Rocking in Rio: Empty Stands, Yet Fun Guaranteed

Sun, 08/14/2016 - 14:44
2016 Olympic Games

I always find it amazing how quickly a human can get into a new routine. Uprooted from a home environment, dropped on a different continent with only a central horse show as anchor point, and it is totally not difficult to adapt to a new situation. It's the second day of rest for dressage riders with the big kur to music finals tomorrow and time has flown by here at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

My daily routine has quickly taken shape. On Tuesday 9 August it was a relaxed day for me just photographing dressage horses in training. I came to the show grounds, explored where the press centre was, said hi to a few colleagues and then took a walk around the main stadium. You scout for good photography places, but in the end you always have to work with the weather to get good pictures, and that's often a big challenge. At the far end of the ring is the walk way to the warm up rings.

Photographers are normally not allowed there, unless they request permission at the press centre and have a steward escort and guard you the entire time. But this is Latin America and people in the south, anywhere in the south, where you get more sun than sour faces in the north, are much more relaxed, friendly and benevolent. Do a horse show in Spain and everything is yolo, everyone greets you with smiles. Do a show in in the north of Europe, Germany for instance, and everything is, "don't walk here", "don't stand there", "don't sit here." Ring stewards rejoice in their three days of ultimate power to boss people around and do their job with the same commitment as Border Collie herding sheep. This is why I'm loving Rio much more than London. The Olympics in 2012 were impeccably organised and run and the volunteers were very friendly, but the room for play and improvisation were zero point zero.

So on the training day I sat beside the arena just having fun, taking beautiful photos of beautiful dressage horses, while the volunteers were offering me drinks and eager to chat. The weather was great, it was sunny, 25°, everything smooth and perfect. Of course the next day, the first Grand Prix day, I misread the climatic signs. I put on my shorts and a top, my flip flops and went to the show grounds. Pretty soon clouds came from the mountains and it got darker and darker, and colder and colder. I had goose bumps all day and put on my rain poncho - not so much for the rain, even though it did drizzle during a few tests, but more so as a wind breaker. Not really the Brazilian weather I had hoped for.

I don't like working in a press centre. I'm probably the only one as all my colleagues - photographers and journalists alike - are all eagerly punching their keyboard there from dusk till dawn. I don't think it's so much because of the idea of having people snoop on your screen to check what you are doing, but more so that I dislike carrying so much weight and bags into the press centre on a daily basis. I already have to haul my camera with me (which weighs about 10 kiloes I suspect), but if I have to add a laptop with charger to that, I feel like a packed mule and I just can't be bothered. Call it lazy, call it efficient. I just rather leave my equipment in the hotel/flat and just travel back and forth light weight. I can get the work done equally well in the quiet of my own room. So that is the routine I created for myself. Get up, upload articles, take the bus to the show grounds (which is only a 15 minute ride through the military compound here), work the show and get out of there as quickly as possible. Perfect!

I had planned on posting regular updates on the website during the breaks, but struggled to get internet connection at the show. There is a Rio wifi connection, which works really well for everyone, except me. I must have done something wrong in the sign-up as for some reason I can't get mine to work. I did contact the service desk, no reply. I really had to take five minutes to get my head straight again and assess whether it's the end of the world or not. I said I would be posting live updates like most of my colleagues do and did not. Then I put things in perspective and convinced myself with the words: "hey you are the only one photographing every single horse, taking notes on all the rides, editing pictures and writing articles about the class, all by yourself." The others have journalists doing only the editorial work and get photos sent ready to go by the photographers they hire. Few multi-task so I patted myself on the shoulder and my inner voice told me not to worry.

After the first Grand Prix day I was eager to go back to the apartment as fast as possible to warm up. A hot shower is not an option here, though. On arrival I had hot water, but as of Tuesday when taking a shower there is only a very short "window of opportunity". Hot water for one minute and then it's back to cold! So in that one minute I make sure I have my hair washed in lightspeed tempo as I hate cold water on my scalp. Darwin said the the survival of the species depends on adaptability. Well, I adapt.

The Deodoro Accommodation Village (DAV) has a restaurant tent where every night they serve cafetaria food. It's quite a good range of raw vegetables and salads, with a large variety of carbohydrates (pasta or rice) and different options for meat. The food is ok.. nothing special and certainly not bad. As dessert they prefer to serve a rubbery white cheese (ricotta in mozzarella shape) with caramel that is so sweet it makes your teeth fall out of your mouth. It will definitel fulfil anyone's sugar fix.

For the second Grand Prix day the weather was beautiful. I came well prepared: long trousers on, shirt with short sleeves, extra jumper and jacket in my back pack, plus all my rain gear just in case. On the morning sessions, the huge grandstand is filled to 1/3 of its capacity and that's the most spectators we've seen so far.. There were less on Grand Prix Special day and the medal ceremony. While there are pockets of Dutch, German and British fans, the crowds are mainly Brazilian, which you noticed by the enthusiastic cheering as soon as a Brazilian rider came into the arena. By the afternoon, those Brazilians had left for another sport and most of the seats were empty. The seat colours are pretty though with a bright green and blue ombre going on, but it's such a pity that not a bigger crowd has travelled to Brazil to celebrate the epitome of our sport. It is fun guaranteed over here and those who are staying home are missing out on a great moment in history!

After the Grand Prix I went to back to write my article and round 8 PM got a Whatsapp from colleague Dirk Caremans that he was heading to the tent with his "Dutch girls" (KWPN and KNHS ladies Charlotte Dekker, Charlotte Gunnink and Jantien van Zon) for dinner and drinks afterwards. Apparently there is  bar on the compound but when we got there, it was a bit underwhelming. Ugly tile floor, white plastic tables and seats and tv screens to follow the Olympics on. The word bar was totally mismatched for this sterile room. They did serve Caipirinha's, the typical Brazilian cocktail, so we had to have one. The first few sips hit me hard; it was so strong. Rest assured, I like my cocktails strong, but this struck my like a hammer. I had enough after one and went back to my room. The next day I heard they stayed until after midnight and especially Dirk had a few too many.

For the Grand Prix Special on Friday the weather had shifted again. It was sunny, but also with a lot of clouds, which means constantly having to change your settings.. and it still wasn't as warm as I had hoped it would be. For a few rides I had to unpack all my rain gear and poncho again as it began to drizzle. Fortunately, all that plastic cover material could be repacked after lunch. There is hardly any food served in the vicinity of the press tent and the only option we have are puff pastries filled with meat. They aren't bad, but after three days of the same you start craving green freshness: broccoli, zucchini, lettuce, ...Later on it turned out that these puff pastries are typical Brazilian as they are sold everywhere on the side of the street. The medal ceremony was tricky to photograph with the sun shining brightly but very intensely yellow as it was already setting. It gets dark here early (round 18h). I thought I made a good move of running to the opposite side of the arena for the lap of honour photos, but the sun was just too dominant and I struggled to get my images right.. After so many years of photographing horses, you still end up making mistakes. Instead of feeling bad about it and blaming my stupidity, I just move on.. I'll try again on Monday for the individual finals.

Dressage has a two-day break from competition so Saturday and Sunday are playtime for me. Of course I had to work the entire Saturday morning, completing my Grand Prix Special article and doing a few other jobs that needed to be done, but by 13h I went to the bus, travelled to the MPC and changed buses again into a very luxurious coach which would take me to Copacabana beach. As press we can take the media transportation for free, so I just decided to go to the Beach Volley Ball venue and from there had a nice relaxing afternoon at this famous beach. It was incredibly crowded on the board walk but it was a fun, festive atmosphere there. There is a very strong current on Copacabana and the sea looked rough. Even though it was very sunny and 22° a chilly wind blew constantly and my plan to lie on the beach and soak up some sun was discarded straight away, despite the thousands of die hard sun-bathers who were there. I also found it curious that there were numerous little tent stalls on the beach, which powered themselves with loud generators. I found it very distracting from the peace and quiet you expect near the ocean.

I just strolled on the board walk for about three miles and was looking for a place to have a nice, healthy late lunch, but all I saw were crowded beach bars serving yellow food - fried stuff I prefer to stay far away from. In the end I did get so hungry that I caved in to the craving and sat down for food, only to be told that they were no longer serving (it was 3 PM). Then I thought I had the brilliant idea of going into one of those luxury hotels on the coastline and enjoy the vista from a rooftop terrace with a nice meal, only to be stopped at the door and be told that only hotel guests were allowed. Spending money in their restaurant did not qualify for entry. This was the Marriott, by the way!

So I walked on and by that time my brain had switched to immediate food mode. I always find it so funny that we think we are hungry, but we never truly are. I don't think I have ever been truly hungry in my life, hungry ike a homeless person, or someone in a third world country. Still we can act all "hangry" and annoying as if we are starving to death. I walked past a super market and saw mangos right at the entry and my brain said "jackpot." My plan for a dinner in  nice restaurant changed immediately and I believed I had the brilliant idea of buying some cheese, nuts, bread and a small bottle of wine to eat in the sun on the beach was the absolute perfect plan. I even bought a knife to cut the cheese with. I also stocked up on some mangos, kiwis and plums as I had been missing fresh fruit at DAV. By the time I walked out of the supermarket the sun had gone and the beach was all cast in shadow. There went my plan and in a second it didn't look appealing at all; also what about all the sand mixing with my food. That's what you get when you do an impulse buy.

I came across an Arabic restaurant that was serving a buffet and decided to go for this and save my groceries for later. The buffet is paid by the kilo, something I've never heard of before. I did not plan on eating a kilo of food. I'm not a horse! I thought it was funny that I was eating Arabic in Brazil, but the Brazilian food options that I saw on Copacabana were all too much fried yukiness. At least now I had nice lentil salads, chick peas, eggplants, zucchini in a yoghurt dressing and a bit of salmon and minced lamb. It was just what I needed. As it was growing dark quickly I decided to go back to the bus and go "home". I Whatsapped Dirk and told him I had cheese for dessert with me, so joined him at the tent by 20 pm where he had his regular dinner and I waited to cut the cheese at the end. The Dutch girls joined in. We also went back to the bar to watch the 100 m women sprint finals, but I did not have a caipirinha this time.

Sunday's another day off, so let's see what that day will bring.

Photos © Astrid Appels - No reproduction allowed

Related Links
Eurodressage Coverage of the 2016 Olympic Games