Tales from Abroad: The Olympics in Rio

It’s 7 a.m., and you are standing on the terrace of the nicest apartment you have ever, or probably will ever, be in — all big windows and white leather and glass. You are looking out over the sprawling city of Rio de Janeiro below you, the mountains dramatically rising up beyond the buildings, and the beautiful beach and ocean sweeping out to your left. You don’t think you’ve ever seen a city so breathtaking before.

It’s 12 p.m., and you are standing next to an open sewer in the heart of Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil, looking at the houses that have been built directly over the sewer on stilts, accepting the stench as the price for finding a bit of open ground to build on. Your guide, Alberto, has lived in the favela for 50 years and seems to genuinely love the place. Turning somber, he says, “What you can’t see are the rats, this is hell.”

It’s 8 p.m., and you are sitting in Maracanã Stadium, waiting for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony to start. The lights of the stadium go out, and are replaced by thousands of cellphone lights that seem to fill the stands with stars. The music starts, and billions of people across the globe turn their eyes to Rio.

These are moments from my first day at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer. A family friend, Kat Holmes, qualified as an épée fencer for the U.S. Olympic team. Excited and proud, my family rushed to get tickets for the games so we could support her achievement. When we arrived in Rio, we found a kaleidoscopic city that was almost impossible to make sense of and was made even more unfathomable by the Olympics.

Before heading to the Olympics, I knew a few things about Rio. I knew that Rio had a huge problem with income inequality, witnessed by the gorgeous high-rise apartments along the beaches and desperately poor favelas clinging to the surrounding hills. I knew that crime, corruption, and political instability in the city had the Olympic committee on edge, wondering if these problems would affect the games. And I knew that almost everyone I mentioned the trip to made some sort of quip about stocking up on bug spray to combat Zika.

Most of these things turned out to be true, to some extent. (Except for the comments about Zika. I didn’t see a single mosquito the whole time I was there, and gave up on the bug spray two days in.) However, all of these aspects of the city were infinitely more layered and complicated than how they were portrayed to me back in the U.S. For example, I had heard that the favelas are slums that are wracked with violence and whose inhabitants live in fear of the drug lords that control them. When Alberto showed us around Rocinha I saw a vibrant, close knit, desperately poor community that was hardworking, hopeful, and friendly, yet distrustful of outsiders, and most surprising of all, that trusted the drug lords more with their protection than the police.

Even when I was in Rio, I continued to experience this strange dissonance with what I heard from friends and the media at home in the states and what I was experiencing on the ground. I saw countless posts and articles about how unprepared Rio was for the Olympics, how shoddy the construction was, how tense and difficult it was to set up the games due to the current political climate, how the International Olympic Committee was doubting the ability of developing countries to host future Olympic games because of how much of a disaster Rio had been.

For my part, I saw a city full of people facing enormous difficulties in the form of economic recession and political corruption who had decided to put aside their struggles for a few weeks to host the games as beautifully as they could. They did not let the Olympics distract or divert them from their fight to root out political corruption, but decided to go back to it after the games so they as a city could come together and put their best foot forward. Sure, the Rio games were not as shiny and perfect as a games hosted by a more prosperous nation, but that begs the question, should they have to be? The people of Rio made enormous sacrifices to host the games, but despite these costs they greeted the games with an electric energy that made these Olympics truly one of a kind.

In the end, the truth of these situations is probably somewhere in between what I saw during my time there and what is widely known and reported in the United States. After all, I was only in Rio for two weeks, and it is a city that would take decades to understand. Still, my trip to Rio taught me to consume information about other countries with a more critical eye. The depictions we find in the newspaper are a mere shadow of the reality, and the truth is more complicated, confusing, vibrant, and simply more beautiful than we expect.