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Trying to Experience Rio Outside the Olympic Bubble

Most of the 30,000 journalists covering the Olympics will spend their time in or around the Olympic venues. Our writer Aaron Gordon is trying to experience the real Rio.
Photo by Aaron Gordon

VICE Sports staff writer Aaron Gordon is in Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics and filing daily dispatches.

There are precious few moments during the hectic Olympics schedule when I remember where I am. I imagine this is true for most of the other 30,000 journalists covering the games, almost all of whom spend a majority of time in the vast caverns of Olympic Park or on shuttle buses to or from those venues. None of that offers much perspective on the city itself.


Although I had heard the phrase "Olympic Bubble" before coming to Rio, it made more sense once I had actually been inside it. I suspect many reporters will spend their entire Olympic experience within this bubble, hardly interacting with Cariocas at all, maybe out of fear—more than one journalist has expressed shock that I would even go to a favela—but mostly due to professional obligations. Most of them are here to report on the Olympics—the games, the athletes, the rivalries and narratives and such. Those things all happen in the bubble, and so in most meaningful ways do not quite happen in Rio.

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Rio is a complicated city that I won't even pretend to fully understand, but it is like most other major cities in that it is quite obviously divided between the haves and have-nots. Watching the opening ceremony from, say, a bar in the upscale Leblon or one of the many hospitality houses around the city provides a very different perspective than where I watched the opening ceremony: a small watch party in a favela in Santa Teresa, a mixed neighborhood of favelas and middle income homes. About ten people showed up, all told, and many weren't even watching, instead taking in the breathtaking views the balcony offered. I didn't blame them one bit. The real Rio is infinitely preferable to a ceremony that simultaneously honors and caricatures it.


The morning prior to the ceremony, I had also visited Santa Teresa. While I waited for a friend to arrive, I sat in a small tapioca cafe which overlooked the Maracana. The cafe consisted of a covering and a small table with a hot plate for making tapiocas and coffee. I ordered both from the middle-aged woman behind the table, who smiled at me relentlessly.

To her right, her teenage son lounged in a chair pecking away on his phone and sending voice messages to people on WhatsApp. A (very good) dog named Melina with a thin face and cute sad dog eyes wandered about the cafe. At first, Melina was shy and a bit hesitant to come over, going down the nearly invisible stairs that descended the hillside below the cafe. But after a bit, she returned and came over to me, resting her head on my lap. I petted her and she liked it, and I liked that she liked it. I took a deep breath of fresh air mixed with good coffee and a mesmerizing view, hoping I would experience something almost exactly like this again.

The mom nagged her son about something and he responded irritably. I recognized the back-and-forth as one I've had with my own mom many times over the years, particularly when I was a teenager. I just wanted to be left alone, but she wanted me to vacuum or clean my room. I guessed, in this case, the woman wanted him to do a chore of some kind, and he responded with something like, "I'll do it this afternoon."


After enjoying the hell out of my tapioca, I asked the kid if he spoke English. He did not, but he rushed over to sit next to me and excitedly tried to have a conversation anyway. We used Google Translate to have something resembling a conversation. Each reciprocated comprehension was a small victory.

"Tourist?" He asked me.

No, I told him. I am here to report on the Olympics, but I'm interested in what Cariocas think, not just the IOC. He smiled and nodded, forgetting that I didn't speak Portuguese for a second as he tried to answer. But he caught himself and began pecking away at Google Translate. He said he was sorry he didn't speak English, that he took lessons in school but had forgotten it all.

Over the next few minutes, I found out his name was Joao Victor Souza Macedo, he was 15 years old, and he was sitting here in the cafe, instead of in school, because schools were closed during the Olympics. He thought the Olympics could bring some good things for Rio, or at least was hopeful they would. He hadn't personally experienced any of those good things. I got the feeling that, for him, it was hard to get too worked up either way.

When I asked him if he was going to any events, he shook his head and, in the only part of our conversation that didn't need any translation, he tapped himself on the chest, wagged his finger, then lightly tapped my chest with the outside of his hand. The message was clear: the Olympics were for me, not for him.

In this, Macedo is undeniably correct. The Olympics are for me, and for the other 30,000 journalists, and for the "Olympic Family"—the IOC, the National Olympic Committees, the sporting federations, and the volunteers, all of which have their own independent and separate infrastructure during these few weeks. The vast majority of Rio residents, from my admittedly unscientific survey, are like Macedo: perfectly willing to play host and hope for the best, even if, deep down, they know that they have seen this show before.

That night, I ended up returning to the exact same spot before the opening ceremony watch party. I saw Macedo still in the cafe. It was dark, and I waved to him, and he waved back with a smile. He was just leaving, headed down the hill with some friends, even though the cafe would have been a great place to watch the fireworks over Maracana.