After spending the two weeks in Rio, traveling to and from venues, attending several events, and visiting all of the different Olympic regions, we can say, unequivocally, that Rio’s troubles were as overblown as Ryan Lochte’s fabricated robbery account. We at Performance Research deal in facts and direct observations, not media hype or hearsay.
So, what did we experience? An Olympics very much like previous games, but with a Brazilian personality (as it should be). Were there some hiccups? Of course. But, nothing out of the ordinary and none as severe or as scary as you’ve probably heard about. This has been my (Bill Doyle, Co-Founder) 8th Olympic games, and Performance Research Co–Founder Jed Pearsall’s 15th, dating all the way back to Lake Placid in 1980. So, we’ve seen it all. Below is a recap of our observations from Rio:
- Zika and Dirty Water: Zika is clearly a terrible virus with significant effects, carried by a mosquito. But, did it mean that the whole place was infested? While we applied a repellant each day as a precaution, not once did we see or even experience any mosquitos. Just as Lyme disease, carried by deer ticks in New England is a terrible infliction, we could not imagine anyone telling loved ones to avoid New England at all cost because we have disease spreading ticks. For certain people (expecting mothers), I can see the concern, but otherwise the whole craziness appeared to be way overblown. As for the polluted water, it surely was a concern in certain areas. But, after better understanding the geography we realized that those areas were limited to a closed reservoir and a specific section of a protected bay, very close to the city center. However, the ocean waves along the beautiful beaches were as clean and clear as any we’ve seen and this is where much of the sailing took place.
- Unfinished Venues: We did not experience any unfinished venues. All had seats, all were new or renovated, all had concessions, and better than most US venues, all had clean and available bathrooms. There were no hanging wires or gushing plumbing anywhere to be seen. The overall Olympic park had a brand new, “just opened” feel about it with only a few shortcuts noticeable here or there (for example, the walkways were entirely made from pavers, with some a little loose under-foot) but nothing we could find that would give the impression that they were not complete and ready to go.
- Rampant Crime: I think the media needs to take a deep breath and look at the facts. Face it, Rio is a city of 6.2 million people. That’s over twice as many people as Houston and Chicago, a third more than LA, and nearly the size of New York. Of course in any city this large, there are good and bad parts of town. Crime happens every day throughout all of these cities. But, we never saw or experienced any of it. Not once did we feel unsafe or insecure. The Olympic park was actually in an area that most Americans would consider the suburbs: at the end of a street lined with car dealerships, shopping malls, and a huge multiplex movie theater. Think US1 in Aventura Florida, not downtown Miami.
However, Copacabana and Ipanema are beach front urban areas with very much the same look and feel as Waikiki in Honolulu. While the petty crimes reported on those Rio beaches are quite common, nothing seemed out of the ordinary for an urban area such as this. We heard a few reports of international tourists leaving their back-packs unattended, and just like anywhere else in the world, somebody swiped them – no different than in the US.
This is where I think Rio was getting undeservedly slammed the most, and why Lochte’s false account struck such a nerve with Brazilians. Imagine for a moment that these games were awarded to Chicago, with their current record breaking murder rates. The world-wide headlines would read: “Don’t travel to Chicago, they are murdering people in the streets!” Is this fair? Would you assume you were in grave danger by shopping on the Miracle Mile, jogging by the lake, or attending an event in Soldier Field? No. But that was what was happening to Rio. Can bad things happen? Of course, but just like Ryan Lochte’s fabricated story, it seemed all way over blown with the serious crimes taking place in areas not anywhere near where an Olympic visitor would travel.
- Long lines: These claims were absolutely false. We went to 11 different events, including high profile swimming, gymnastics and beach volleyball. Only once (at the Equestrian center) did we wait more than 3 minutes in any security or ticket line. However, even that 20 minute wait went by fast as a Brazilian military band entertained the crowd with a pop-up concert.
- Concession food shortages: Are American reporters getting just a bit spoiled with our high end cuisine and ample designer food choices that populate our sports venues of late? It is my only explanation for these accounts. Rio’s Olympic venues had more than enough concessions, but they were limited to a small variety of chips, burgers, ice pops, and mini-pizzas. Not gourmet, but nobody was going to starve. There was one oddity we couldn’t grasp however. When ordering any food or drinks, the procedure is to first stand in a line to pay for the items, then take the order receipt “tickets” to the accompanying counter to again wait in a separate line to redeem these tickets for the actual items. You had to go through this process even for a simple item like bottled water or Coca-Cola. Odd, but it is apparently how they do things in Brazil. Chalk that up to local culture.
- Traffic and transportation issues: The BRT and Olympic venue transportation worked like clockwork for us. We purchased an unlimited weekly pass for about $50US, and, once we figured out the system, never waited more than 2-3 minutes for a bus or train. They created unique closed off lanes for these Olympic busses that allowed them to race at top speed past any traffic and deliver us right to the venues. Coming from “drive ourselves” dyed-in-the-wool car renters, getting us to use and admit the public transit system was pretty good is a rarity. But, even we gave up the keys and embraced the bus transport system. Compared to Atlanta, that had huge lines and way over-crowded trains, Rio was a breeze.
- Empty seats in stands: Nothing new. This happens at every Olympic games. Remember London? Rio actually did a few things better than any games we’ve attended. They had a centralized ticket website, along with several ticketing locations, continually updated where tickets turned in by sponsors or other agencies could easily be re-sold at face value. As well, people with extra tickets were selling them out in the open, not petrified of arrest like in Beijing or London. Given that, this was, by far, the best managed ticketing program we’ve ever experienced.
As for the venues, the ushers were very relaxed about seat swapping. So if your seat was up in the rafters, and there were empties down close (typically unoccupied sponsor reserved seats), they let people fill in wherever they wanted and only moved you if the rightful seat-holder arrived. Given that, what you were noticing on TV being empty was most likely the upper decks of any venue because people were all filtering down into the better seats.
After London we pleaded, “When will somebody realize that there needs to be an efficient secondary ticketing system in place to re-sell unclaimed or unused tickets?” It seems Rio figured it out pretty well.
Now we ask, “When will an Olympic organizer figure out what we termed “confetti” seats, of all different random colors – making it impossible for television audiences to differentiate between occupied and unoccupied seats?” Some day. (see example)
- Military-like security: While we did see a few soldiers around venue entrances with machine guns, it was far fewer and far less ubiquitous than most other Olympics. We recall Barcelona teaming with camo wearing, gun toting security forces everywhere, even placing tanks right out front, ready to attack any threat to an Olympic venue. We saw very little of this, and only outside of the Equestrian venue, located across the street from a military base, was there an obvious military-like presence.
- The Brazilian people: We found our hosts to be VERY friendly and accommodating. Their exuberance in the stands was infectious – at times we found ourselves caught up in the moment and rooting for Brazilian athletes along with them. This enthusiasm was however, at times, a bit unsportsmanlike as they tended to boo and jeer opponents almost as heartily as they supported their own. Also, it was surprising to us how few spoke English, but that is our problem – not theirs. How many American’s do you know who speak a second language, let alone Portuguese? Given that, I would have liked to have seen a bit more international symbols on signage for foreign visitors such as ourselves.
Was everything perfect? No. We saw many opportunities for improvement.
The transit system, while efficient, was labeled by the names of the parts of the city, as opposed to an Olympic venue or sport symbol. So figuring out which stop correlated to which sport venue from the dizzying transit maps, for example, took some concentrated effort. But, we only missed our stop once, so not a terrible foul.
We found the Olympic Park to be somewhat lacking in excitement or energy. Unlike London which was teaming with street performers (mostly thanks to Coca-Cola), music, sponsor venues, and huge screens showing all the action, Rio’s was simply a large closed in area that contained several sports venues. There were concession carts, a souvenir mega-store, a few sponsor activations, and some directional signage, but not much else. Even locals we attended with were disappointed by the lack of a “festive” atmosphere at Olympic Park.
We later learned that instead, Rio created Boulevard Olimpico down-town, away from the sports venues. This area featured all of the sponsor activations and festive atmosphere one would expect, aimed primarily at the home market as a way to share the Olympic experience with everyone, regardless of whether they held an event ticket or not. http://www.boulevard-olimpico.com/?lang=en This area was jam packed every day, and really acted as the party central / theme-park area for these games. It just wasn’t publicized very well to visitors as we saw no promotions or mentions of it anywhere we visited.
Every Olympic Games we’ve attended has had its own personality. Some overtly commercialized (LA and Atlanta), some romantically quaint (Lake Placid and Lillehammer), some feeling very “designer – high end” (Beijing and London) and some feeling very industrial (Nagano). In the end, each were unique in their own way.
For Brazil we will remember the proud and welcoming people, the immense enthusiasm and energy in the stands, and while their budgets couldn’t match Beijing’s or London’s exorbitant spending, we always got the feeling that these Olympic hosts were giving it their very best to ensure visitors had a great experience in their country.
To the people of Rio, we apologize for Ryan Lochte and the US media. It appears they both have a flair for negativity and dramatic embellishment.
Regardless of what they reported, we know the truth and will most definitely return.
Thank you Rio