Even though I was in Brazil for the World Cup, I didn’t completely forget about my Olympic obsession. I mean, how could I? Rio de Janeiro is the first city since Munich in 1972-74 to host the World Cup final and the Olympic Games, back to back.
Our first day in town was rainy and miserable, which completely took us by surprise. We put our beach plans on hold that day and decided to venture out to the Olympic stadiums instead, figuring out how to get there by public transport. Rio de Janeiro is doing it a bit differently in 2016; they’re not going to have one Olympic stadium but two. The opening and closing ceremonies are to be held at the famous Maracana Stadium, with the athletics taking place a bit further down the road at the Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange. Together, they made up the twentieth modern Olympic site I’d visited on my quest to see all of them in the world.
Maracana wasn’t difficult to reach; one change on Rio’s excellent metro system and we were there. The last couple of kilometres of the line were above ground, and the iconic stadium came into view while we were still seated. A woman sitting next to me pointed it out to her son, who pressed himself up against the window and simply stared outside, mesmerised. I didn’t resort to any sort of public display of stadium affection, but I did allow myself a big grin when I saw it looming ahead.
I am glad that the Maracana is being used for the Olympics (the reason why it isn’t getting used for the athletics is that it is being used for the Olympic football competition instead). It’s got lots of history, it’s iconic and it deserves to be an Olympic stadium, just like the MCG and Wembley. I’m not one for completely new Olympic parks which look as if they could have been built anywhere in the world. In Beijing – despite the fantastic architecture – this was the case, as the city itself doesn’t have a lot of sporting history. Rio does, and using Maracana pays homage to that.
Due to the fact that the Maracana was being used for the World Cup during our visit, the stadium wasn’t open for tours and the like as is usually the case. We couldn’t even get very close thanks to plenty of temporary fencing keeping you well away from the bowels of the stadium. But we completed a loop anyway. From the outside, the stadium isn’t particularly attractive, consisting primarily of concrete. Despite this, it’s a big, bulky statement which says, ‘Look at me,’ which, in a quirky way, tells a pretty good story of Brazilian football and Brazil in general.
Plus, despite its recent renovation, it’s got character. Loads of it. It’s still got the traditional old ticket windows, plaques and statues dotted around (have you ever noticed that new stadiums do not have these?) and neighbourhood bars within spitting distance of the turnstiles. Fleeing a spontaneous monsoon-like shower we ducked into one, tucking into fried chicken, rice and black beans in the shadows of the Maracana. We watched football on a tiny screen along with the rest of the bar; sometimes it was even hard to get the staff’s attention due to them being totally wrapped up in the match.
I wondered how long that little bar would last, and how long it had been there. I looked around at the other patrons; some were old men, looking like they weren’t interested in moving for the rest of the day, so swept up in their conversations; some were curious tourists like us, looking around with big goofy grins on our faces; and a whole lot were local street cleaners, coming in for their lunch which they no doubt did every day. On the walls were pictures of various football teams, all from various eras. The bar had survived FIFA. Now it has another challenge coming up; the IOC.
We then continued further, towards the Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange. This stadium is only about a decade old but has had so many problems with its roof that it’s currently getting a complete overhaul ahead of the Games. We switched from the metro to the suburban train out to the stadium, which was simple enough.
We hadn’t heard of any warnings regarding the area around the stadium, but as we neared our stop something shifted. While there were plenty of tourists and curious locals around Maracana, we seemed to be the only ones who ventured further afield. We scored a clean and modern train but all others on the line had seen much better days. The platforms we passed looked to be in a bit of state of disrepair and the patrons on the train looked to have much more on their minds than simply a couple of big sporting tournaments.
I wasn’t worried, but I wasn’t one hundred per cent comfortable, either. We disembarked our train as soon as the stadium came into view, and were met with a major construction site and a couple of cops with very large guns. We’d seen this a bit in Brazil but for the first time, I realised this was for us. This was for those tourists who wanted to poke around, wanted to head into an unknown neighbourhood to see the progress on the Olympic stadium firsthand.
I’d only felt uneasy at one Olympic site before; Stade Colombes (the site for the 1924 Games in Paris). I’d gotten a suburban train out to an unknown neighbourhood that time as well, and just couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t really wanted in the area. There was hardly anyone around, and the residential high-rises which surrounded the stadium made me immediately think of the Paris riots that took place only eighteen months before my visit. I walked around the stadium, took a couple of snaps and got the hell out of there, heading back to central Paris and hardly thinking of the neighbourhood again.
Engenho de Dentro (the neighbourhood surrounding the Olympic Stadium) made me think of my Paris experience again. The main difference, however, is the timing of my visits. I visited Colombes more than eighty years after the Olympics took place there; my visit to Engenho de Dentro was two years before the flame will be lit in Rio. And don’t get me wrong, Engenho de Dentro is not a favela. It’s not even a particularly poor area of the city, but it ain’t Ipanema or Copacabana. It simply lies beyond the metro and areas frequented by tourists.
This wasn’t the first time that I visited an Olympic Stadium before the Games. I checked out the Bird’s Nest six months before the 2008 Games in Beijing and the place was a madhouse; we crossed a half-constructed highway to get a gander at the precinct and posed for happy snaps with a whole bunch of Chinese families. This time, there were no Chinese families. There were just cops with big guns. We took our own happy snaps and left, unable to get into the stadium and frankly unwilling to try. Rain and guns tend to have that effect on you.
Rio will put on a great Olympics, I’m sure of that. It’s a gorgeous city with very friendly locals (I’ve always rolled my eyes at how everyone says everywhere’s locals are friendly, but the Brazilians were fantastic) who are obsessed with sport. They are proud of their city, and quite rightly so.
Engenho de Dentro will be a different place in 2016. It will be Coca-Cola-ised, boasting a modern train station with express trains from the centre of town, whisking visitors to a stadium that could be anywhere. The men with guns will still be there, but will stick out less when surrounded by chirpy volunteers, sponsor promoters and TV crews.
But the Maracana? That’s where I’m placing my hopes, alongside the beach volleyball courts on Copacabana Beach. The World Cup was all about showcasing Brazil to the world, demonstrating what the Brazilian way of life was all about, and I don’t think that FIFA sanitised it too much. Let’s hope Rio’s Games will still have that Brazilian flavour to them. I’m keeping my eye on it all.