Friday, September 23rd, 2016
Four years ago the Olympics came to London. The excitement started more than a year in advance when tickets went on sale. Living in Amsterdam at the time, we planned to splurge on a week’s worth of tickets, seeing all the big sports – cycling, athletics and swimming. In the end though it turned out everyone else in the UK had applied for tickets and we ended up with nada at the end of the first round. In the follow up purchasing opportunities, we got tickets for basketball, football and beach volleyball. After having such a great time in London, we decided we would go to Rio in 2016.In the spring of 2015, tickets were made available in a similar way to how they were in London. There was an official partner for selling tickets to UK residents and we put in a request for the events we wanted and the maximum price bracket we were willing to pay for. We ended up with 3 sessions, badminton, beach volleyball and athletics (including the 200m final!) They were spread across 6 days which we decided would give us plenty of time to explore the city in between. The next task was booking flights. We had plenty of avios and so it was a case of pouncing on reward flights as soon as they became available, around a year in advance. In the end, we missed the Rio flights, but managed to book flights to Sao Paulo, flying first class on the way out and business on the way back.
The most challenging part of the trip was securing a hotel. We decided not to go with a ticket and hotel package as we found that the sport watching schedules looked a bit too intense for us. Most hotels release availability a year in advance so in mid August we were online searching for hotels with availability for the week we would be there. We found nothing. Being keen to stay on Copacabana or Ipanema beach, we decided to book a self catering apartment which had free cancellation until 24 hours before the stay as this would give us the security of having somewhere to stay but also the time to look out for a better option. In an unfamiliar city where security might be a concern, we much prefer the ease of staying in a hotel. We continued to search for hotels in the following months and after contacting a couple of travel agencies (having never used one before) we were told that the IOC had block booked all the hotels in the city. We were offered one hotel at £2.5K a night (normally around the 150 mark!!!!!!!), which unsuprisingly we gave a miss. Eventually at the beginning of the year, the odd room started to come up every now and then. We had to make a call on whether to go with what we saw or hold out for something better. In the end we settled for the Rio Design Hotel, which seemed to have the perfect location and facilities combo for us and was a similar price to the apartment we had booked as plan B.
In the lead up to the olympics, the news was awash with reports of disaster awaiting. Would the stadiums be ready? Would the transport links cope? Would it be safe? Ramps collapsing at the sailing venue and a severed head washing up on the beach were just a couple of news stories that came up in the weeks before we left and so obviously we were wary about what would await us when we got there.
On arrival, it was clear that staying by Copacabana had been the right choice for us. Walking along the beach, there were plenty of other tourists visiting for the games, along with the giant official store, the news rooms and the finish line for the triathlon and cycling road races. Copacabana is all about the little kiosks along the beach selling beers, caiprinhas and sandwiches. The beach is around 4km long and we walked almost the entire length of it to reach the venue for our first event – the Beach Volleyball.
The location of the the Beach Volleyball stadium could not have been any more perfect. On the beach, with one side open so you could see the sea, the timing of our session was just right to give us stunning sunset views while we enjoyed the matches. The first match was USA vs Germany, played to an almost empty crowd. This was the first inkling we got that this was going to be a very different atmosphere to London. The reason we enjoyed watching the Beach Volleyball in London was the party atmosphere – special chants and songs played when a team scores an ace for example. We were taught the appropriate chants, although with not much of a crowd, there’s only so much atmosphere that adds.
The second match of the evening was Brazil – Switzerland. Between the two games, the Brazilian fans poured in and the stadium was full. It was a Sunday evening so it really felt that having paid for tickets to a session which included two matches they just weren’t interested enough if Brazil weren’t involved to bother showing up for the first match. As soon as the Swiss team went to take their first serve, the booing began and the fact that the organisers didn’t play the songs and chants for Switzerland when they hit aces indicated it was not just the crowd that day, even the organisers were encouraging a rather negative attitude. I tried to get the chant going for the Swiss, but I’m not sure I made myself heard over the Brazilians.
The second event we went to was badminton. This was in the Barra de Tijuca area, not at the olympic park, but very near by. To get to this venue required us to make use of the new metro line that had been built for the olympics. First of all, a special ticket was required, costing around £5 for the day. A bargain compared with London prices, but when you consider that the average salary in Rio (not even Brazil) is less than £500, you can see that the games were quite unaffordable for the average Brazilian. The metro extension was built through the neighbourhoods of Ipanema and Leblon which in itself caused some controversy as these were already well to do areas seen to be benefitting from the games. While we were there though, only those with tickets to an event were allowed on the metro, so there was no opportunity for locals to use it for day to day business or indeed for anyone to just head over and take a look at the olympic park during the games. The metro didn’t go all the way to the games, from the terminus station it was then necessary to take a bus for the second half of the journey. The bus took around 40 minutes, but was fairly well organised with plenty of buses departing every few minutes and dedicated bus lanes for the whole route. The location for the badminton (alongside a the boxing, weightlifting and table tennis) was Riocentro, around a 15 minute walk from where the buses dropped you off. The walk was not the best, a scaffolding walkway had been constructed along and across the road which landed you in a rather neglected looking carpark! The venue was an exhibition centre built in the 70s, used first as a sporting venue for the Pan American games in 2007. Once inside watching the sport, the location didn’t matter too much but coming outside in the pouring rain quite a walk from the central terminus was less than ideal.
Although the venue was nearly empty, the crowds here were the most enthusiastic that we experienced. Although on the tickets you were assigned a seating block, the seating was actually unassigned so you could move around according to which match interested you (there were 3 being played at once). It did make you wonder what would have happened if a session was sold out, as with unallocated seating, people always leave single empty seats, perhaps this was never considered as a possibility.
We arrived while an Irish guy was playing. We’re not sure whether they were his mates or just a big group of Irish supporters who happened to be there but he had some very loud fans singing and cheering and even though he lost his match, he was clearly enjoying the atmosphere and took his top off at the end of the match to throw to his fans. Badminton is definitely more mainstream in Asian countries. While we were there, we saw Japan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia all playing to large and loud supporters.
We saw British player Rajiv Ouseph make it through to the quarter finals, which was exciting as this was the first time I had seen Team GB in any olympics. The Team GB supporters were definitely in the minority though, I think it was just us and one other couple.
We finished our time in Rio with a trip to the Olympic stadium and the athletics. The olympic stadium, confusingly wasn’t at the olympic park (lucky I double checked this the day before!) This in some ways was a relief as it meant we wouldn’t have to make such a long journey. Instead we took the metro to the central Rio train station and then took an overground commuter train. The location of the stadium seemed a bit strange to us. It appeared to be in a residential neighbourhood with nothing else around and only one public transport route in and out. We saw javelin and shotput, interspersed with track events.
The highlight had to be the 200m final, watching Usain Bolt winning his final gold medal, but it was also great to see some of the heats for the other events, including a few races with British athletes. Just outside the main stadium and visible from the level we were seated at was the warmup track where you could see plenty of athletes practicing relay handovers and throws. We didn’t spot anyone we recognised but it was very cool to have this little insight behind the scenes.
After all the concerns beforehand, we found our trip to the olympics was without incident, nothing was a disaster. It was more in the details that frustrations arose – the huge bundle of people trying to access a single station after the athletics or the chaos of trying to buy food with tokens when they’d run out of half the menu. The atmosphere was very different to what we had experienced in London. In 2012, nearly everyone in the UK was desperate for tickets and often ended up going to random things, just to be at the olympics. It seemed that in Brazil, the focus was much more about seeing Brazil compete and seeing Brazil win. During the second week of our trip, we wanted to watch the athletics on TV, but after Brazil won gold in the football, there was hours and hours of footage recapping that win and watching Neymar kiss his medal, rather than switching over to some of the athletics final events. Of course it is to be expected that the home crowd will be going crazy for the hosting nation, but it seemed that some of the Olympic magic of just appreciating some of the amazing talents no matter where an athlete is from was missed. I’ve only experienced the London olympics before though so its hard to make too much of a comparison.
Our trip to the Rio Olympics has definitely inspired us to go to the next games in 2020, especially as they are being held in one of our favourite cities in the world – Tokyo. It was great to be able to cheer on Team GB this time, but next time I’d love to see them win a medal which means that tickets to the velodrome will have to be top of our olympic shopping list!