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Rio Is Chaos And Nothing Makes Sense, But I Can't Help Loving It

'People paid for the Olympics, and they have received nothing in return.'

05/08/2016 4:50 AM AEST | Updated August 5, 2016 12:41
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God help Rio after the Games, and possibly during them too.

The official Rio 2016 Olympic transport bus driver dropped me in exactly the sort of side street in a poor neighbourhood we journalists have been warned to stay well away from. "Out you go," he said in Portuguese, and drove off. Great. Stuck in the middle of a favela with all my expensive gear and no idea where to go or what to do next. But that was the least of my problems...

I've had Olympic transport issues before. One night at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, I was working super late in the mid-mountain media centre and missed the last media bus. The only way home to my apartment in the valley below was by way of a gondola.

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This soccer field in a slum area of Rio will be driven past every day by athletes going to shiny new venues.

The gondola was closed but still moving so I hurdled a fence, jumped in a gondola cabin and hoped. The gondola sped up. I mean it really, really sped up. This was a hurtling Russian gondola of doom. Would it stay on the cables? Would my little cabin plunge into the Mzymta River below?

I'm here writing this, so you can guess I made it down. But further terrors lay ahead. The long walk back to my apartment (the buses at the base of the gondola had stopped running too) along a dark, lonely Caucasus Mountains road was terrifying. Triply so when I heard the growl. Surely this was it. A wild Caucasian lynx would pounce in a flash of fur and fangs and turn my jugular into a ball of string. That's when the cat trotted up on the road and rubbed its soft, silky flanks along my leg.

No Olympics is perfect. There are always glitches in the planning and running of the event. But usually, the lynx you fear turns out to be a kitten. You smile and put up with minor annoyances and count yourself lucky to be working at such an exciting event.

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Rio's Olympic Tennis Centre looks like a giant basket. No, the basketball centre does not look like a tennis ball.

Rio could be different. Rio is a wonderful city whose citizens have already displayed so much generosity in the three days I've been here. Everybody keeps inviting me to dinner. The sister of my apartment owner gave me a night tour of the city after her exhausting workday and four hour return commute in Rio's choking traffic. I am so in love with the Cariocas (as Rio locals are known).

But these Olympics worry me. The sport will be fantastic, as it always is, but logistics will be a nightmare for everybody. Especially the transport. Let me take you back to the start of that bus ride. I was heading out to Deodoro, one of four clusters of sporting venues, to interview some athletes in training. I went to the MTM (Media Transportation Mall) outside the MPC (Main Press Centre). OMG, you need to memorise a lot of acronyms to work an Olympics.

People paid for the Olympics, and they have received nothing in return. So the Olympics are here just to show the Rio that the rich people and the politicians want to show and sell to the world.

For the $12 billion Rio has spent building these Olympics, you'd think they could afford a few signs saying which bus goes where. Nope. Numerous flustered journalists were asking the ubiquitous yellow-shirted Rio2016 staff for help. None could offer any. There were buses galore in that lot, but who knew where any of them went?

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Ummm, over there? Or maybe not.

Eventually I all but threw myself in front of a bus which had the three letter code for "Deodoro" written in the window. Was it going to the Whitewater Stadium or another venue out there? No idea. All I could discern in my rudimentary Portuguese was that it was headed in the general direction.

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Tanks very much. Though just why the Brazilian army was patroling this street rather than the outside of the venue is unclear.

The 25 minute trip took more than an hour. We came to a downtrodden residential area. Spectator bleachers were visible above the rooflines in the background, so a venue of one sort or another was clearly nearby. Soldiers and tanks blocked the streets, which presumably made things safer, but also made for more traffic.

And then, on a narrow street with no soldiers, the bus stopped. Two Australian colleagues from a rival media organisation and I were on our own.

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There is no vicious lynx in this story either. We walked a short way to the exterior of the Deodoro complex, then negotiated for a venue official to drive us to the Whitewater Stadium. We were then the beneficiaries, rather then the victims, of poor organisation, as we got much closer access to athletes and coaches than we should have been permitted.

I wrote my story up in the workroom at Deodoro, rather than back at the Main Press Centre. Big mistake. No food and water yet. Have you ever tried to work when you're thirsty? Hungry's no big thing. But thirsty is serious, and there's no way I was drinking from the tap of a Brazilian portaloo. Here again I benefited from the kindness of Brazilians. One of the yellow-shirts, a lovely young woman named Raquel, walked me around to the staff room and procured a beautiful cold bottle of water. I'll say it again. I am in love with all Cariocas.

Where to catch the bus back from? Nobody knew, of course. Again I chanced it, and this time the bus dropped me on the side of a freeway, from where I was assured a media bus would come to whisk me back to the MPC. There were soldiers around, so I was never going to get mugged, but the whole thing just felt like a shambles. Seven years of planning and no proper bus stop?

Australia's long-serving Olympic Committee chief and IOC vice-president John Coates has often said that three key things need to be in perfect working order to ensure a successful Olympics: the Athletes' Village, the transport and the food. The Village we all know has had issues. The transport I just told you about -- and I'm far from the only one to report frustrations. Brazilian food is terrific, although prices have clearly been jacked up anywhere within walking range of Olympic Park.

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My days start with a visit to the mango juice lady. She's one Carioca earning a few extra Reais from the Olympics.

There are, as you've no doubt read, a rodizio of other issues plaguing Rio de Janeiro, from toxic sludge and body parts in the water, to traffic and poor air quality, and, of course, crime. Which leads to a very obvious question -- why is this city actually staging the Games?

Go back to 2009 when Rio beat Chicago, Madrid and Tokyo for the 2016 hosting rights. Brazil's economy was flying then, and had grown to be the world's sixth largest. It has now slipped to ninth and the country has been in recession since 2014. Politically, Brazil was more stable in 2009. Now the president has been impeached and the government is in crisis. On a local level, Rio is plagued by corruption. Many workers are not being paid properly. Violent and petty crime alike have both increased.

"Today is the most emotional day in my life, the most exciting day of my life," then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said in 2009 when Brazil won the rights to host the Olympics. "I've never felt more pride in Brazil. Now, we are going to show the world we can be a great country."

Current Brazilian mayor Eduardo Paes said "the city will not serve the Olympics. The Olympics will serve the city".

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The Olympic city in the 21st century? Rio Biologist Mario Moscatelli protests against the pollution of Marapendi lagoon, along Barra da Tijuca beach. He has fought for the cleanup of polluted Rio waterways bordering Olympic Park for years, but no funds have been forthcoming from the government.

But most Cariocas no longer buy the grand narrative. Rio student Humberto Almeida told The Huffington Post Australia that most locals can't even afford tickets to sporting events -- opinion which seems to be borne out by the 1.3 million unsold seats on the eve of the Games.

"Some people say that the Olympics are going to bring money to the city, but most of this money will be in the hands of rich people that control Brazil," Almeida said.

"I reckon the Olympics are good for the economy of the city and business people. For the people in general, that's not great. Some have been expelled from their homes in order to build Olympic places, the poor black people in the slums still die every day with the traffic and by the police, and the media totally ignore these problems.

"People paid for the Olympics, and they have received nothing in return. So the Olympics are here just to show the Rio that the rich people and the politicians want to show and sell to the world."

You only have to take a bus to Deodoro to see how the Olympics have changed little for the average Carioca. Slum neighbourhoods now sit beside gleaming facilities. But are the slums any better for it?

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The Whitewater Stadium out at Deodoro is magnificent, the adjacent neighbourhood not so much.

Back at last from the big bus adventure, your correspondent was exploring the shores of the Lagoa de Jacarepaguá -- the shallow body of water which lines Olympic Park -- before penning this piece. A yellow-shirt rushed over and warned me away from the muddy shoreline.

"Don't go there," she said. "Alligators!"

I didn't see any 'gators, just like I never saw that Caucasian lynx. But I did see a big, black, old vulture hovering in the wind, which is as good an omen as any for the likely aftermath of these Olympics.

As for the Games themselves, I can't wait. I just wish locals had more reason to share my enthusiasm, and that the buses were a little easier to navigate.

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Niiiice vulture, vulture, vulture.

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