Every four years, in the month of August, hundreds of thousands of people from every corner of the globe descend upon a new city for two weeks of fun and the chance to witness something incredible.
The Olympic Games and the Yale experience share few similarities except that, as a freshman walking onto campus in the fall of 2014, I knew I wanted a piece of both. In a group meeting with my freshman advisor and fellow advisees, I confidently declared that I would start L1 Portuguese because “I [was] going to the Olympics.” The incredulous looks on their faces betrayed their immediate lack of confidence in my plans.
“As a spectator,” I quickly added.
While I’ve intended to go to the Olympics for the past two years, I didn’t start planning until only a few months ago. My family and I were all too attuned to the pre-Olympic news produced by American media corporations. Articles about superbacteria, widespread violence and massive protests dominated the coverage. Headlines ranged from condescending (“Waters Most Foul at the Olympics” in The New York Times) to disgusting (“There’s Still Lots and Lots of Poop in the Water at the Rio Olympics” from the Chicago Tribune — the same newspaper that ignited its own controversy during the Games when it described Corey Cogdell, two-time Olympic bronze medalist and three-time Olympian, as merely the “wife of Bears lineman.”)
Spurred by the overwhelming number of articles depicting dire circumstances in Rio, family members, friends and acquaintances expressed concern about my plans to travel to Brazil. But after two weeks, I returned home to describe a very different Rio from the one they had come to expect.
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One of the most prominent storylines of the Rio Olympics was the threat of Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that can cause severe birth defects in children. Before leaving for Rio, I got in touch with Clifton Cross, who had just returned from a two-week trip to Brazil in June. As a security specialist focusing on Latin American countries, Cross works to identify potential safety issues for corporations and to create plans for mitigating security risks. He marveled at the fact that many Brazilians living in the southern regions of the country — including Rio — seemed little perturbed by the threat of contracting Zika.
“You’d think some people didn’t even care about Zika,” Cross said, noting that fear of the virus was not ubiquitous in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states. And reports from the World Health Organization in the weeks and months leading up to the Olympic games indicated that the influx of travelers to Rio during the month of August would not significantly alter the international progression of the Zika virus, which seemed to validate the lack of immediate Zika-related panic among southern Brazilians.
Despite such assurances, however, headlines like NPR’s “Because of Zika, Rio Olympics ‘Must Not Proceed’” continued to crop up throughout the summer.
Gisele del Bortolo, a resident of São Paulo who recently returned to Brazil after working in Sydney, Australia for ten years, explained that while the Zika virus eventually affected the entirety of Brazil, the human toll endured in the south was incomparable to that in the north.
“Zika came down [to São Paulo and Rio.] It went everywhere,” del Bortolo said. “But am I worried about it? No, not right now.”
The anxiety about Zika in Rio de Janeiro created and perpetuated by American media outlets differed starkly from what I observed in Rio during the Olympic Games. Undeniably, Zika has affected thousands throughout Brazil and the rest of the world, but the apocalyptic headlines had visibly negative consequences on the games. Numerous athletes decided to forgo the Olympics altogether in order to prevent exposure to the Zika virus. Although Rio held the first Olympic golf contest since 1904, the top four ranked male golfers in the world, including American Jordan Spieth, chose not to compete.
The WHO released a report on August 25th stating that zero laboratory-confirmed cases of Zika had been reported following completion of the Rio Games. Although this could certainly be a result of increased vigilance and preventative measures against the Zika virus, the report is nevertheless a far cry from the chaos predicted by the headlines.
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As it became clear in my preparations that I was unlikely to contract Zika during my time in Rio, I sought out people who had attended prior games to learn what I should, in fact, be concerned about. Among them was Scott Cunningham, who had attended the Vancouver and Sochi Olympics in 2010 and 2014, respectively. I met him through my internship in Washington, D.C. this summer and learned that he would be attending the 2016 Olympics as well.
“I’d be most worried about theft,” Cunningham explained. “Always keep your wallet in your front pocket. I had a friend in Sochi who kept spare money in his sock. If he was robbed, he’d toss the money one way and run the other.”
Similarly, Cross suggested that, at any large public event, regardless of location, attendees should be most attuned to the possibility of petty theft.
During my first week in Rio, I lived with a family who had rented out their spare bedroom on Airbnb. My host, Adriana Santiago, a lifelong resident of Rio, offered to answer any questions I had about the city — places to visit, or how to get around. I knew I would be returning late one night from a basketball game held at Olympic Park, and I asked her if I needed to take any special precautions as I returned to the house alone at night.
“Well, you could exit the bus at the correct stop this time,” Santiago responded, referencing my experience earlier in the day when I had become lost and sent her a flurry of frantic text messages before reorienting myself with the help of a map. Santiago explained that, as long as I remained on the prescribed route to and from the stadium, I had no need for additional precautions.
I traveled in massive crowds, packed subways and lonely, dark streets. I walked in groups and by myself during day and night. I explored downtown, tourist spots and quiet neighborhoods. I was never mugged, threatened nor pickpocketed.
“I thought things would be a little scary coming back to the house late at night, but I never really had a reason to feel unsafe,” said Sarah Zou, an Olympic volunteer from Canada and one of my housemates.
I never felt anything less than perfectly safe during my two weeks in Rio de Janeiro. Whether that was because I’m a man and therefore not as likely to be catcalled, followed or harassed, or because I forgot my American flag fanny pack at home and did not look like a stereotypical tourist, I can’t say.
“I was actually kind of annoyed seeing people’s initial reaction when I told them I was going to Rio. They would all looked shocked and ask ‘You’re going? Aren’t you scared?’” said Amanda Aguilera ’17. “I felt completely safe. I think it’s important to evaluate what the media says with a grain of salt.”
I can speak to the many police officers across the city — nearly 85,000 military, state and local police had been deployed. Caravans of uniformed officers rode down the streets, returning the friendly waves of interested spectators. Officers stood at street corners and patrolled Olympic Park.
As a tourist, I felt that Brazil had prioritized and was largely successful in establishing a safe environment for foreigners. I know that my experience of Rio, as a visitor during the Olympics, may have been fundamentally different from that of a Rio resident. Still, the Rio I visited was completely different from the impression I had developed from numerous articles published before the games.
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Indeed, during my two weeks in Brazil, the disconnect between what I had read and what I experienced become increasingly apparent. It’s important and admirable that American news organizations reported on issues of crime, corruption and public health. However, many stories followed a familiar narrative, depicting a violent and corrupt developing nation orchestrating its own failure.
“These reductive, lazy stories about infrastructure and health issues were really hard to read about because a lot of it is very true,” said Ana Barros ’18, a Brazilian student at Yale. “But the narrative of South America always involves some form of lack of cleanliness or lack of infrastructure. I see these issues in American cities all the time, but words of judgment are used in a lot more reference to South America.”
For instance, numerous media outlets reported on the wage theft of Rio police officers; one piece, from the BBC, was titled “‘Welcome to Hell,’ Warn Police.” Many articles perpetuated negative stereotypes of an inept Brazil and focused almost exclusively on the potential dangers posed to tourists if police officers, protesting months of unpaid work, decided to leave their posts. Few pieces delved into the systemic failures that resulted in the government’s inability to pay its public employees.
According to Cross, such stories also relied on an incomplete picture of Rio’s security infrastructure. The unpaid municipal police officers constituted only one of the three primary types of police forces deployed during the games, the other two being state and military police.
“You might not even notice [the municipal police] are gone, given all the soldiers in the city,” Cross said, emphasizing that any danger to tourists was overstated in many news articles.
In Rio, the stadiums were complete, the city was easy to navigate, and the crowds — overwhelmingly comprised of Brazilians — were excited to attend. Whenever a Brazilian athlete competed, fans screamed and cheered as if each point was the winning goal.
“Rio and Brazil are not doing great right now, but they are doing a great games. I don’t think people recognize that,” said Rodrigo Sandoval, a dual Colombian-Brazilian citizen who lives in Bogotá and visited Rio for the games.
I also met Fruzsi Kovacs, an Olympic volunteer from Hungary who committed to attend the Olympics in the summer of 2014 and decided to attend the games, despite increasingly troubling reports.
“We were a little short-staffed because I think many people decided not to come at the last minute, but things were good. There were so many Brazilian volunteers and they were very helpful,” Kovacs said.
Moreover, the endless stories about potential crime toward tourists did little to shed light on conditions in violent neighborhoods and government policies that have failed to improve the situation of many Brazilians. And they likely discouraged potential spectators, visitors and volunteers from coming to Rio and spending money on tickets, food and lodging.
I cannot deny that Brazil faces serious challenges and has much progress to make — only this week, the Brazilian Senate voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff for breaking budgetary laws. But for all the city’s warts and scars, it’s regrettable that so many news organizations resorted to negative stereotypes and pandered to Americans’ fears in order to tell the story of the Rio Olympics.
“Brazil was chosen to be the very first South American host of the Olympics. They are not perfect — no one is,” Barros said. “None of these [Olympic] ideals were displayed in the way people covered the games.”