As I type this, I am two hours into a 10-hour flight from Houston to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a flight I’ve taken four times before, but for many reasons feels different this time. (Still no WiFi, though.) On those previous trips, I hadn’t yet heard of the Zika virus, Brazil showed promise of economic and political stability, and my suitcase was filled with bikinis, not long-sleeved shirts, and sunblock instead of bug spray. Much has changed since my first visit in 2010.
(For a fantastic read on the past five years in Rio, pick up AP reporter Juliana Barbassa’s 2015 book Dancing With the Devil in the City of God.)
Last summer, on my most recent trip to Rio, I noticed an immediate stench on the drive from the airport to Barra da Tijuica, the neighborhood on the western side of Rio where I was staying — and where my ESPN colleagues and I will stay this month. That smell, I was told, was coming from the polluted, sewage-filled waters around Rio where the WSL surf contest had been held the week before and where the Olympic sports of rowing, sailing and triathlon would be held in a year. In my conversations with locals, there was constant talk of political corruption, a deepening recession and Olympic venues far from finished. Traffic was terrible, crime and unemployment rates were high and Rio felt like a different city than I had visited in the past. I wondered what would happen in the 15 months between that trip and my next, to cover the Olympics.
But I hesitated to make assumptions. If I learned anything covering the Beijing and Sochi Olympics, it is that you can’t fully understand the circumstances you’re flying into until you are on the ground. Some of the concerns you read about are blown out of proportion, some are worse than imaginable and some are reported spot on. I believe that will be true of Rio, as well. Despite feeling a sense of familiarity with the city, I still feel like I’m taking a trip into the unknown. Has so much really changed in a year? Or are we all just paying more attention in the months leading up to the Olympics? The answer, likely, is both. I will begin to find out tomorrow.
Today, I fly to Rio less eyes-wide-shut than I have in the past. My suitcase — I won’t embarrass myself by telling you how much it weighed! — is filled with the three types of bug spray a Google search on “protecting yourself against Zika” turned up, long-sleeved tops with built-in UV protection and a cheap decoy cell phone and wallet to have on the ready — “for when you’re mugged,” advice given to a friend at NBC that sounded like a solid tip. For the record, I was pick pocketed — twice — at the Torino Olympics.
What I know about Rio is this: It is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful cities I’ve visited. While in Rio, I’ve met some of the friendliest, most open humans and I’ve had incredible fun and felt unbelievable warmth. Rio is also a city marred by violence, corruption, poverty and inequality and in a state of political turmoil and financial recession. The IOC should be ashamed it is asking athletes to compete in waters that may make them sick while in fear that they or their family members could have their lives altered by a mosquito bite.
I am sure many of the athletes, coaches and members of various support staffs are tired of having personal conversations about their reproductive hopes with every person who learns they are traveling to Rio. I’m sure they’re angry they must risk compromising their futures in order to do their jobs. I know I am.
Although I believe the next three weeks will be an incredible experience, just as the past five Olympics I’ve covered have been, each in their own unique way, I also enter into the experience with more caution than I have in the past. And with more experience. I hope that is a good combination.
This is what will be most difficult this month: reconciling the stories of mosquitoes and water quality, unfinished athlete villages, police strikes and transportation nightmares with the friendly, helpful volunteers and take-your-breath away backdrops of Copacabana Beach and Barra da Tijuca. As we do every two years, we will attempt to hold our focus on the athletes who have dedicated their lives to earning a spot on their respective Olympic teams and cover sporting moments we won’t soon forget, while not diverting our eyes, and our pens, from the important stories that lay beyond the Olympic walls. That, too, is covering the Olympics.
And yes, mom (and all my surrogate moms): My colleagues and I are staying in a nice, secure apartment complex, I am told we have security and drivers and no, we are not allowed to walk anywhere after dark. Fortunately, our apartment complex has a gym.