RIO DE JANEIRO (VN) — Early each morning, I stepped out the front door of my Airbnb apartment and turned right, walking in the shade of drooping tropical trees past two doormen guarding gates, a high-end pastry shop, and a woman with her small child, asleep beneath a covered stoop on a thin mattress of wadded blankets. I walked one block then another toward Copacabana’s white sands and the big green sign that indicated a media shuttle stop, where I flashed my credential, stepped into a blue tour bus, and sat in plush, air-conditioned, Wi-Fi-enabled comfort as the driver pointed us down special Rio 2016 highway lanes, away from the woman and her child, past stacks of stalled traffic and bright hillside favelas. We sped through a developing city inside a first-world cocoon.
Inside the Olympic bubble I met Brian Babilonia, Puerto Rico’s lone road race starter. He showed up to his event three hours early, already kitted up when I arrived, his number pinned. He didn’t want to miss a moment of his Olympic dream, he said.
I stood in front of a devastated, tearful Mara Abbott barely 10 minutes after a gold medal slipped through her fingers 150 meters from the finish line, then wrote and re-wrote, and re-wrote a story that I knew could never truly capture anything.
Inside the Olympic bubble I felt the temporary beach volleyball stadium sway with the potential energy of a bellowing crowd as Brazil defeated the Americans in two sets. I watched Fabian Cancellara jump on the podium and shake his fists at a drizzling sky with the joy of a first victory, though it was likely his last. I marveled at the grace of a pair of synchronized divers, the pace of two table tennis players, and soaked in the roar of a tennis crowd more accustomed to the chants of soccer. I laughed with Dan from Nam’, because that’s what Dan does.
I felt my heart thump as British and American team pursuit teams stole the world record from each other ride after ride after ride. I felt my stomach drop as the Americans lost in the final. As the velodrome’s eyes turned to the podium, I instead watched Ruth Winder, the fifth American pursuiter, stand in her Team USA tracksuit and hold back tears at the edge of the crowd. Her teammates stood before the world and collected silver medals while her neck remained bare. My heart broke for her, as it did for Abbott, standing close enough to touch the most important thing the Olympic bubble has to give.
Inside the Olympic bubble I found feats of unbridled athleticism, the very peak of humanity. I found inspiration, the embodiment of Olympic spirit as we optimistically hope to define it.
Each evening I reversed course. The shuttle dropped me off at the big green “Media” sign in Copacabana around 9:30 p.m., just as hints of samba and AC/DC (really) began to waft out of two competing bars across the street. I stepped out of the Olympic bubble and into Rio de Janeiro, a flawed but deeply beautiful city.
Outside the bubble I met Hugo, who sells the sweetest bananas to ever grace a roadside stall. I don’t know how to ask a man’s name in Portuguese, but when he saw my credential and my gringo face he held out a hand. “Hugo,” he said, smiling on the dark street. I walked away from him with a credit card in my shoe and a fake wallet in my back pocket and realized I wouldn’t need either.
I met Lucas, 22, who could juggle a soccer ball in perpetuity and did so one afternoon along Ipanema’s shore. He didn’t have a job right now, his friend translated for me. But the sun was warm and he had this ball and he seemed happy anyway.
Outside the bubble I met Christian, my Airbnb host, neither a poor man nor a rich one, who rents his mother’s old apartment and shows tourists around his city. “It’s her pension,” he said.
“There will be protests tomorrow,” a text message from Christian said one evening before the games began. He’d join the demonstration outside Copacabana Palace, an icon of wealthy Rio that housed much of NBC’s suit-wearing vice-presidents of something-or-other. “The city and government will try to put speakers very high at the opening ceremony to muffle the boos of the ‘President’ of Brasil,” the message continued, putting “President” in quotes. “You’re going to see people try to put out the Olympic torch.”
I met him, asked him why. He was profiting from Olympics, after all, through Airbnb.
“We want them to spend the money on things we need, not things you need,” he said, not rudely but as a matter of fact. The roads to nowhere, the metro stops nobody but the IOC wanted; these were not things for him, they were things for me. And I’d be gone in a few weeks, while the open sewers stayed behind.
In Rio, more so than any city I’ve worked in, the gap between those in power and those below, those inside the Olympic bubble and out, was overwhelming.
Some 70,000 people were displaced by these games, local human rights organizations estimate. Over 100 people, almost exclusively young and black, were killed in the lead-up to the games by Rio security forces. Entire neighborhoods were razed near the Olympic Park. Rio spent about $12 billion, a tax burden equivalent to five years at minimum wage for every single Rio resident (just under $15,000 each). The Cariocas will never see the $1.2 billion NBC paid for broadcast rights. Volunteers quit en masse when they were neither fed nor relieved after long hours, while IOC officials received $900 per day to play with, after having all meals, transport, and housing covered. Over three weeks that’s a $19,000 payday — more than many Olympic athletes make in a year, even in rich countries like the U.S.
In light of this human cost, the things we were warned of — Zika, theft, muggings — seem trivial. I saw one mosquito; it’s winter down there. I was not mugged, nor did I ever feel unsafe. I bought bananas in the dark and had nonverbal conversations with Uber drivers. Perhaps I was lucky. Perhaps those fears were completely overblown.
I took the media shuttle home on my last night in Rio, past the colorful favelas that look out over the Atlantic and the poor traffic-bound souls not allowed in the Rio 2016 lane. I stepped out of the Olympic bubble, as I had every night for two weeks, and walked past the same woman and her child, both now awake. She sat with her hand out and face down. Her boy shook small stones inside a plastic cup, happily playing a game with rules only he knew.
The Olympic games sped through this developing city in a first-world cocoon. The rich got richer, the poor got nothing, and I struggled to reconcile the beautiful, inspiring, but ultimately insular world of Olympic athletics with real Rio, a boisterous and happy and chaotic and sad city unlike any other. I don’t think I ever will.