Back in 2009 when Rio de Janeiro was announced as the host of the 2016 Summer Olympics, my friend Mo and I thought it was the greatest news and wanted to make sure we could witness it first hand in Brazil.
It was a bit of a pipe dream (the sort of thing you get chatting about over a few pints of beer) but then we both ended up working at London 2012. Being a Londoner involved in the Games, and also seeing some events, was brilliant and a real party atmosphere took over. Mo was doing outdoor gardening and litter picking around The O2 and I was directing traffic, followed by a job patrolling and watching perimeter fences at the Olympic Park in Stratford. It was a good summer job for me after finishing University, despite the cock-ups in admin from G4S and the fact I was doing 12-hour night shifts from 7pm until 7am.
After 2012 we actually decided to start saving for Rio 2016. It was the first step to it actually happening and we decided to start researching getting tickets. Mo’s friends George and Mitch from Southampton University Chinese Kickboxing (Modern Wushu) were also keen to come along, so we had our ‘Olympic Team’ assembled and we continued towards making the dream a reality!
Olympic experience in Rio de Janeiro
We looked at getting tickets from the official British reseller but also discovered that in Europe you can also apply for tickets from some other European based Olympic Committees. We fired out emails to every country imaginable and had mixed results. Some required us to have passports for the countries or be there to collect, and I had little success with trying to obtain some from Hungary when I was out in Budapest. We vowed that whatever country did bless us with some tickets would get some honorary support.
In the end, Cosport (Authorized Ticket Reseller for Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Great Britain & Northern Ireland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States) came through for us. We were able to secure Beach Volleyball (two sessions), Rugby, Judo (two back-to-back sessions), Taekwondo and Boxing a few months before after all applying for a load in the ballot.
We also managed to book a fairly reasonable Airbnb and flights, with me arriving a day later than the rest of the team to organise birthday surprises for my girlfriend (Olympics widow). I hope it was a good send off as I missed her like crazy for the two weeks. The boys’ first day apparently consisted of drinking one too many Caipirinhas on the beach, eating dinner and trying to go out but ending up in bed by around 9pm.
I set off for Rio with quite the journey ahead of me -two London Undergrounds, a Eurostar to Paris, flights to Sao Paulo and then Rio de Janeiro. I finally landed in Brazil the next morning at around 7am to meet the driver who was taking me to our apartment.
The boys had warned me about our driver, Mr Romano, and how he liked to talk a lot about the many women he’d romanced in Brazil since arriving from Italy, but I basically switched off as I was so tired by this point and decided to look out of the car window as he pointed out the many favelas. He did have a good car compared to the rest of the drivers in the city so he must have been doing something right. We had a little hold up in traffic and I saw a bus full of people being searched by the police. It was great to finally see some of the sights like Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain, if only briefly and from a distance.
So much of this stuff you will have only seen in films and on TV – I passed favelas, mountains, high-rises towers, lakes and finally the sea as we approached Copacabana. Our base was literally 100 metres from the famous beach. No sea views or crashing waves, but near enough to see the strip with its bars and restaurants from the window. It was a very, very basic apartment and we learnt halfway through the trip that we couldn’t use both the showers at the same time due to the dodgy electrics! The stove, as well as the pots and pans, didn’t look too trustworthy either and there was no toaster or kettle. Advice also suggested we didn’t drink water from the taps in Brazil, which meant many trips to the supermarket to buy bottled water.
However, we were in Brazil to enjoy ourselves and this was just somewhere to lay our heads. We also had a TV with every Olympic event rolling 24 hours a day (albeit in Portuguese) so couldn’t complain too much.
A few days before arriving, Mo had managed to secure us tickets to the Athletics and the Rugby 7s through Eventeam France and his connections at England Rugby so we spent the first day walking around Copacabana, Ipanema and up to the lake (Lagoa) trying to find the France Hospitality House.
Hospitality Houses for countries’ Olympic Committees were a big part of the games and we even went along to a few and you can read about them my other post. France House was set up in the Brazilian Equestrian Society (Sociedade Hípica Brasileira) and we picked up the Athletics tickets with no trouble. After a failed attempt at trying to blag our way into Club France as press (this wouldn’t be the last time), we left and headed back to the apartment in a taxi to make sure we were safe with the tickets.
The time difference with Brazil being four hours behind was a bit of a nightmare. I think for anyone in the UK it may have meant some key event highlights will have been shown at 11pm or later, but I was told it catered well to American and Brazilian audiences. Getting back to the flat some nights when British friends were waking up for work was quite surreal though.
Event security was meant to be tight with only unopened food allowed in and rules stating that only “up to five small packages of personal care items such as moisturisers, sunscreens and repellents”. When we arrived it didn’t seem that regimented and although we adhered to emptying water bottles to refill inside and removing labels to stop unauthorised sponsors of water potentially getting on TV, it never felt like there was any strict searching procedure.
Saying that, I personally felt safe at all times, whether that was going into venues or even on the streets of Rio late at night.
Our first event was Beach Volleyball and one of the events that we were due to be seeing twice out in Rio. On the Wednesday night we started the walk to our nearest arena on Copacabana beach. Alcohol choice in venues was limited to only cans of Skol beer and although you got a cool collectible cup, it wasn’t the nicest beer!
Beach Volleyball was a cool event and you had a good view from anywhere in the arena. Some of the skills the men and women were pulling off in their respective matches were really impressive, but our recreations on the beach didn’t quite live up to theirs. There were songs played between each point with a DJ playing clips after each point to get the crowd up on their feet. We had to do different dance moves (just hand and arm movements really) for blocks and spikes with music to match. I think we got there about 10.30pm with the event eventually wrapping up at nearly 2am local time.
There were also short pauses for changing ends or time-outs when sand was raked or dancers would randomly run out and do a bit of streetdance for the crowds. All a bit funny, but great after a few drinks.
Our next event was the Rugby and we were the typical “Brits Abroad” sneaking our own alcohol into the venue. Deodoro was a large park quite a trek away which also required us to buy the official Rio Card (a day travelcard for about £5 per day).
We saw the morning session and the finals with a brief break listening to what I imagine was Brazilian Bieber on stage surrounded by teens singing along in Portuguese. Mo and George draped in Union Jacks meant that we were the centre of attention with people demanding group pictures and selfies with them.
By the evening session we had gravitated towards the other British fans and managed to get near the BBC coverage presented by Katherine Downes. I think in the end our feet may have made it onto TV, but our cheering was short lived as Team GB only managed to collect silver. We thought they’d show up a bit more in the final and be victorious against Fiji by being fearless (just like our Kenyan friends). It ended 43-7 in the end.
We were also fortunate enough to see some Judo. The arena had two bouts taking place at a time on mats side-by-side, which was good as there were a few to get through. Although it was quite an intense sport to watch, for some of the bouts it was quite tactical with too much grappling and neither side really going for the win. It was great to see Teddy Riner, the French world champion take to the mat and his family and other supporters were in fine voice behind us.
We encountered a tout (an English guy who had wads of tickets and was probably not doing a roaring trade out in Rio) whilst waiting for our second Judo session and he was selling some Swimming tickets. I made the suggestion that as the Swimming was starting perhaps we could trade our second Judo session and he obliged.
Great to see some GB swimmers (including Adam Peaty) qualify in their heat as the fastest ahead of USA who had rested Michael Phelps for the heat and finished second. We also had to watch the men’s 1500 metre race as part of the session with six heats each lasting around 15 minutes. We couldn’t help but think we’d done our tout friend a bit of a favour!
By default we had to support Jordan Wilimovsky, due to him being the cousin of a nice older American lady sitting behind. Despite winning his heat he just missed out on a medal in the final the next day, finishing fourth.
The real highlight of all of our events was definitely the trip to the Olympic Stadium. The night was electric and we arrived at the stadium to drummers and a real party atmosphere. We were able to check out some athletes warming up on the test track and then it was time to enter the mighty arena.
Our seats were too good to be true. (It later turned out we were sat in the wrong place and we got told to move out of someone else’s seats.) After running our own 100m we were at our actual seats with a great face-on view of the start and finish line for the 100m straight.
We saw South African Wayde van Niekerk beat Michael Johnson’s record for the 400 metres set 17 years ago and were celebrating with the South African lads sat in front of us. This got us even more excited for the main event. We had some Women’s 400m, Men’s high jump, Women’s 100m and the triple jump finals all before the big one.
The sprinters came out to riotous cheers (aside from the boos for Justin Gatlin) and everyone was up on their feet. This was to be Usain Bolt’s last Olympics and to see it live was just unreal. (Four years ago I was sprinting home in a sweat and missed him making history in London).
Usain Bolt was in fine form after this win and did about three laps of the track posing for selfies, going into the crowd to do signatures and taking on Jamaican and Brazilian flags.
We had a second Beach Volleyball session the same night again being played late at night. We weren’t in a massive rush but arrived to see some athletes being turned away without tickets. The USA Basketball Team had a few players in the arena too and we even saw one have his pint snatched from him by what we assume was a minder looking out for his public profile.
After a few days off, we returned to the Olympic Park for the Taekwondo. This arena was directly beside the one we went to for the Judo, with a very similar set-up inside but just one bout taking place at a time.
The Boxing was our very last event of the Olympics and this was a short walk away from the Olympic Park in Riocentro, which also housed Table Tennis, Badminton and Weightlifting. We had four fights in total and got to see some real talent. The super-heavyweight Boxing final was to be one of the final medals awarded, with British boxer Joe Joyce competing against France’s Tony Yoka– whose fiancée had won boxing gold a few days earlier. There were also the finals of the men’s flyweight and light welterweight events.
Before that, we got to see American middleweight boxer Claressa Shields win gold and wear it alongside her medal from the London 2012 games (that she won aged just 17). This made her the first American boxer, male or female, to win an Olympic gold twice in a row.
Joe fought well and we believed he’d done enough to win gold against the Frenchman who seemed to do a lot of defending as opposed to clean attacks. We thought we’d seen our first robbery of the holiday.
I saw professional heavyweight champ Anthony Joshua, who won super-heavyweight Olympic gold back in 2012, looking bored in between BBC filming with John Inverdale and seized my opportunity to go over before the medal presentation. He was signing autographs on hats, beer cups and t-shirts and I waited my turn to get my own done. I asked him to sign my phone case and handed my phone over. He caught me off guard by making a Snapchat story and was such a nice guy (with huge fists). I wished him well in his next fight and left slightly starstruck.
We got a few beach days under our belt and Copacabana really is beautiful with its sand and crashing waves. It’s such a long beach so we did plenty of walking too. We knew it was Brazilian winter and someone had floated the idea that it never rains in August in Brazil. How wrong they were! Our very first beach trip was cut short by the “mini storm” created by a TV helicopter flying too low followed by the high winds picking up afterwards. Sand in the eyes is not much fun, so most people took it as a cue to make a move. I was also the only one to pack a raincoat, which really helped on the damp and overcast days.
The first trip to the beach was when I realised what an enterprising nation Brazilians are. People seem to be selling something everywhere you turn. The usual offers of sun loungers, umbrellas and suncreams were followed by roasted shrimps, sandwiches, pastries, crisps, nuts, portable chargers, sunglasses, sun hats and bikinis as well as Caipirinhas, water and beer (I perfected my impression of the salesmen calling “Água, Cerveja!” quite early into the holiday). Turning down one of their offers sometimes even led to offers of “Smoke the weed? Cocaína?” but we politely declined each time, often whilst in fits of laughter at how brazen it was. There were also guys selling hammocks who clearly didn’t do a roaring trade on the beach where there were no trees or ways to hang them.
We did find a black guy (I think he looked a bit like LL Cool J) that seemed to run an enterprise of Caipirinhas, soft drinks and water as well as beach chairs and umbrellas with staff based around Posto 4 on Copacabana. We were able to order drinks from our beach chairs to be made and brought over, and towards the end of the holiday we felt like regulars with chairs readied as we approached and we were able to settle our bill at the end of the day when we were ready to leave.
Although the country is in a recession, it seemed like everyone was out to make a buck – I admired it when it wasn’t annoying. We found a mobile supermarket on the train to Deodoro for the Rugby day out, though we’d already packed supplies. People were moving up and down the train non-stop with everything from Halls Cough sweets (that apparently Brazilians eat as normal sweets), to crisps and packets of biscuits. There was even a guy with a punch bag that we were unsure if he was selling or advertising self-defence lessons. It made the “tissue beggars/sellers” of London transport look tame.
Due to the (lack of) cooking facilities mentioned before, we ate out every night. Dinner came to about R$80 each (under £20) for a main meal, a bottle of water and an alcoholic drink.
We were right by a McDonald’s so for the man we nicknamed “Coach Mo” for his athletic physique; this was a regular haunt for breakfast and lunch as well as the post-night out dinner. I went once or twice but boycotted eventually due to how rough I felt eating it continuously.
I was also told I needed to try Açaí (pronounced “aa-sah-ee” by the locals) at least once in Brazil so I gave in on the beach and ordered a bowl. Açaí is a fruit native to South America and is becoming known as a superfood in the UK. In Brazil I had it served frozen with granola on top with a mimed promise from the old guy selling it that it would make me get bigger! It tasted nice and was refreshing for our beach day but later the same day I didn’t feel great (perhaps unrelated). I’d heeded warnings to avoid all cooked foods on the beach, and managed to avoid the sellers of the rest of the wares.
We went to some sea-front restaurants and I even managed to bump into a good friend from University in Meia Pataca. Nearly everywhere had screens set up showing the sports action from the Olympics and we were able to catch most of the football final surrounded by patriotic Brazilians slamming tables and cheering on their boys
If you’re in Rio I can recommend our local pizzeria, La Figa for giant family sized pizza, which was right by our apartment! The waiter was also a friend of our apartment owner so we got chatting when they came to fix our electricity whilst he told us about how he’d visited London once and been on a mad one in Fabric. We also loved Siqueira Grill further down the beach – a buffet where you pay by the weight of the food on your plate and can also get steak and other meats grilled to your liking in front of you. I was also able to try some Brazilian delicacies like empanadas (pastries similar to mini Jamaican patties/ Cornish pasties) and pão de queijo (cheese balls). These filler items did mean I nearly ate a kilogram of food each time.
Bob’s Burgers was similar to Burger King but after watching the animated series of the same name I had to give it a try. There were digital screens in English that meant there was no need trying to wrangle with the staff through the language barrier with our limited Portuguese. You could also customise your burger with pretty much anything.
We also ate at El Born – a good tapas place but a little small and you can end up going overboard on the tapas they bring around.
And the others:
- Rota 66 – lunch on Copacabana at a friendly Mexican diner
- Don Camillo – Seafront Italian
- Boteco da Garrafa – Grilled meats and decent beers
- Boteco Belmonte – another lunch spot with huge portions
- Restaurante La Maison
- Restaurante Temperarte – another weigh your food restaurant but food being by the door and the air conditioning meant that all of it was cold
We didn’t have too many “clubbing” nights in Rio due to our packed events schedule, but when we did go out, we started off in Void General Store just a short walk up from the end of Copacabana in Ipanema. A ‘hipster’ pizza place selling Heinekens in big bottles filled with skate gear and trainers – pretty cool spot!
Besides that, we went to Lapa! Home of the most fun Shell petrol station ever, this place has parties on the streets, drummers, dancing, and drinks. People selling drinks and food on every street corner and on the weekends it is absolutely heaving with drunk people filling the roads and swerving the piled up buses and cars.
Lapa is also home to the Escadaria Selarón, also known as the ‘Selaron Steps’ and the Arcos da Lapa (Lapa Arches) that are world famous- although we didn’t get to see them by day.
Nightclubs in Rio tend to give you a prepaid card on entry. You then settle your final drinks bill at the end of the night, which can be very dangerous but also avoids getting cash or cards out during your night. We went to one called La Esquina which played very good music and Mo even ended up doing shots with some South African rugby players at the bar (on their tab I assume) before they all went on the pull for Brazilian girls looking for an athlete to bed.
We managed to find some time to visit some of the tourist sights of Rio de Janeiro.
Our first trip was to Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer statue) on the hottest day of our trip. It was 33°c but that meant that we got great views on a clear day. We booked through the official website and got our minibus just off of Copacabana beach, up through the hills, past some favelas and to the initial stop on the mountain where there was a restaurant and a gift shop. Like most tourist attractions, going early in the day can mean avoiding queues, but you are able to spend as long as you like up with the statue and the chapel as regular minibuses back down leave throughout the day. The statue itself is not as tall as I’d imagined at 38 metres (about the height of four houses) and we even got some food, a beer and my personal favourite Guarana Antarctica at the top before heading down.
Luckily for us the minibus up to the top of the Corcovado Mountain was air conditioned, like all transport in Rio seemed to be. The buses, overground trains, metro trains and even most taxis were able to cool you down in the hot weather.
The new metro line that had opened just before the Games also had women-only carriages for weekdays during the morning and afternoon commutes (a concept that has been discussed for London), but due to the walk-through carriages, I didn’t really understand how that was enforced. They also had signs urging you to give up your seats to those less able to stand (including obesos). Good for Coach Mo.
We also got to go up Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain). We took one of many cheap taxis to the base of the hill and bought tickets on the day for around £18, but you can pre-book online as well. The route to the top is by cable car and each one holds about 60 people, unlike London’s Emirates Air Line.
You stop initially at a platform with shops and restaurants before a second cable car takes you up to the very top. I hear you can also climb the entire mountain but we weren’t too keen on that. We did choose a very cloudy day so our pictures didn’t come out too well at the top, but I got some good shots from the first level.
Our final trip was to the Tijuca National Park. It was brilliant and we’d booked a tour through Bertha Exchange Tour right beside our apartment on Rua Xavier da Silveira. We went for an early morning start and had a driver as well as a great tour guide who was enthusiastic and also had good English skills. As a precaution, we coated ourselves in our 100 Deet Insect Repellent because we knew we’d be in the great outdoors. We were driven to the base of the park and immediately saw some wildlife with a quati / coati just chilling. We were able to look at a chapel, the visitor centre (where we got a handy map) and saw some exhibits and some waterfalls.
We then stopped off at the Vista Chinesa (Chinese View) and saw another little monkey being fed bananas. Apparently they can survive on leaves and berries in Tijuca but tend to eat anything people offer them, as they are greedy creatures!
At the end of the Tijuca, visit we went to see a cool waterfall that meant we had to cross a patch of water into a small dry area to get the best views. George and Mitch jumped it with ease and got across relatively dry, Mo soaked our lady tour guide with a rock and then himself on the way out, and finally, I decided to just step through thinking it would be shallow and had wet socks for the rest of the day. It was worth it for the lovely, unforgettable scene.
Now you’ve read about the trips to watch the athletes – read about how we partied with them.
Throwback to that time @anthony_joshua and I were representing @arsenal at the #Rio2016 Olympics. Read all about it at my blog on LOOKDWN.com . . . #tbt #throwbackThursday #MOVEWITHAJ #AJBoxing #olympics #London2012 #paralympics #rio #travelblogger #lookdwn #instablogger #riodejaneiro #brazil #adventure #roadtorio #riocentro