp. Wrong way. A bus and two cars round the car and we’re lined up for a head-on collision. One car slides to our left, the other to our right, and we manage to stop directly in front of the bus. I let out a string of expletives in the backseat. My driver manages to only find the English words, “Excuse me.” He makes a seven-point turnaround on the freeway, and takes me back to the hotel. Heitor takes me to the airport. I fly back to Los Angeles.