Typically when you attend an Olympic test event, your first experience upon arrival is a long trek out into the countryside to get to the rowing course. Not so in Rio – the racecourse is right in the heart of Rio's South Zone and most popular tourist district, with the finish line on the Lago Rodrigo de Freitas only about five blocks from Ipanema Beach. In fact, the actual finish line is less than 100 meters away from the lake's ring trail, a skate bowl and skate park, fitness stations, tennis and basketball courts, and more.
For an idea of how close it is to public areas, think starting line of the Cooper River; the same is true of the starting line, where the road goes within feet of the start tower. It's like the starting line at Bled, if Bled were one of the 18 or so largest cities in the world.
When row2k arrived on a warm Sunday morning, the Ipanema neighborhood at the foot of the racecourse was crackling, with kids on scooters and skateboards crashing into one another in the shadow of palm trees, in toddler bikeseats and playing under beach showers, and learning to play soccer; dogs everywhere, families in bathing suits in the streets and on buses, artists making and vendors selling stuff, musicians, men pumping up at beachfront fitness stations, teams of people from their teens to well beyond retirement age playing beach volleyball and racquetball, people surfing, thongs and hammocks on people of all shapes, sizes and colors. Tourists stop to take their picture with the statue of Antonio Carlos Jobim (or Tom Jobim as he is called in his hometown), and the locals step up to take the picture for them. Locals and tourists mix effortlessly, as it should be in a good beach town.
If you have a Brazilian cell phone number, to get around you can download an app that lets you rent orange Rio bikes using the Bike Rio app on your phone for 5 reals per day (about $1.50) or 10 reals per month (about $3). The bikes are everywhere (both to rent and on the streets), and they're not in bad shape. With the Lagoa about 3k from anywhere in the neighborhood, it's right in range for row2k's photo equipment Sherpa routine.
Amidst all that, test events (Eventos Testes as it appears on all the signage and clothing) are going off all over the place – hang your neck over a guardrail a few blocks northeast at Copacabana beach and a peloton blasts by, followed a couple minutes later by a couple runners and a TV motorcycle followed by the pack, all competitors in different stages of the Triathlon evento teste (and an important qualifier for 2016).
On the way to the lake, there are open air markets, art fairs, South America's first-ever McDonalds, and lots of people. When you arrive at the lake, it's hard not to shake your head– a big rowing event right off one of the most famous beaches in the world, underneath one of the most well-known and frequently photographed statues in the world, right in the middle of a major city – whew, that simply never happens. Only about a kilometer from the beach at most, it is still in the bustle of the neighborhood; in fact, the venue has a restaurant and even a movie theater, at which families were lined up to buy tickets to Minions (oddly titled Stuart Kevin & Bob) on Sunday morning.
Folks who have taken runs around the lake (it's a little under 8k, so bring your running shoes next year) report having seen boars munching leaves in the brush, and a pair of parrots speaking English to one another. Exotic birds land ride updrafts in spirals until you can't see them, and then land on buoys and motor launches as the crews row past, all of this taking place under the circle of jutting peaks for which the lake is known.
Just to the west, there is an active equestrian club, with horses blasting out intervals and doing tricks on a Tuesday morning.
All this, with Cristo Redentor looming over it all atop Corcovado, day and night – at dusk the 100 meter statue is lit up brightly against the darkening sky.
In the simplest terms, the course itself is not ready for a major regatta like this one – or perhaps more accurately, it wasn't ready at this writing, but seems likely to be more or less ready by the first race at 9:30am Wednesday. And by not ready, I do mean some little things – a couple of the lane lines were not straight this morning, for example – and some big things, most notably the fact that the top 500 meters of the course were opened only yesterday at around 4pm, prior to which there was a fairly major dredging operation going on to make the north end of the lake deep enough to row. The start line electronics had been sitting below the finish line all week were towed up to the start at a snail's pace so not to wake out all the crews that were practicing; by around 11am this morning the regatta was doing test starts with crews who wanted to try out the system. So about 22.5 hours before the Junior World Championships began, the entire course was rowable.
And there isn't really any sign of the layers of security, heaps of seating, and other trappings of the Games; the overall layout is a bit like that of the Trakai venue, but with a more intense sun, palm trees, and a major city on all sides. A thousand or so spectators will fit into the venue at present; by the Olympics, a temporary grandstand will be built opposite the existing grandstand, and that is where most spectators will sit.
As for the water quality, the jury is out for sure – when I first walked up to the edge of the lagoa, three fished jumped out of the water in quick succession as if to say not to worry. On the other hands, reports of athletes succumbing to stomach bugs were coming out of a few different camps – but the timing of these episodes is tricky, coming just a few days after long flights in most cases. A couple coaches got hit as well, making folks wonder if it was the water in the lake, or food bought at a food stand, or the effects of travel, or, well, as I say the jury is out.
So I asked some locals who are not involved with the regatta at all what they thought, and one explained to me that she had done a SUP competition on the lake last year, and she was "praying that I did fall in." She added that "it's too bad, but it is filthy," a pretty straightforward assessment.
I am reminded of some of the waterways I rowed on back in the day – before the massive treatment plant was built, it was entirely accurate to describe the Harlem River as filled with "raw sewage" as this venue has been described, and (slightly) older folks tell horror stories about the Charles in the 70s. To be honest, on site this lake doesn't look anywhere near as scary as New York's waterways when I first got there. None of this is to underplay the issue - these are just my first impressions, and I am inquiring about and will keep after the issue as the regatta progresses.
On another note, the area around the course is considered to be somewhat unsafe (particularly at night), but on this one I feel a bit more strongly, as based again on my time in New York City a few decades back, I just don't see it. When a neighborhood is dotted with people exercising and grandmothers walking Pomeranians and Chihuahuas after nightfall, it is hard (for me at least) to feel threatened. Come the next morning, kids are everywhere on their way to school by 7:30, and the racket coming from the local primary schools is almost deafening. So yeah, be careful, but don't be cowed.
The city is also really pretty clean for a major city – the only jetsam I saw on long walks to and from the venue were giant leaves from the trees, and there are trashcans on street poles maybe every 40 or 50 feet that are emptied daily. If all that isn't enough to put folks at ease, there are taxis everywhere, and with the exchange rate being very favorable for US folks, I can get the 3k to the racecourse for about 12 Real, or around four dollars US. Put two people in the cab and it's less than the NYC subway.
But all of that said, this venue isn't a bespoke Olympic rowing venue built in accord with modern environmental codes; it is an urban lake, almost a pond really. So really the snag is getting things ready, and the water quality. For the former, hopefully the attention this week will help, and it could be formidable - since the first day of the rowing event corresponds with the one year mark to the beginning of the Olympics, already the media presence is over five times expected, as the media tent was provisioned for an expected 40 media people (pretty typical for a junior event), and already 220 have signed up. For the latter, hopefully the Brazilian organizers can do something about it, as it is a tremendous opportunity to fix a beloved lake - or maybe they just get lucky and runoff is at a minimum before and during the events.
If they can do it, rowing has a unique chance to offer the most singular image in the first week of the Games next year, with insanely fit people racing long, thin, fast boats on a glistening lake underneath one of the most iconic hills and statues in the world. It is easy to imagine rowing as the public face of the Games for that first week, with every TV intro, segue or outro showing an aerial shot of the Cristo Redentor statue looming above the city, and our sport taking place beneath it.
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