And now I start writing as I wait at the airport to fly back to Europe. After three weeks in Rio, I must admit, I can’t wait to get out and go home. It was good, certainly more than bad, and I leave with a small sense of pride. I also leave with a bagful of saudades. Muitas saudades.
Please allow me to share some of what went right as I am sure you already know about most of what went wrong. And what you haven’t read or heard about, well, maybe it’s best left unmentioned.
The new terminal at Galeão Airport is great. Easy to get around, good shops, modern. Even now, the day after the Closing Ceremony, having to deal with 85,000 passengers (or twice as much as on a normal day), the operation went as smooth as ever. I was checked in and through security in less than 20 minutes. Passport control was a bit manic for gringos, but nothing out of this world. Although it may not seem very relevant in the grand scheme of things, it is at the airport that foreigners forge their first and last impressions of a city or a country.
The new public transport system. Traffic was hideous, but if you could be bothered to take the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), the metro and/or the train, you got to places on time. You know when you finally summon up the courage to remove that protective plastic cover from a new piece of electronics you bought? How perfect it looks then and how it will never look the same again? That’s how the new metro stations felt – like someone had just removed their protective plastic covers. The old train stations, well, they still looked a bit decrepit. The whole operation was not without its perils for sure, but the benefit to the population of Rio is unquestionable.
The sport. The Olympics became such a monster that we sometimes forget why we all converge to one city once every four years (two years, if you’re from the Northern Hemisphere and get excited about the Winter Olympics). There is so much money involved, so much chaos as the city undergoes transformation, so much debate about everything that may go wrong or right, so much blahblahblah, that we overlook the obvious: the sport is what really matters. This whole multibillion-dollar industry would wither and die if athletes just decided to not show up. Oh did they show up! Rio saw the last chapter of Phelps and Bolt’s Olympic history and the birth of other soon-to-be Olympic Gods. I didn’t get to watch much outside of Athletics, but I felt privileged to have witnessed a handful of world and Olympic records. As always, the sport rose above it all – even when the water turned green!
The ceremonies. As was the Opening, the Closing Ceremony celebrated our music to an extent few of us thought possible in mainstream media – outside of the tunes, I’m not sure it was well conceived. If you weren’t yet familiar with Lenine, Roberta Sá, Martinho da Vila, Arnaldo Antunes or the brilliant composers Luiz Gonzaga, Noel Rosa and Pixinguinha, I’m glad you now have at least come in contact with a small fraction of our opulent musical culture. (Thank you, Japan! Thank you for turning your Prime Minister into Super Mario!)
Us. There is a saying here that we love to repeat, especially when things are pretty dire: “the best of Brazil is the Brazilian.” Volunteers may not have been incredibly well informed, the venues may not have been sold out, the queues to get through security may not have been short, traffic may not have been bearable, the food may not have been scrumptious, but somehow my people made up for most of it. The atmosphere was just fun. We boo when we are not supposed to, we adapt pop songs to amusingly cheer on athletes we’ve never seen before at sports where one is supposed to show support by being quiet, we let people through when they are not properly accredited, we find ways around the rules, we laugh when we should weep, we turn our misfortunes into jokes. It may not help us rise out of the third world, but it sure as hell makes us a great bunch to be around. I may not miss living here, but I sure as hell miss being around my own. (This article, entitled ”25 Moments at the Olympics in which the best of Brazil was the Brazilian” is impossible to translate yet I feel I have to share it with you because is just too funny!)
I am still digesting everything I’ve experienced in the last three weeks and certainly have much more to share with you. I will, however, need a bit of time to decompress and recover – I just didn’t want to go too long without chatting to y’all. I will also update you on the many CHANGES of the last 15 days, but for today let me just say one more thing.
It was special. At some point, we all understood that a Games in South America would look different than a Games in the UK or Canada, that it was going to be a Games of must-haves as opposed to nice-to-haves. Expectations were unfairly low and that might have played some part in the positive feeling with which most of us have left Rio. But there was much more. The city, the sport, the people, everything that makes Rio Rio also made these Games unforgettable ones. It was messy and beautiful, just like Brazil.
PS— My heartfelt thanks goes to the Athletics family. Thank you for welcoming me and allowing me to share so many incredible moments from such a privileged vantage point. I will never forget.
Alicia Klein is an international consultant and addicted to sports and contributor to The Interamerica Group Blog. She is a consultant for the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations), author of the blog thechangeexperience.com y otras cositas más.