A month ago, disgruntled emergency services workers unfurled a banner in the arrivals hall of Rio’s Galeao International Airport that read, “Welcome to Hell.”
To hear it from a distance, it’s been a steady descent since. Nothing works. Whatever does is falling apart. If you walk out onto the street, you will be immediately set upon by thugs who can sense at a distance your soft, foreign nature.
If all you knew of the Olympic host was gleaned from the past few weeks of coverage, you’d think this city of 6.4 million was built despite a total absence of construction knowledge, and is the place where they invented street crime.
It’s early days, but what we knew based on experience is already proving true – rumours of mid-Olympic collapse are just those. These probably won’t be clockwork Games, but continuing in the slipshod tradition of Sochi, organizers will find a way to pull it off. Mainly, that will be down to Rio itself. It’s a place that thrives despite itself.
The Olympic crowd really begins showing up on the Monday before Opening Ceremonies. By Tuesday, the locals had it down.
There was no chaos at customs. There were no fistfights at the luggage carousel. The drive in from the airport bore very little resemblance to Mad Max.
The traffic is as advertised – horrendous – and much more so if you live here. Dedicated lanes designed to move participants around the city at something just north of a crawl seem to be working. Sort of. Like everything else.
We were in a large vehicle festooned with Olympic markings, inching along a jammed Copacabana thoroughfare. Our driver drifted a few inches, shearing the side-view mirror off the car alongside.
The victim of this careless collision drew up and began screaming. A passerby handed her the mirror. She took it without ceasing her yelling. Our driver stared back with little interest. He did her the courtesy of rolling down the passenger side window, but didn’t bother defending himself.
After a while, she gave up and redirected her rage at a nearby cab driver. What the cabbie had to do with it was hard to say, but it was instructive of one thing – like City Hall, you can’t fight the Olympics.
That’s where everybody ends up when it comes to these things. When cities are “awarded” the right to host, people are dancing on the beach. Then they have to pay for it. A couple of years out, it seems impossible. After the bankrupting sprint to get it done, they’ve expended all available resources, including emotion. By the time it starts, they just want to get through it. Like Christmas dinner, hosting the Olympics is something that only seems like fun until you have to put it on.
After the anticipatory fretting, is it all finished? Well, that depends on your definition. Everything has a temporary, thrown-up look, but all the main public spaces are in working order. The new subway line to the Olympic Park – opened this past weekend – has that new subway smell and is, just at the moment, eerily empty.
Two years ago at the World Cup – Brazil’s most recent unlikely organizational feat – the main Olympic site was not yet even a hole in the ground. They’d hardly cleared the land.
It’s up now, though not quite resplendent. But divers could be seen diving in the diving venue, which is all you can really say about diving. It’s water. You jump in it. There’s no need to think much harder than that.
Open any unmarked door at an Olympic site and you’re likely to find an unfinished room, but only because it has no specific function. Rio has provided just enough to hold the world’s major sporting event, and not one bit more.
There have been those now infamous complaints (though none, gratefully, from a Canadian). Maybe the toilets didn’t work for a day or two. Someone somewhere who has a credential got mugged. Never pleasant, but perhaps now would be the time to remind ourselves that unpleasant things happen all the time and in all sorts of places that aren’t holding an Olympics. While this event may be an escape from the everyday, it cannot be expected to function as a three-week bubble that’s impermeable to reality.
The most onerous reminder of a worst-case scenario is the heavy military presence. Soldiers are piled up everywhere, looking bored. This is how we reassure ourselves in an increasingly uncivil world – with a great display of guns.
This would be the time for all involved to invoke their most pressing Olympic hope – “Not this time. Don’t let it be this time.” Until proved otherwise, we’ll continue to believe it works.
That is the highest goal of any global spectacular in the early 21st century – that it not explode. Everything beyond that is icing.
There is no sense in complaining about what Rio didn’t get right: the ecological considerations, the legacy projects, the crushing financial costs, etc. We’re right to wonder, but just at the moment it seems like poor manners.
What Rio has provided in abundance is its essential Rio-ness. Despite its many problems, one could argue that no city in the world is so effortlessly evocative of the culture it shelters. This place feels important.
You walk out on the street. The mountains Rio wraps itself around are misting. The beaches are full at midday. The noise of the city is overwhelming and somehow comforting. The sun hits it all at angles, highlighting one delightful patch of urban disarray. And another. And another.
No other world metropolis has such marvellous physical texture. It is nowhere more true than in Rio that you can be said to be living “in” a city.
That’s not why they chose it to hold the Olympics, but you’d like to think it was. This is a place that prompts wonder without having to try.
They’ve gone to painful lengths to get us this far. They’ll be dealing with the effects long after the rest of us have gone home.
So it seems right that instead of dwelling on what Rio hasn’t done, we should try to appreciate what they have. The best way to do that is enjoy the show.
RIO DE JANEIRO — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Aug. 02, 2016 8:16PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Aug. 02, 2016 8:17PM EDT