The first week of the 2016 Olympic Games was a triumph of expectation management.
The advance press ranged from foreboding to hysterical, and not without cause. Brazil was in the grip of political crisis, economic collapse and an outbreak of a mysterious mosquito-born disease; the state of Rio de Janeiro was so broke that it had stopped paying its police and its hospital staff. And with days to go before competition started, workers were soldering all night long on the critical metro line, while sewage poured unfiltered into the sea that would host swimmers and sailors.
Everyone from athletes to tourists to senior Olympic officials seemed prepared for the event to be a disaster, or a rolling string of them.
And then it wasn’t.
And Rio is savouring the relief of being good enough.
This gloriously telegenic city looks perfect on the television screens of viewers around the world. And in the arenas and stadiums, the competitions have largely gone off without a hitch. So it all looks fine for the outside world.
For the people actually here, the experience is somewhat less seamless. Transportation can be painful; there is a dearth of helpful signage. But the security challenges have been minor (by Rio standards), and there are no mosquitoes. Most of the issues that were big problems on Day 1 have been steadily improved through the week. And for people who made the trip to Rio, every exhausting train trip or baffling encounter with the travel card system is followed by a stroll on the beach or a new best friendship with the wildly cheering Brazilian in the next seat over. And that, it seems, makes up for a multitude of sins.
The one problem that is visible to everyone is the empty seats: These are, in the words of some Brazilian media, “The Ghost Olympics.” When Canada’s rugby sevens women played for a bronze medal on Monday, only about a quarter of the seats at the game were occupied. The stands at equestrian events, basketball, field hockey, even beach volleyball – a sport Brazilians love, which is played in a gorgeous oceanside venue, and one that’s relatively easily reached – are often only half-occupied.
Games organizers say they are working hard to figure out why: Ticket sales are now at 85 per cent, the same level as the London 2012 Games, but seats were rarely empty there. “We’ve done some mapping to help us understand,” Rio 2016 spokesman Philip Wilkinson said. One issue, he said, is that spectators are coming for part of, but not staying for all of, a match – beach volleyball tickets buy you four matches (the last game of the night session ends at 1 a.m.), while soccer tickets are for two 90-minute matches. “People are coming to see the team they support, and maybe another match, but they may not stay the whole time,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
Transportation also seems to be a factor. The travel time between the Olympic zones can easily be three hours, and spectators may walk five or six kilometres by the time they go from a train station, through a security screen, into a venue, then to another, and back to the train. The worst area is the Deodoro Olympic Park, where rugby, canoe, BMX biking and equestrian events are held; it’s 40 km from Copacabana. While the dedicated train link works well to get there, there are vast distances between the arenas – and the thought of the trip seems to be putting some ticket-buyers off.
There may also be a psychological factor at play for middle-class Brazilians who bought tickets months ago without fully realizing that to see a basketball match they would have to venture deep into the city’s North Zone, which is low-income and associated with violence.
But Mr. Wilkinson defended the city’s decision to put some sport venues there. “Deodoro is a different area of Rio – and it’s important that the Games can reach people in different parts of the city,” not just the wealthy ones, he said.
It was always the hope that having South America’s first-ever Games here would both introduce Brazilians to unfamiliar sports and engage not only the wealthy with the Olympics; his own visits to Deodoro suggest that Rio residents from all social classes are taking part, he said.
Mr. Wilkinson also said that organizers’ suspicions about Brazilians’ social planning habits have also been confirmed: While Rio’s advance ticket sale rates were considerably lower than for the London Games, they have exploded now that the Olympics are finally here. On Monday, Rio 2016 sold more than 100,000 tickets. From Day 1 to Day 6, they sold 2,285,000. So stands may look more full as competition intensifies, he said.
Little in Rio was ready in time for a usual run of test events and dry runs, and it has shown this week. The diving pool turned vivid green on Day 5, apparently because a maintenance crew mismanaged the pH level. The new metro opened just five days before the opening ceremony (but runs beautifully now that it’s open).
Food, on the other hand, has been a nightmare. The takeout stands are often out of stock, or painfully slow, or their payment systems don’t work.
And the Brazilian government fired the company providing security services just a week before the Games began, replacing its personnel with police from national and state forces who – it became clear painfully quickly – had no experience operating screening equipment.
Lineups to enter Olympic zones stretched to more than two km the first day of competition and many people missed part or all of an event. More than 40,000 people initiated a process with the ticketing booths that day, according to communications director Mario Andrade, but he said not all of them were people whose events were over before they got in, and so sought refunds. (Rio 2016 won’t say how many did miss the event.) The lines got shorter through the week, although sometimes that was because screening officers simply threw open the barriers and waved everyone through.
Going in to the Games, the chief concern was safety: Much was made of the city’s high rates of violent crime, and in July police officers who hadn’t been paid in months because of Rio’s budget crisis protested at the international airport with signs reading, “Welcome to Hell.” The government also made a much-publicized arrest of 12 homegrown would-be Islamist attackers 10 days before the opening. To secure the Games, the state government deployed 82,000 personnel – bringing in the national guard, armed forces and state and federal police.
Despite the hopes of Rio’s residents (at least, many said, we’ll have this, for a couple weeks, a city without robbery, to make up for all the traffic snarls), all those police have not managed to stop all crime.
When Felipe Seixas, the senior federal police officer who was in charge of security for the opening ceremony, was walking back to his car near dawn on Saturday, after the wrap on the production, he was set upon by four men with knives. Mr. Seixas had bodyguards, who killed one of the assailants.
On Tuesday night, a bus carrying reporters between Olympic venues was hit with some sort of projectile – police say it was stones, although journalists on the bus initially insisted that it was bullets and police have not made the forensic report public. Stray bullets that originated in favelas have twice landed in the media zones of Olympic venues.
And the Rio media offer up a steady rolling count of tourists mugged in different areas of the city. (Brazilians counter on social media by reporting the times they were mugged in London or Los Angeles.)
Predictably, the most serious security incidents have not involved visitors, but rather residents of the poorest areas of the city, and underpaid police. A patrol made up of national guard officers from Brazil’s far north, sent to Rio as part of the extra force deployment, got lost on Wednesday night and blundered into Maré, one of Rio’s most violent communities, where they quickly came under fire. They were rescued by a taxi driver and rushed to hospital; one officer died Friday of his injuries and two more were wounded. In response to the incident, the police initiated a quasi-military occupation of the area the next morning and one civilian was dead, two more in hospital, by nightfall.
There were fierce exchanges of gunfire between police and gang members in the community called Complexo de Alemão three mornings in a row this week. But these incidents don’t make the television, and inside the Olympic Park security cordon, few visitors are aware of them.
The chief complaint of Games-goers, once they have battled through the lines, is that the venues are utilitarian and lack any sort of spirited public space. There is nowhere to lounge and take in the larger festival at the Olympic parks, just a stream of people trudging between blocky competition buildings and squinting at road signs. There is no shade, and no musicians or performers or anything to infuse a Brazilian spirit into the site. Much of what makes the beach in Rio fun, or adds life to a street party, is the buskers and the beer vendors and the young woman in a fairy outfit selling flower headdresses. The Olympics is sanitized of all of that. (Consequently, there are often long lines in front of the handful of installations of Olympics rings sculptures or Rio 2016 signage that can serve as a selfie venue.)
But one new public space, in the city proper, has been a success beyond the wildest hopes of urban planners. A derelict and dangerous area around the old port has been revitalized and turned into a square and the “Olympic Boulevard.” Residents of Rio and visitors have been flocking there, to walk the length of the promenade and admire a gorgeous (and enormous) multicoloured graffiti mural of indigenous people. More than 100,000 people visited on Tuesday alone, heading to a part of the city few would have dreamed of visiting just six months ago.
For Brazilians, there has been much to celebrate in the Games so far. They loved the opening ceremony, which reminded them of the good things about this place when the news is generally so unremittingly awful.
And much of the country was charmed when an Olympics volunteer proposed to her girlfriend – who happened to be the Brazilian rugby player Isadora Cerullo – on the pitch at the end of the tournament. (Ms. Cerullo said yes, and the picture of the pair celebrating in a long kiss became a Facebook sensation.)
Brazil’s first gold medal in the Games was won by Rafaela Silva, a judoka who is Afro-Brazilian, gay and from the infamous favela City of God – a feel-good story that it will be hard to top.
And that sense – that good things are possible, that there is much here to love – has carried the Rio Games through their first week. All the city needs to do now is get through a second week without disaster.
Article source: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/olympics/pulling-back-the-curtain-on-the-first-week-of-the-rio-olympics/article31394437/