These were historic Games. The Rio 2016 Summer Games were the first to be held in South America, hosted by a proud nation struggling through recession; wrestling with the realities of political corruption. A president had just been suspended. An impeachment trial pending.
Leading up to the Games, the overall attitude of Cariocas (Rio residents) was one of apathy. Media worldwide had chosen to focus its reporting on a looming Zika threat — a threat that appears to have never materialized. Amid the concern, athletes – including Bob and Mike Bryan – chose to skip the trip.
If the reporting didn’t zero-in on Zika, it gravitated toward unsanitary water conditions for rowers, sailors and swimmers. Going in, the image of the Games was bleak. As a Gringo, traveling to work the Games, my trip was viewed by others as potentially dangerous; not necessarily the sharpest of professional decisions.
That said, it would have been incredibly easy for Brazilians to adopt a defeatist attitude; the weight of worldwide negative propaganda shrouding what should be a bright, shining spotlight on a remarkable city and its warmth of character. But as I said earlier, the attitude wasn’t “defeatist.” It was apathetic. Faintly hopeful.
Then — the Opening Ceremonies happened.
At one-eighth the budget of the London Games, Rio 2016 was able to pull-together a visually stunning and historically authentic display of Brazil’s heritage. Cariocas were humbled by the production-value of the ceremony, proud of its fiscal responsibility, and deeply moved by the ceremony’s inclusion of the nation’s scars and challenges. The Opening Ceremony itself was a unifier, fueling a passion to embrace the moment — to lay-down the struggles and frustrations of the day and show the rest of the world the REAL Brazil: The character of its people, not the character its politics.
Over the next 17-days, Cariocas did just that. They were extraordinary. Rio 2016 was extraordinary – because of the Brazilian people.
Personally, my Rio 2016 experience was a comedy of unfortunate realities, a demanding schedule and travel nightmares.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I unfortunately did not have time to spread my wings and soak-in the local scene. I never made it to see Christ the Redeemer. I enjoyed Facebook photos of friends up on Sugarloaf — as I could have from the comfort of my living room back in Boston. I never made it to Copacabana Beach or Ipanema – but I was privileged to experience one of the most electric tennis events in Summer Games history, thanks in part to the inspired play of Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro.
My experience started with a near 2-hour delay on the Tarmac in Boston, waiting for ATC to deliver a “weather-free” route to Miami. Once airborne, we basically flew to Chicago and turned left to avoid the storms impacting the East Coast. Most on board missed their connections. I had built four hours into my itinerary, just for this eventuality.
In Miami, we were parked at gate D-97436. Literally — according to the stats from my FitBit — 1.5-miles away from my international departure in Terminal-J. To make the experience more adventurous, I had to exit and re-enter through security. Plus I needed a new boarding pass. Boston would not issue one for the international leg on a partner airline.
Finally at the ticket counter, sweat dripping from my mustache, I was told that I was very lucky – I would receive the last seat on the flight…but I needed to hurry. After crawling through the least-urgent TSA line in the history of Homeland Security, I boarded the flight just as they were closing the aircraft door.
Rio or bust.
During the Games, each day began with the sound of jack-hammers at 6:00am. Our hotel was a work in progress. After a 25-minute walk, we’d board the BRT bus with fans and fellow Rio 2016 team members, a 30-minute ride ahead of us. After disembarking, we would walk an additional 15-minutes, cue for up to 20-minutes at security, cue again to check-in at the Tennis Center, then head immediately to the announce booth. In all, the commute totaled 90-minutes to 2-hours; a common adventure with heightened security surrounding large-scale events.
The highlight of my Rio 2016 experience was working with fellow announcers Craig Willis of the Australian Open, Brazilian Selma Boiron and Yan Kuszak of France. All incredible human-beings determined to put on the best possible show for both athletes and fans. We made a remarkable team, communicated well, and delivered on the challenging proposition of conducting a show in three languages – from our daily presentation to the reverent, yet emotional, victory ceremonies. All credit to this team of professionals, they were exemplary – even as illness crippled me over the final two days.
The food poisoning was traumatizing. Sincerely. The final Saturday started like any other; however, after lunch – I found myself spending more time in the Men’s Room, rather than the booth. By the time Monica Puig won Olympic Gold, I was as green as pea soup. Though I have little recollection of the next 72-hours, I managed to muscle through four Medal Ceremonies, witnessed an all-American Mixed Doubles Final, and watched Andy Murray earn his second-consecutive Gold Medal.
Unfortunately, we had no control over the air-conditioning system in the announce booth. Despite the 78-degree weather, I spent most of the 9-day event wearing five layers of clothing just to maintain my core body temperature. Once the food poisoning hit, my immune system tossed-in the towel. Fever, chills and upset stomach dominated my Sunday and kept me in bed all day Monday.
On Tuesday, I harnessed just enough energy to hit the Summer Games Megastore to haul home gifts for family and friends. By Tuesday night, I was headed home…
At the airport – obviously not feeling well – I was thankful that I had arrived 3-hours early. The line to check-in was out the door. And like most things in Rio, “line” was merely a suggestion.
After getting shifted from section to section by clearly overwhelmed airline staff, I was finally gifted a boarding pass and bag tags — 2-hours and 3-minutes after my airport arrival. Surprisingly, security went quickly and I arrived at the gate just in time for boarding. Soon, I would realize that I had a golden ticket – 24th row, middle seat, middle row. Trapped, 10-hours, without a window, suffering from a terrible cough and a swollen neck gland the size of a baby’s head. This. THIS…was the trip of a lifetime.
Hey, but it would be all downhill from here, right?! After all, I was a newly knighted member of Global Entry, guaranteeing rapid processing through customs and security. I was home free…
So at JFK, I scanned my passport and fingerprints, all set to stroll through and be on my way. Then the kiosk printed out an enormous, ugly-looking “X.” My suspicions that this was not a good sign were immediately confirmed by the CBP Officer who escorted me to a nearby holding room for “further processing.”
After another 40-minutes of detention — completely negating the expense and time it took to gain Global Entry status — I was interrogated and inspected for tattoos (or tattoo removal) on my face and chest. Interesting.
To nutshell my new reality – I apparently share a striking resemblance and similar identity with a “very bad person” prominently desired on all of the U.S. Government’s most-wanted lists. Basically, I was told, regardless of what I do at this point – even getting issued a redress number – this individual is such a top-priority, and our likenesses and identities are so similar, every system CBP uses will flag me for further processing. Good to know…with the amount of international business travel I take-on every year.
Finally, 20-hours after leaving my hotel in Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, I stood on the stoop of my place in Boston…still sweating, coughing…and laughing hysterically at the comedy of nonsense that defined my Rio 2016 experience.
In no way is my experience a negative reflection of Brazil or the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Rio received enough undue bad press leading up to the event. This is merely a reflection of my luck when — sorry, my complete LACK OF luck — when it comes to work-related travel.
Appropriately, my Summer Games experience also demanded monumental challenges. There’s no question, it was an experience I won’t soon forget — at least the parts that I can remember.