A Walk In The Park For Rio 2016, But Is It Delivering?

The Olympic Rings in Rio 2016's Barra Olympic Park (GamesBids Photo)
The Olympic Rings in Rio 2016’s Barra Olympic Park (GamesBids Photo)

Reporting from Barra Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro – Day one of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games quickly changed the conversation from #ZikaVirus to #GoldMedal.  With events underway, nine years of bidding and preparation transferred to 17 days of execution; sport instead of business; athletes and not bureaucrats.

Now it’s a walk in the park.  Well, not really – a huge workforce an army of volunteers (and an army for security) will work tirelessly for the next two weeks or so pulling this off.

While serving me a sandwich just after midnight Sunday in the Olympic Park one food services worker told me, in Portuguese (somehow, I understand Portuguese now – that’s what the Olympics do) that she had to wake up the next morning at six o’clock in order to start her next shift.  I confirmed that through someone who speaks English too.

But on Saturday it was a walk in the park – for me – and in the Olympic Park.  I wanted to see if Rio had fulfilled its end of the deal that was signed with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on a warm Copenhagen evening, October 2, 2009 when the city defeated bids from Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo.

I won’t lie.  So quickly – security lines were too long, spectators impatient, venue entrances chaotic, food services confusing and slow, food choices were limited, souvenirs were overpriced, Visa payments unreliable (an Olympic sponsor), it was too hot and too crowded.  More on this later.

McDonalds in the Olympic Park - but don't expect to get a Big Mac - only ice cream and water served here (GamesBids Photo)
McDonalds in the Olympic Park – but don’t expect to get a Big Mac – only ice cream and water served here (GamesBids Photo)

But it was this that the Rio Olympic bid committee promised back in 2009 when it submitted its plans to the IOC: “Sport will be center stage in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.  Stunning images of the Games will be broadcast worldwide.”

And now, finally it is – right?

Here’s what else I saw Saturday – The epic Gold Medal performance of Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu as she shattered a world record in the Women’s 400M IM at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium; the stunning upset of sixth-ranked American Venus Williams at the hands of 62nd ranked Belgian Kirsten Flipkens; the agonizing, leg-breaking failed vault by French gymnast Samir Ait that ended his Olympics; and the historical and inspiring heat-winning performance by Refugee Olympic Team athlete Yusra Mardini in the Women’s 100m butterfly – who a year ago was fighting for her survival in the sea, escaping from her former home.

Then on court 3 at the Olympic Tennis Centre (a smaller, more intimate court for the early rounds) Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard spent almost 15 minutes posing in selfies with adoring fans after her easy two-set victory over American Sloane Stephens.

Majlinda Kelmendi from Kosovo won her nation’s first-ever medal, a Gold one, in Women's Judo (GamesBids Photo)
Majlinda Kelmendi from Kosovo won her nation’s first-ever medal, a Gold one, in Women’s Judo (GamesBids Photo)

In Judo Sunday, Majlinda Kelmendi from Kosovo won her nation’s first-ever medal, a Gold one, in a very emotional event.  Kosovo is participating in it’s first Olympics after being recognized by the IOC in 2014.  Her medal was presented by IOC President Thomas Bach.

“It’s like a dream come true,” Kelmendi said.

“That means a lot to me and a lot to my country.

“I have lived for years for this day and this moment it was very important that I saw that flag and that medal.”

She said she turned down several offers from other countries to compete for them, but turned them all down to compete for her own country.

It’s amazing what good sport does for a hot, hungry and impatient crowd of spectators.  At the end of the day singing, cheering and elated fans made their ways out of the park.

Really that’s it.  That’s what it’s all about.  What follows below is just static.

You’ve probably read reports about a suspicious package in a controlled explosion at Cycling or a stray bullet at Equestrian, or worse – a couple of murders adjacent to venues.  But amid the Olympics, the city itself lives on.

In the Olympic Park – the venue layout seems quite effective.  Many sports are available in close range and it’s possible to watch three events in a day here with good planning.  On site this week are basketball, judo, fencing, swimming, handball, gymnastics, diving and tennis.  Later the same park will also host wrestling, taekwondo, waterpolo and track cycling in the velodrome.

It could be a challenge, though, to spend the day in the park if not watching competitions.

One spectator told me he had tickets to three gymnastics events Saturday and commented “you can’t stay a whole day in the park – it is unbearable.”

These are JUST the check-out stations at the Rio 2016 Barra Olympic Park Megastore (GamesBids Photo)
These are JUST the check-out stations at the Rio 2016 Barra Olympic Park Megastore (GamesBids Photo)

On Saturday temperatures exceeded 30 degrees C and it was sunny.  He said “the lack of shadow in the park is another thing – they could introduce water sprays in the Park.”

The lack of trees and green space is noticeable, people who couldn’t find tables to dine on picnicked on the concrete.  And after going through the food purchasing process, they deserve better than that.

The menu is very limited, but with the basics – burgers, hot dogs, potato chips, pizza etc. – however, some items are not always available.  There is a McDonalds on site but it only serves ice cream products and water.  Payments for all food are made in advance, and you’re strongly encouraged to pay with Visa (and only Visa – the official Olympic partner), then you take a ticket to pick up the food.

On Saturday I purchased a baguete frango (chicken sandwich) and later was told it wasn’t available.  The process to convert my purchase to another item was lengthy and convoluted.  Several others had the same issue.

The long queues are another problem that tries the patience of Cariocas and visitors alike.  These need to be battled twice; when entering the Olympic Park for a security scan and then a second time for a ticket scan entering the event.

On Sunday I wandered by the Rio Olympic Arena where Women’s gymnastics qualifications were exiting for one division and queuing for another.  Spectators were getting funneled out one exit and those for the next session were funneled in another entrance.  The line wrapped around a far distance and fans were quite agitated.

Elsewhere, I witnessed a bit of a kerfuffle when someone tried to cut into a very long impromptu line up in front of one set of Olympic Rings where fans were taking pictures with it.  This was in the centre of the park, and I’m guessing nobody told them there was an even better set of rings up near the Olympic Aquatic Centre – a one minute walk away – with no queue at all.

A long, impromptu queue forms for the opportunity to get a picture with the rings at Olympic Park (GamesBids Photo)
A long, impromptu queue forms for the opportunity to get a picture with the rings at Olympic Park (GamesBids Photo)

There is a celebration area with video screens, some sponsor exhibits and a pop-up dance club.   Samsung has a virtual 4D exhibit and, of course there is a Megastore with any souvenir you can think of having either a Rio 2016 logo or mascot image on it.  The place is simply huge and items are overpriced – but that’s the Olympics.  People were spending quite enthusiastically making you wonder if there really is a recession going on in Brazil.  If there is – this cash influx will definitely help.

There are several other venues across the city, and football stadiums in use across the country – but it’s only day two – I’ll get there.

With some of the venues to be dismantled after the Games, the park will be a nice legacy for the city if they can attract regional and world championships to fill what remains, and perhaps improve their own teams and athletes by doing so.  Of course, that’s another bid time promise and we’ll see how that goes.

At the completion of day 2, there are still many more sport moments and memories to be made in the days ahead.  Those will be legacies too.

A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. Robert Livingstone is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians.

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