RIO DE JANEIRO — I was stranded.
I had just attended a USA men’s basketball practice at a tiny gym in the Flamengo Club—at one point I watched Carmelo Anthony splash about 20 straight shots into the bottom of the net from beyond the three-point line—and afterward I hustled to catch a bus. But at the bus stop, an Olympic worker who spoke virtually no English told me, “No bus, no bus, no bus.”
Well, according to the schedule, there was a bus. But at the moment, this was a rather moot point.
The worker was on a phone that looked big enough that he could have been talking to someone on the space station, and he kept shaking his head back and forth at me. I got it: no bus. I had zero cell reception and was three hours away from my apartment on the outskirts of Rio.
Then I spotted P.J. Carlesimo, the former NBA head coach. He was as exasperated as I was, frantically trying to call a cab, to no avail.
Then, out of the gray afternoon, a bus rolled close to us. We ran like hell, flapping our arms. We climbed on board.
For 80 minutes, P.J. and I were the only passengers with our driver, a man named Joselito. Red lights were optional for Joselito—Tony Stewart has nothing on Joselito’s heavy right foot—and at several points, we were nearly T-boned by honking drivers who gave us the one-fingered salute, a truly international sign.
Then P.J. and I started to talk. He told me of his wife back in Seattle and how much he enjoyed his post-coaching life and working at ESPN as an analyst. As the miles passed by on the bumpy, winding road, with the azure Atlantic Ocean just off to our left—Joselito nearly dumped us into the drink a few times—something cool happened:
I made a friend.
In the coming days, we will hear plenty about the myriad problems that Rio endured during the 16 days of the Olympics. The organization was loose (to put it mildly), the smell of toilet was everywhere (and especially ripe just outside my apartment, a lovely way to greet the day), and danger lurked in the shadows. A media bus was sprayed with shrapnel when its windows were shattered, several athletes and reporters were robbed, and men with knives even attacked the security coordinator at Maracana Stadium after the opening ceremony. He escaped without injury, but one of the knife-wielding assailants was killed by stadium security.
But my experience was mostly positive—mostly.
I landed in Rio on Aug. 3. After riding two buses for about three hours, I arrived at my apartment complex that housed media from around the globe. I was escorted to my room—I had previously been told I would have my own accommodations—and the door swung open. Before me was a large, shirtless, hairy, sweaty Italian reporter with a ponytail. Empty beer cans were spread throughout the apartment. Speaking no English, he looked at me and said, “Ciao.”
“Uh, ciao,” I meekly replied to my new roomie for the next three weeks.
I explained to my escort that there must be a mistake, but of course she didn’t understand a lick of English, and my Portuguese consists of about one word—cerveja. It took several hours, but eventually I moved to a room with a colleague from Bleacher Report. We had a pristine view of a large field that looked to be half garbage dump and half construction site. A wild pack of roaming dogs appeared to have a great time.
On the afternoon of the opening ceremony, I traveled to a favela to experience one of Rio’s slums, where about a fifth of Rio’s 6.4 million residents live. My B/R friend and I had met a man over the internet who lived in the favela, and he promised he could guarantee our safety. What could possibly go wrong?
Turned out, nothing. For a few hours, we walked through the Rocinha favela, where at least 100,000 people live on the side of a mountain in small shanties stacked on top of each other. There was little police presence; drug lords were in charge here. Young men openly smoked marijuana—illegal in Brazil—and discreetly dealt cocaine. I was repeatedly told to keep my head down and briskly walk away when the smell of weed hung in the air.
Yet what struck me the most was how happy the law-abiding people were and appreciative of their few material possessions. Many didn’t have running water, electricity or plumbing. But the strong sense of community was palpable. They smiled at each other and actually had long, leisurely conversations in the street. I told my colleague we could use more of this—the gratitude, the neighborly spirit, the willingness to talk to one another—in America.
I met a little boy named Gabriel Costa. He was holding a plastic Olympic torch. He and his grandfather had just watched the actual Olympic flame pass by the base of their favela. The grandfather explained to me that the Olympics represented hope for his grandson.
“I want [Gabriel] to see the Olympics,” Neves Costa explained. “It will give him a chance to see he can make it in life and make it out of here.”
And that’s really what the Olympics are: a reminder to us all that anything is possible. I saw this repeatedly in Rio. I watched in awe as swimmer Katie Ledecky obliterated her own world record in the 800-meter freestyle. I struggled to find the words when I witnessed Michael Phelps win his final Olympic gold—his record 23rd—in the 400-meter medley relay. I was utterly hypnotized when Usain Bolt sprinted to his third straight victory in the 100-meter dash and when Simone Biles captured her fourth gold medal of these Games in the floor exercise.
All of them expanded the frontiers for what we thought was possible, pushing forward the rock of athletic evolution. This is the Olympics at its best. I hope little Gabriel was watching.
Here’s another thing about being at the Olympics: It’s the interactions that occur away from the bright lights of the competitions that endure most vividly in your mind.
Hours after Bolt’s majestic late-night run at Olympic Stadium to win gold in the 100, I was standing on a crammed bus. It was nearing 3 a.m. when I described to another American writer how much I missed my 15-month-old son, Lincoln.
A man seated close to us turned around, a smile on his face. He showed me his credential. I saw that he was from Poland, and it was clear he spoke very little English, but enough to understand the sentiment I had just conveyed.
I looked closer at his credential and zeroed in on his name: Lincoln.
And just then, both of us thousands of miles from home, exhausted in a steamy bus with no air conditioning, he stood and gave me a gentle little hug without saying a word.
Yes, the Olympics can connect you to strangers in ways powerful and poetic. At that instant on the bus, the world never felt so small.
My favorite event took place in Carioca Arena 3 in Olympic Park, when wrestler Helen Louise Maroulis of Rockville, Maryland, faced Japan’s Saori Yoshida, the three-time defending Olympic champion who had won 13 consecutive world championships.
I have my new buddy P.J. to thank for getting me there. After we were delayed on the bus, I didn’t think I had enough time to make it to the arena.
“Go for it, Lars,” P.J. said as we stepped off the bus back at the main media center in Olympic Park. “You never know what could happen.”
I sprinted through the park, caught another bus, then bolted into the arena. I took my seat among the roughly 70 Japanese writers just as the wrestlers were being introduced to the crowd. I think there were two other writers from the States.
You never know what could happen.
In six stirring minutes of wrestling action, Maroulis upset Yoshida 4-1. The outpouring of emotion from both women—raw and real—was staggering. Maroulis looked to be in a state of shock as she ran around the arena, the tears flowing, holding an American flag. Yoshida, the captain of the entire Japanese delegation, sobbed and sobbed for about 30 minutes, as if she, too, couldn’t comprehend what had just transpired.
You never know what could happen.
I also spent time with American runner Kate Grace. A 27-year-old graduate of Yale, Grace knew that she probably wasn’t going to medal in these Games in the 800-meter race, but that wasn’t what the Olympics were about to her. She had run an average of 65 miles a week through the streets of New Jersey in her training.
“You have to be someone who enjoys the struggle of training and trying to be your best to do this,” said Grace. “It’s the journey, not the destination. It’s the overall experience, not the end result.”
Grace finished eighth in the 800, running 1:59:57 in the final—just a few tenths off her personal best, which she had set in the semifinals. After she caught her breath at Olympic Stadium, she smiled beautifully and waved to her friends in the crowd. It was a really nice moment.
Early on Sunday morning, shortly after I had filed a story on what it meant to the Brazilians to win a soccer gold medal, the power shut off in my entire apartment complex. About 1,000 reporters were without Wi-Fi access and hot water.
The lights never came back on during my stay in Rio. The people of Brazil were wonderful—they certainly tried their best to be good hosts, especially the bartender at the complex who slipped me free cervejas whenever I said my one magic word of Portuguese and joined my new British and Irish friends for a late-night drink—but it was time to go home.
You never know what could happen.
On my way to the airport, riding on a bus with my laptop on my knees as I tried to finish this piece, I heard four distinct sounds as we passed Olympic Stadium.
Pop, pop, pop, pop.
Gunshots echoed through the gray and dreary Rio afternoon.