Rohit In Rio

Olympics: At these Games, you lose some, you win some

There are some people in life who one should not argue with. Mothers because you shouldn't answer back, politicians because you can't win and weightlifters because it's only sensible as I realised on my way to Rio.

Let me first state that in the most vital matter of aeroplane seating I am usually immoveable. I pick my seat with the fastidiousness of a participant from Bridezillas finding a dress (yes, I have seen one episode; no, I am not proud of it). So, exhausted after 21 hours from Singapore-Doha-Sao Paulo, I was unamused when a very gentle voice requested that I "please, move" from my seat on the last leg to Rio.

I looked up ready to bark, only to bite my tongue. The appeal came from a fellow whose thighs could hold up a skyscraper and whose size suggested he snacked on unsuspecting gymnasts. Man Assad, 22, is 190cm and is a weightlifter from Syria. "I train in Damascus. No problem," he said with a thumbs up. He participates in the 105+ kg category and is known to clean and jerk over 230kg. For the record, I am 91kg. So, yes, I moved my seat. But only because he said his knee was hurting.

A Rio-bound Madagascar judo coach sports a haircut showing the Olympic logo as he waits in the boarding lounge at the Sao Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport.
A Rio-bound Madagascar judo coach sports a haircut showing the Olympic logo as he waits in the boarding lounge at the Sao Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Since by now you will have heard of collapsing ramps, filthy water in the bay, faulty toilets... and inadequate English-speaking volunteers in Rio, let me just say that so far I have been confronted with one thing in less than 24 hours: Smiles.

Next to me was a gent from Chile. A few rows down was a Madagascar judo coach with his hair manicured to look like the Olympic rings. Also present on the plane were Ghanaians, Senegalese, Kazakhs, Malaysians, Egyptians, a veritable united nations of sport in ugly tracksuits. This is when you play an old game: Guess the sport by looking at the athlete's physique. Gymnasts and basketballers are easily identified. Handballers are the hardest (who knows what they look like?). And one Kyrgyzstan athlete could only have been a wrestler: No one else has such exquisitely mashed ears.

Since by now you will have heard of collapsing ramps, filthy water in the bay, faulty toilets, long lines at security, falling shower curtains and inadequate English-speaking volunteers in Rio, let me just say that so far I have been confronted with only one thing in less than 24 hours: Smiles.

"How are you?", I asked the lady at a supermarket. She thought, she took 15 seconds to sweetly assemble foreign words in her head and replied, "I am fine". Then she beamed. When I went looking for a SIM card in the same mall, two ladies, able to spot a fumbling foreigner from 50 metres, appeared as if by magic to ask if I needed assistance. I am smiling, too, just at the thought of a boy from Kolkata being in the city where Zico was born and Jairzinho learnt his football.

My taxi driver from the airport however did not smile. Instead he sang - this should have been a warning - and then took off down the highway as if Emerson Fittipaldi was his uncle. Perhaps he was simply inspired by the fact that my hotel is on Avenue Ayrton Senna.

The only thing as common as the smile is the gun, though all the ones I have seen so far are legally owned. Even outside my hotel an armed guard patrolled. He smiled, too. Months ago a headline on a website partially read, "If You're A White, Wealthy Foreigner, You're Safe" in Rio. This is not entirely reassuring to someone who is brown and middle class.

Meanwhile, on my first night, at 11pm, hand-to-hand combat broke out at my hotel reception. Two mosquitoes versus me. Eventually I will be out-numbered but in a Games where victory and defeat is everything, let me reveal the current scorecard.

Me 2: Zika 0.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2016, with the headline 'At these Games, you lose some, you win some'. Print Edition | Subscribe