The Rio Games beyond the TV screen

A Brazilian man uses his street cart rigged with a TV to watch the basketball match between Serbia and Australia. Locals and tourists stop by the Olympic rings next to the beach volleyball arena at Copacabana Beach to take photographs. At this arena,
Locals and tourists stop by the Olympic rings next to the beach volleyball arena at Copacabana Beach to take photographs. At this arena, visitors will encounter urban living at its richest and most joyful.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Brazilian military personnel outside the Maracana Stadium ahead of the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Brazilian military personnel outside the Maracana Stadium ahead of the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
A Brazilian man uses his street cart rigged with a TV to watch the basketball match between Serbia and Australia. Locals and tourists stop by the Olympic rings next to the beach volleyball arena at Copacabana Beach to take photographs. At this arena,
A Brazilian man uses his street cart rigged with a TV to watch the basketball match between Serbia and Australia.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

It's full of soldiers, long lines and few signs; the Olympics look different in the flesh

RIO DE JANEIRO • At the women's 3m synchronised diving final last Sunday, there seemed to be two events occurring at once.

There was the one displayed on a large video screen at the outdoor arena, and there was the live one in front of your eyes. The events were identical except for one notable detail: On the screen, the sun appeared to be shining, and in real life, it was not.

The Olympics look different in the flesh. Television has a way of not just framing and editing the action, but also adding sheen and brightness. The lush and immaculate tableaus served up by broadcasters are like faces that have been tastefully daubed in make-up. They look great, but they leave out all the uniqueness, all the texture.

What does it actually feel like to be here? The answer is that it is odd, sometimes maddening, possibly dangerous and frequently a hoot.

Safety first. There was a lot of angst about crime as these Olympics approached, and there have been reports of muggings since the athletes arrived. What is now clear is this: Rio is the safest-feeling dangerous place you will ever visit. Nothing about walking the streets here feels even remotely menacing - until you walk the streets with someone from Rio.

There was a lot of angst about crime as these Olympics approached, and there have been reports of muggings since the athletes arrived. What is now clear is this: Rio is the safest-feeling dangerous place you will ever visit.

At that point, you learn that you are surrounded by a terrifying variety of perils, including knife-wielding muggers. The beaches of Copacabana seem like a paradise of minimalist swimwear. Then you are told about the very young bandits who occasionally swarm the sand and steal everything that is not hidden or bolted to the ground.

Oh, and those friendly yellow- cab drivers who have been transporting you here and there? Some of them will take your 50 reals (about S$22) and assert that it was 5 reals - so cough up the rest of the fare. Even some of the machines are larcenous. Locals swear that they have encountered ATMs that purport to spit out money while spitting out nothing.

The less time you speak to Cariocas, as natives of Rio are known, the more you will enjoy this place. Lagoa Stadium, where rowing events are being held, is near Leblon, one of the more upscale parts of the city. All around you, exotic mountains jut to the heavens. It looks like a movie set. Until a local points to an immense and somewhat shabby white building, a few blocks away, and explains that it is a housing project where rival drug gangs occasionally lob home-made grenades at one another.

Wait, that building right there?

"Right there," a Carioca says. "They sometimes shoot at each other on the street, when kids are returning from school."

The general sense of dread and hazard seems to have reached fans before they flew here. A man in his 50s, who was exiting Lagoa with his wife and some friends, said he had left his wedding band at home - "First time in 27 years, I'm not wearing it," he says. And all the people in his group had decided to keep their big stash of money in their socks and a small stash in their pockets.

There are some 85,000 soldiers stationed across the city, including plenty of them at the Olympic venues. Some carry machine guns and have their fingers on the triggers, the ready-for-trouble mode you associate with guards overseeing a cash drop near a Brinks truck. Some of the soldiers travel in dark green troop-transport trucks associated with war-zone invasions.

The projection of all this force is only intermittently comforting. The abundance of weapons took on a frightening cast last Saturday when a large-calibre bullet landed in the media tent at the Equestrian Centre right after journalists heard a loud bang. Apparently it was shot from a favela, at a police blimp being used for security.

At a news conference, a spokesman for the games described the episode as an "unfortunate event" and underscored that "all lives are important - horses, dogs, people".

A LOGISTICAL CHALLENGE

Though they look on television like a series of athletic contests, the Olympics up close are the single most daunting logistical challenge in the known universe. The more you see of them, the crazier it seems that anyone would voluntarily undertake them.

To pull it off is to create a modest-size city, layered on top of an existing city, a realm with a three-week lifespan in desperate need of food, water and electricity, as well as systems for transportation, waste removal, ticketing and the management of countless employees and volunteers, and the list goes on.

It is an event planner's knottiest puzzle, and the way countries solve it has a way of reflecting their national character. In Sochi, Russia, the games had a strange combination of incompetence (shabbily constructed housing that was not finished, for instance) and clockwork (transportation that ran on time), which is exactly what you would expect from an autocratic regime plagued by corruption.

Brazil fares better on the World Democracy Audit list of corruption - it is 65th while Russia is 105th - but it does not have a barrel-chested bully in the Vladimir Putin vein to instil the sort of fear that compels results. What it has instead is a democracy, albeit one in which about 60 per cent of its members of Congress currently face criminal charges.

Whatever motivates Olympic employees here, it isn't fear. The atmosphere is kind of laid-back. A British reporter trying to get to his hotel from Deodoro, the event centre in the West Zone, was heard asking an Olympics volunteer with a clipboard, "When will the van arrive?"

"Ten minutes," she said.

"You've been saying that for an hour," he countered, rolling his eyes.

At times, these Olympics are like an elaborate recipe that is missing some essential ingredients. Let's talk about the signs. It is not just the oopsy-daisy translations. (A list of prohibited items at a security check includes a ban on "white weapons".) What is odd is the curious absence of basic "Here's Where To Go" markers, which has added degrees of difficulty to navigating that seem totally unnecessary.

The buses, for instance. They are an essential source of transportation but, for the first few days, there were stops that were nearly unmarked but for a green pole.

Then there is the lack of signs that simply celebrate the presence of the games. Typically, a host city is a riot of bunting and street banners, making it impossible to walk a block without a reminder that the Olympics are in town. In Rio, just 15 per cent of promotional signs had been delivered by the time of the opening ceremony, according to organisers, who had called an emergency meeting with the supplier.

In addition, you come across lots of places that are absurdly understaffed. There have been 90- minute lines to enter venues and lines for food that were so long the organisers announced a tenfold increase in manpower, then shed a few menu items that were said to be holding things up.

Last Sunday night, the line to enter the Mega Store in the Olympic Park, where you can buy Olympic-branded merchandise, was so many hundreds of yards long that it was hard to see where it began.

SPRAWLED OUT

All Olympics have their own character, but pinpointing Rio's will be difficult because the events are held in such drastically different places. Beach volleyball is played in Copacabana, a dense neighbourhood that has been a party and beach scene for decades. Track and field, a marquee attraction at the Summer Games, will be held at the Olympic Stadium in the Engenho de Dentro neighbourhood, about 19km north-west.

Nowhere close to any of that is the Olympic Park itself, what is supposed to be the heart of the games. It is in an area in the West Zone known as Barra da Tijuca, a newish suburb for the rich, a region dotted with dozens and dozens of indistinguishable residential apartment buildings, interspersed with malls. Plus there are car dealerships for every model you can imagine, and a few you have forgotten. Which is apt because this place is not designed for walking.

The park itself is a wide and largely barren expanse of asphalt. In previous games, organisers enhanced their Olympic parks with entertainment or sculptures or benches. Not here. This is a place to get from Point A to Point B without worrying you will run into Point C. There are places to buy food, some tables, a McDonald's that sells ice cream and that Mega Store. In the middle, there is the studio for Globo, Brazil's multimedia giant. And that is about it.

By contrast, when you walk out of the Beach Volleyball Arena in Copacabana, you will encounter urban living at its richest and most joyful. Men selling caipirinhas, the national cocktail. A woman dressed as a mime, blowing enormous bubbles with a bucket and some twine. A guy taking bets from people who think they can kick over two carefully placed bottles with a soccer ball. Proselytisers handing out Bibles.

The Copacabana Hotel, which is almost directly across from the volleyball venue, offered a high-tech show in which butterflies seemed to flicker up and down its exterior, their wings painted the flags of different nations, while a modern rendering of Vivaldi boomed on huge speakers across the street. This briefly brought the entire parade of humanity to a standstill. People gaped in awe and then applauded when the show was over.

Rio is not the first Olympic host to spread venues around a city. But it is the first to set one of those venues in a place with soul to spare and another without any soul at all. Unless it fixes the transportation problem, these might also be the first Olympics where you simply cannot get where you need to go in anything approaching a reasonable amount of time. Right now, the games' transportation app is telling users that if they want to get from Copacabana to the Equestrian Centre, roughly 40km away, they are looking at a two-hour journey.

But an Olympics is like a living organism, which is to say, it learns. The same trip might take half that long in a few days.

As for the venues, none of them feels lavish. There is not a starchitect standout, like Beijing's Bird's Nest, in the bunch. This is the just-enough Olympics.

You see plenty of scaffolding around, including at the entrance to the Olympic Park. It is as though the organisers did not want to offend the sensibilities of Brazilians already chafing at the price of this show. (Approximately many billions of dollars.)

The few signs heralding the Olympics that you do see are emblazoned with the motto "A New World". It is an unfortunate phrase, given that the new world referred to is the bustling, economically expanding Brazil that in 2009 won the right to host the games, a place where the gross domestic product had doubled in a decade. The latest iteration of the country's new world is in both a funk and a recession.

This gives Cariocas plenty to fume about, since much of the nation's economic decline can be pinned on the shenanigans of public officials. But the locals you meet here come across as eager to chat and happy you are here.

Perhaps if they had known where their economy was headed a few years back, they would have cancelled this shindig. But if the world is visiting, Cariocas would like everyone to leave with a positive impression.

"We are very proud of our country," said a woman dining at a food- by-the-kilogram restaurant last Sunday. "We want people to see that."

She said that most of her friends were given three weeks of vacation, so they could stay home and keep the streets as traffic-free as possible. That is not exactly a sacrifice, but Olympics-only lanes have been established around the city, to help move athletes and the news media around Rio's already-choked roads, turning the non-Olympic lanes into quagmires. In addition, police resources have been funnelled to the games, which has inevitably led to an uptick in crime in areas that are not near the events.

Longer commutes, a rise in crime - those are sacrifices, and one reason that bad-mouthing the signs and the buses and the traffic seems almost rude. It cost Brazilians a lot to throw us this party. The least we can do is enjoy it.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'The Rio Games beyond the TV screen'. Print Edition | Subscribe