Rio Olympics

Boos for the Israelis, but a Smile From Michael Phelps Makes Rio Worthwhile

The Olympics have felt more like the World Judo Championships for Israeli journalists this week, but a U.S. legend made the biggest splash.

Michael Phelps with cupping marks on his shoulder in Rio, August 7, 2016.
Michael Dalder, Reuters

RIO DE JANEIRO – Diana Barbosa looks at me in astonishment. “You’re from Israel? Where’s that?” she asks. “In the Middle East”, I say. “Near Saudi Arabia?” she adds. “No, near Lebanon, we have a common border.” “Maybe next to Jordan?” she wonders. Yes, you’re right, I reply, hoping she has nearly finished. But then she exclaims, “I get it! You’re from Palestine!” Leave it at that, I say in despair – it suits the Olympic spirit of fraternity among nations and world peace this way.

Barbosa is one of 40,000 volunteers who came to Rio for one month with one objective: To work for the Olympic dream, accompanying visitors, providing information and translations, guiding the tens of thousands of athletes, journalists and visitors so they can somehow find their way around the Olympic Park.

They’re working for free. Not only are they not paid, but no one covers their living expenses or their flight to Rio. All they get are hot meals during working hours. Most of them are from Brazil, but some are from elsewhere around the world, including the United States – such as Barbosa herself – and China. They all share a common dream: Seeing events live, especially the ones featuring sporting giants like U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps.

However, like all the other volunteers, Barbosa has yet to see Phelps in action – or anyone else for that matter. All she sees is the demanding work that she volunteered for. I, on the other hand, have been more successful. The truth is that Phelps was the main reason for my trip to Rio. I wanted to see in person that human dolphin cutting through the water in the pool, having done so in such spectacular fashion over five Olympics, from the age of 15 to 31. Truly amazing.

There’s no question that Phelps is the greatest swimmer in history. He is worshipped by spectators. As soon as his name is announced, the pool reverberates with deafening applause. When he wins for the umpteenth time, the air resonates wildly with the roars of joy coming from every direction. It’s an amazing experience to see him swimming.

Despite his long years in the sport and the cumulative fatigue, he doesn’t ignore journalists after he wins. He comes forward with a pleasant manner, answering questions he’s heard a thousand times before with infinite patience, all with a smile and in good humor.

Yesterday, I stood there with dozens of other journalists interviewing him, pushing and shoving until I got very close to him. Then I thought he gave me a half-smile. What joy! That made the whole trip worthwhile.

It wasn’t just Phelps. There were other reasons for going to Rio. Usain Bolt, for example – that Jamaican rocket who fills entire stadiums with people wanting to see him flying at the speed of light, on his way to breaking yet another world record (he’s the current 100-meter record holder at 9.58 seconds). Others on the wish list were Rafael Nadal, the gifted Spanish tennis player, as well the men’s gymnastics and the women’s beach volleyball matches, and others.

The truth is that, so far, these Olympics feel more like the World Judo Championships to me. That’s what we Israelis did in the first week, anyway. Even I started becoming an expert in the martial art, in order to distinguish between a yuko, wazari and ippon. Luckily, the judo competitions ended yesterday, so we could get out and watch some other events, as well as touring this beautiful city.

We haven’t seen much of Rio yet, because we’re housed in media quarters that are located quite a way from the city – an hour by bus. We were also closely following the judo.

Lest anyone start pitying us, I must say that the events are a lot of fun and we’ll still have enough time to see the sights – including Copacabana beach, the Corcovado mountain and the boisterous center of this unique city.

Although we couldn’t get out to meet the Brazilians, they came to us at the Olympic Park in order to watch the Games. Every day, they come in their thousands to encourage their athletes. They do so with great enthusiasm and a deafening noise. Every time a Brazilian athlete shows up to an event, I’m almost knocked off my seat by the blast of sounds produced by drums, trumpets, shouting and singing.

During breaks between events, the Brazilians come to the large plazas situated between the sporting arenas and line up in order to buy pizza or hot dogs, drinking coke and beer. There’s no authentic Brazilian food to be found. In the background, there’s always the glorious samba, with giant screens showing events in real time.

They have a special system in Brazil. They sell you a coke and take off the cap, as if telling you to drink up right away. Maybe they mean you can’t refill the bottle with water and will have to buy a second one.

Rio residents are called Cariocas – an honorary term for anyone who was born there or who has lived there long enough. The sad truth is that some of them don’t like Israel and there are often boos when Israeli athletes compete. There is also some applause. They also boo sportspeople from Russia because of the doping scandal. But they mostly hate the Argentinian team. When an Argentinian shows up for an event, the roof almost falls in due to the boos and catcalls.

The reason for this is that Argentinians scorn Brazilians, using racist epithets when referring to them. They see themselves as superior, as part of the white race, whereas in Brazil everything is mixed, with whites, blacks and people of mixed race. That’s why Argentina is the most reviled country here.