Letter from Rio: Games a fractured dream wonderful and awful to behold

Chief sports writer Keith Duggan reflects on the first week at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness: by the synchronised diving scoring system, by pure exhaustion and by a world which is neatly divided into winners and losers.

A week on and Rio is wedded to its Olympics, for better or worse.

How do you rationalise a $11.5 billion sports party hosted by a city already billions in debt? How do you account for the unreasonable folly of a non-stop frenzy of sports with 11,500 super-humans hellbent on obtaining 4,924 medals in front of hundreds of thousands of spectators safeguarded by 85,000 security personnel, all of whom moan that there is never enough ketchup on the hot-dogs.

The Olympics is a land where Visa is the only plastic that matters. The Olympics is a land of ill-advised chino shorts and bad tracksuits and leaves everyone – especially the athletes – bleary eyed and sleep-deprived, unsure of what day of the week it is, lost between time zones, between bus shelters, between languages and between the electrical volts caused by packing so many athletes into high-rise apartments and having them perform in this modern day coliseum.

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Yes, the Olympics Games are about power and ambition and shady development deals and vast, vast sums of money. But they are also about terrible plumbing and a million small kindnesses and logistical planning that is little short of miraculous.

At heart, the Olympics Games is a fractured dream both wonderful and awful which you walk through for a full two weeks.

We drove all night

In a taxi, very late at night. In the back seat with the athletics correspondent and the boxing correspondent. Looking for the Olympics.

The driver’s English is as non-existent as our Portuguese. He has had us as his passengers for a full two hours now: 40 minutes from downtown to the Barra region and the rest looking for any sign that Rio is, in fact, hosting the Olympics.

It is after 2am. If he has any sense, he will turf us out on the highway and leave us to the banditos.

But he will not quit. Like Roy Orbison, we drove all night.

Eventually, the driver spots a local and pulls up and they begin chatting rapidly and urgently.

He is trying to explain to the guy that these three plebs got into his taxi and he isn’t sure if they are ever going to get out. The communication causes a surge of hope in the back seat and we find ourselves miming, spontaneously, our desired destination.

The athletics corr affects a man running, the boxing corr throws a few punches at an imaginary heavy bag. Yours truly pretends to be swimming.

The pedestrian stares through the window at us. It must appear as if we are having some kind of synchronised seizure.

His face is caught between pity, alarm and contempt: he is witnessing definitive proof that hosting the Games was a foolish idea.

When the driver finally gets us back to the bright lights of Olympic Park, he should by all rights hate the sight of us. Instead, he clasps his hands in a prayer of apology and attempts to return some of the fare. That’s something that wouldn’t happen too quickly anywhere in Europe.

Brazilian euphoria

All of a sudden the sound of Brazilian cheering breaks out across Olympic Park and in the cafes and the restaurants downtown. A local judo competitor, Rafaela Silva, has won the first medal for the host country. The sound of Brazilian euphoria is rare here and makes you realise what it takes to host an event this monstrous and high-profile: deep-down national confidence. It brings you back to Sydney and the stridently good-humoured Australians, boisterous in their certainty that the visiting world would fall for their city (it did) and belting out their anthemic chant –Aussie-Aussie-Aussie-Oi-Oi-Oi – as they gathered gold medals as if the games was their own private gold rush (it was).

The Brazilian cheering brings to mind Athens, ancient home of this desire to compete and to win and to be lauded, where the locals were already resigned to the severe economic turmoil ahead.

It makes you think of Beijing, when the Chinese had already beaten the world into submission by the power and might of their opening ceremony, when 2008 percussionists produced a sound that perhaps only Stuart Copeland on a good night could hope to better. And to London, where against all advance notice, Blighty hosted the best Olympics in living memory.

That tentative cheering in Rio was the most vivid symbol of the Brazilians’ hope that they can make a success of this. By evening, a large crowd has gathered outside the television studio on the concourse. When Silva appears, surrounded by security guards ushering her to the courtesy car, hundreds of fans surge towards her, chanting her name, delighted.

Outraged curses

The faucets for the shower in the living quarters are notoriously temperamental. It is day three, maybe day four. On the other side of the wall, the athletics corr is using his shower at the very same time. Twisting the faucets make no difference to your water supply but are clearly having a radical effect on the temperature on the other side of the wall, which moves from boiled-kettle hot to Arctic Circle cold and back again.

The extremities cause the athletics corr to utter a volley of outraged curses followed by a vocal exhibition which covers a range of octaves not heard anywhere in South America since Montserrat Caballe last toured. The terrible sounds coming from the other side of the wall makes you feel as if you are in the episode of Stranger Things which nobody needs to see. It is, of course, truly pathetic to administer what amounts to a water-boarding to a cherished friend and colleague. But it is also great fun.

Distress, turmoil

The Olympic Park occupies an area that for decades was the Vila Autodromo, a small favela with 3,000 residents who had considered the place home for several generations. It has been entirely erased except for the two dozen cottages built for the few residents who simply refused to quit their neighbourhood. One of the homes has been converted into a museum for the evicted and has been profiled repeatedly as it is just a short walk away from the main media hub.

One resident, Delmo De Oliveira, fought through the pressure and intimidation to win a court injunction to preserve his home. He no longer lives there but it stands, splendid and accusatory in its isolation, as a symbol of the many people whose homes were swept away in order to create the land required for this fortnight’s extravaganza.

Hundreds of Olympic buses wheel by the slender, three-storey red brick home every day. You can’t miss it. The common figure given for locals who have been ‘displaced’ by Rio’s winning the vote to host these Olympics is 60,000. You can’t begin to imagine the levels of distress and turmoil and hardship evicting that number of people causes and it’s just one of the many reasons which substantiate the view that there is something morally abhorrent and disgusting about the Olympics.

Be careful

“Be careful when you unplug your phone from the wall there,” warns the boxing corr. “The socket comes away pretty easily.”

Velvet sky

Wintertime in Rio is like a really good summer in Ireland except that the leaves fall and the sky is velvet black by six o’clock. The hotel facades along Ipanema’s beach front look battered and lonesome at this time of year and the sea green and magnificent; it would make sense to twin Rio with Lahinch.

Grand old man

The problem for those that hate the Olympics is that they provide so many brilliant moments of human athletic excellence and humility. Who could not dig the childlike enthusiasm of Pádraig Harrington, a golfer who has won it all, just because nobody can ever take away from him the pure thrill that comes with being an Olympian? Or the re-emergence of US swimmer Anthony Ervin, who won gold in Sydney in the 50-metre freestyle at the age of 19 and won another medal here at the age of 35. Forget Michael Phelps, this is the grand old man of the pool.

Ervin ended up auctioning his medal in 2005: it sold for just over $17,000 and he gave the money to a tsunami relief fund. A retirement from swimming at 22, a motorcycle wreck; an overdose through the medicine he uses for Tourette’s syndrome, a period of compulsive tattooism followed before Ervin found his way back into the pool ahead of the London games in 2012.

Who can’t be ‘for’ athletes like Sinéad Lynch, who has poured years of unrecognised training into making it to Rio?

Who can’t wonder at the torrent of emotion which will flood through Belgium’s taekwando fighter Mourad Laachraoui, whose brother was one of the jihadists killed during the attacks in Brussels last March? Who can argue with the importance of these Olympics to Yiech Pur Biel, the South Sudanese athlete who competed in the 800-metre heats and who lived in a Kenyan refugee camp for a full decade after the civil war broke out in his country?

And if Pur Biel and other members of the Refugee Team are being used by the IOC, then aren’t all athletes, from Durant and Phelps and Biles down, also being used as the star attractions of what is, at a commercial level, a hugely profitable orgy of construction, of advertising, of television rights?

You can argue that one forever– or until you get distracted by the water polo, the track-cycling, the volleyball or some other outbreak of compelling sporting drama.

Rhythm

Members of Ireland’s travelling press corps have found a bar frequented by actual locals on the night. A television is playing in the background but nobody inside gives a hoot; they are too busy knocking back drinks and dancing to the incredibly good local band playing local music and basically being Brazilian. And Gloria Estefan was not lying: the rhythm is gonna get you. There is a God-awful moment when it seems that the infectiousness of the beat is going to cause of mass-outbreak of dancing among the gringo-heavy press corps. Mercifully, the moment passes.

Bad food

The food at all Olympic venues is spectacularly and wilfully awful. And it is scandalously priced. Never in the history of mankind have so many people wished for McDonalds all at once. But the Ronald has been kept off -reservation.

Sitting Bull

By day six of the Olympics, most of the 11,000 media are as broken as Charlie Sheen in the final scenes in Platoon, weeping silently and hearing Adagio for Strings in their heads as they head off to cover dressage or submit themselves to the frenzy of table tennis after three hours sleep.

The oldest journalist here may well be the gentleman with a cane, who moves regally and behaves as if journalism if still a profession and not a ‘game’. You still see survivors of the era when Olympic reports were delivered via crackling phone-line, shirts pressed and shoes buffed, singling them out from the i-podded, Converse-clad hordes. They look regal and endangered, like Sitting Bull or Walks Tall In the Clouds in their last years.

Barefoot

Yes, there are plenty of empty seats at the various venues. A quarter of the population of Rio lives in favelas. A ticket for Friday's events in the athletics stadium costs 380 reais. The minimum wage in Rio is 780 reais – per month. Not enough locals can afford the tickets – or the time off working – to go and watch the events. Olympic Park, in the Barra de Tijuca, is at least an hour out of downtown and day and night, the locals are turning out in their thousands. If they are from the gorgeous homes nestled in the hills or from the beach front houses or the Barra condominiums, then they are showing up.

But the children who walk barefoot along the roadway intersections selling bags of sweets? Or the vendors selling paper cones of peanuts to tourists in Lapa? They have other more fundamental things on their minds.

Ultra-marathon

The athletics corr skips into apt #610 after a quick dawn ultra-marathon. Track and field starts today. He eyes his bathroom warily. “Hey man, those showers are a bit f**ken mad,aren’t they?” he says.

“No” you lie. “They work perfectly.”

Onwards, to day eight.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times