Athletes from multiple countries were traveling on the same plane as us from Texas to Rio. I had some rhythmic gymnasts from Kazakhstan sitting to the right of me, but it wasn’t until we passed through customs and they gave us an Olympic stamp paired with the Brazil entrance stamp did it really hit me that I was going to the Olympics. I traveled to the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics with the family of US wrestler Jordan Burroughs, as I babysat his children. Traveling to a country for the Olympics is automatically going to provide a different experience than if you traveled there at any other time. There is a large influx of people, special events and buildings are put up, your planned activities are centered around the Olympics, and there’s always a chance you’ll run into an athlete. We ran into track athlete Allyson Felix in a burger shop.
Traveling with the family and friends of an athlete was an extra layer on my first experience with Brazil, and allowed me a bit of an “insiders view” of the Olympics. The only Olympic event we attended was wrestling on the day Jordan competed. Wrestling had three disciplines; Men’s Greco-Roman, Women’s freestyle, and Men’s freestyle -Jordan’s event- which closed out the last few days of the Olympics. Two weight classes wrestled each day and they switched between the two for each round. At this point the only thing I knew about wrestling was what I had picked up from the last few days when we watched it on screens. It was interesting to learn about what countries wrestling was a popular sport; including Russia, Japan, Turkey, and Iran.
After getting settled into our Airbnb upon arrival, we headed over to one of the US camps set up. These areas serve as alternative housing to the Olympic village, where athletes can stay with their coaches, and prepare for competing. Chefs from the Olympic Training Centers to prepare food for the athletes. While proper nutrition is important for all athletes, this is especially important for sports who have to cut weight. Jordan was staying in one camp that was located in a mountainous area with high vegetation. This was the only spot in Rio I worried about mosquito bites. As I was preparing to move to Boston days after returning from Rio to start grad school in nutrition, it was fascinating to talk to Jordan about his diet for the weeks leading up to competing. There’s a multitude of horror stories on what athletes will do to make weight. No matter what level of competition, athletes have to cut enough calories to lose weight while still intaking enough calories and nutrients to be able to function at peak performance.
We spent a day at the USA House. Countries set up houses to share music, culture, food, and their country’s history with the Olympics for fans. Many houses are open to the public, however some houses, including the USA and Canada Houses were both private entrance. Some houses are known for their great parties, The USA House was set up as a place of rest and relaxation for current and past Olympic athletes, as well as a list of guests. We were able to visit as athletes could bring their families. The history of country houses began in 1992 when Heineken partnered with the Dutch Olympic Committee to set up an area where athletes could spend private time with their families to celebrate wins or mourn losses. At the 2000 Olympics, the Heineken Holland House was opened to the public, and by the next Olympics other countries began the practice. The USA house was put together in a school across from Ipanema Beach. The first floor was filled with different seating areas, buffets, a screen to watch the games, and an area set up with inflated balls and floaty tubes that Beacon had fun playing with. Upstairs was an area promoting LA for the 2024 Olympic bid. Our plan was to spend a few hours there, but we spent the majority of the day there, taking advantage of the free food and being able to relax.
Companies have also started to put together houses. Jordan is sponsored by Asics, so we were invited to visit their house. We had to send in our ID’s before we left the US so they had a list of who was invited. Similar to the USA house, there were screens set up to watch the games and free food. Also at the Asics house was a mini museum of Asics history and the Olympics, and a section set up highlighting different athletes, and a small pool. I visited the Asics house twice. It was a nice get away from the crowds and had a very calming atmosphere. The Asics house was located in a gated neighborhood and one time while taking an Uber there we thought our driver was getting us lost.
There was a lot of negative press and thoughts about the Rio Olympics before we headed down there, about half way through the games, from fear of Zika virus, to green pool water, and building conditions for both athletes and fans. This seems to be a pretty common occurrence at each Olympics now, and I’m not sure how much of that is due to new countries hosting the Olympics or that I’m older and more aware of the negativity. My experience with the Olympics was completely positive. There are adjustments when visiting any country, and especially when visiting a country at a different level of development. Throwing toilet paper into the trashcan versus toilet is a small adjustment and does not mean the country and people do not deserve respect and appreciation.