Rohit in Rio: In an informal atmosphere, serious competition thrives

It is 6.13am, Rio, Saturday. Sport invariably brings surprise and then, sometimes, shock. In the afternoon, a French gymnast will break his leg before me. Vault, land, snap, fall. It is a grotesque reminder that the elegance of gymnastics obscures its dangers. On Sunday, women will somersault on a balance beam whose width is roughly the size of my palm. Gymnasts strike a grim deal in their pursuit of excellence: the greater the degree of difficulty, the higher the risk of injury.

It is 6.20am, Rio, Saturday. First light on the first day of real play. The bus is late, and then I have another bus to the shooting, and journalists are compulsive fretters. In three days I am taken on three different routes to the Main Press Centre from my hotel. People call this inefficiency: I call this the adventurous exploration of unexpected landscapes. Routine is overrated and the previous night I had read a website on the Rules of Etiquette in Brazil which stated: "Do not worry about punctuality. In fact, it is customary to arrive at least half an hour late to a dinner."

At the hotel bus stop is Gabriel, a volunteer who has a passing resemblance to the footballer Socrates - to be honest, every bearded Brazilian reminds my generation of Socrates. Anyway I want to know about jeitinho, a word I have come across. "It's the Brazilian way," he says, "but it's hard to translate." Think of it as a little bit of cutting corners. Or a little improvisation. Which might mean a little bit of queue jumping. As a person who grew up in India, I grin. So does he.

What makes this city appealing is its informality. To be here is to understand why the Brazilians once played football the way they did. With a relaxed joy. One day, a group of kids stood on a slim grassy patch between two roads and competed with each other in a grinning kite-flying contest. This was their soaring Olympics.

But of course informality must have a limit. Days ago at an arena, before the competition began, an official with two suitcases probably full of equipment tells a policeman that his small suitcase has hardly anything in it. Really. The policeman smiles. No X-ray machine required. Kindly pass. Everyone grins. Me, nervously.

Gymnasts strike a grim deal in their pursuit of excellence: the greater the degree of difficulty, the higher the risk of injury.

Wait, the bus has come. Will we make the next bus to the shooting venue? It's too lovely a day to complain, the sky as blue as seas are only in paintings. Anyway stuff happens, people make mistakes. Even Kohei Uchimura, world champion on the horizontal bar, falls from the horizontal bar.

These Olympics seem a bit rough and ready, like a bar in an old Western movie, or like the choppy water the rowers had to contend with. Rowers expect to lose, not to fall in. But somehow everyone gets by with a little ingenuity and good humour. When a bus driver and my colleague Jon failed to understand each other, they simply reached for Google Translate. Hell, if we can't get along at an Olympics, then where will we? Already there's a picture out of a North Korean sportswoman and South Korean athlete taking a wefie.

 

At the shooting the stands are packed, mostly with officials and shooters. A convention of murmuring nerds. This is a stressful pursuit which has left the hair of Abhinav Bindra, the 2008 gold medallist in the 10m air rifle, flecked with grey. He is only 33. His German coach Heinz Reinkemeier, who is fully grey, laughs and says of Bindra: "If he hits a bad shot, he gets one grey hair. If he hits a bad shot, I get two grey hairs." Then he points at a bald coach and says, "If you can't understand the bad shot, you lose all your hair."

Yup, these guys are weird.

The shooting done I return to the Main Press Centre for lunch. In the media restaurant your plate is weighed on a scale and then the price decided. It's the worst guilt trip of all time: You cannot hide from the kilos you are about to put on. As I eat my phone buzzes with news of a hockey score, a tennis debacle, a bomb scare. There's no time in the day when you're not missing a story. If scurrying was an Olympic sport, journos would win.

Since my afternoon is free, I wander off to the gymnastics. Air-conditioned art. It is men's qualification day, no medals, and yet there is a sizeable crowd. On the mats everyone's skills look spotless till someone stumbles. Amid preciseness, anything imperfect stands out.

A German falls off the horizontal bar. The crowd roars for him. Then Samir Ait Said lands awkwardly in the vault, his tibia breaks, a stretcher comes. He raises his arm to the crowd and now they roar for him. From a long day this is what I will remember most: the skilful and painful risk-taking of the athlete and the heart of the crowd.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2016, with the headline 'In an informal atmosphere, serious competition thrives'. Print Edition | Subscribe