Rio 2016, like most of the multi-code Team SA events covered by Mark Etheridge, passed in a blur.
The samba capital of the world was all about the Zs or the lack of them. Going into the Games, the fear was of the Zika virus spreading through the continent.
Looking back, it’s better the virus you know than you don’t know. Coronavirus (or the fear surrounding it) makes Zika seem like the common cold in comparison.
Then the lack of Zs. As in most Games, sleep is more precious than gold. The day actually starts the night before, once stories are filed for the Team SA website and then it’s the juggling job of two writers and team photographer trying to spread themselves thinner than a soup-kitchen sandwich.
With Team SA often in action over five to 10 codes a day at the busiest times, it’s literally a race against the clock. Small wonder then that media spend more time on bus seats than in actual stadium media seats.
Bus journeys for media were often gratefully grabbed opportunities to cram some much-needed sleep in.
The venues in Rio were particularly widely spread and the notoriously clogged city traffic didn’t make things any easier! Nor did the official Games transport system.
In the 10 days before the Games start, team media do a lot of reconnaisance work. On one particular afternoon (into evening) I wanted to check in at the MPC (main press centre). As the crow flies, the MPC was probably three, maximum four kilometres away
I boarded an empty bus, from just outside the Athletes’ Village. It should have been a cakewalk. The bus turned in the opposite direction to the MPC and roared off. And roared on. No one got on, no one got off. Forty minutes later the afternoon turned into evening. My bus showed no sign of turning. It finally stopped, about an hour away from the village, the proud driver announcing we were at the MPC.
At the stop I asked an enthusiastic volunteer about the location of the MPC. It was as though I was the first person he’d seen in months. ‘Get back on the bus, it’s going to the MPC.’ I finally got to the MPC and did what I’d come for.
I then wanted to get back to the Athletes’ Village. No problem. ‘This bus, this bus,’ cried another enthusiastic volunteer. Relieved, I sat back for the short ride back ‘home’.
Imagine my horror when I saw the Athlete’s Village lights to my right, then to the rear! You’ve guessed it … it was back to the last outpost for a second time, to see my new-found friend.
I finally got back to the village more than four hours after setting off for the ‘four-kilometre’ trip. While relating my trip to Team SA management, it was the loudest I’d heard CEO Tubby Reddy laugh in years.
Thankfully the village dining room is a 24-hour smorgasbord, for weary travellers, something that has been many an athlete’s and teammember’s downfall.
One aquatics coach told me that at a particular Olympics he had put on 10kg during the course of the Games. Sporting discipline definitely extends to diet. Many an athlete suffers from distinct ‘eyes-bigger-than-stomachs’ syndrome and many was the time, trays laden with perfectly healthy and untouched food was returned to the kitchen.
Not so, 800m gold medallist Caster Semenya. I sat with her during her pre-medal meal in the Athletes’ Village. No starch or protein as some may have expected. It was nothing more complicated than guava, paw-paw, grapes and banana that spurred her to gold. Her reasoning was that it was the sugar that gave her the energy for the final 100m.
Back to the bus and even media do some celebrity spotting. One of my favourite ‘hobbies’ used to be on the team bus to the various events. Checking out the ID documentation hanging around fellow passengers’ necks was great fun. Google the name and on any given trip you could find yourself sitting next to a three-time Olympic champion, now turned coach or manager.
And even though the Games are 99% work, there’s always fun and excitement to be had, snatched when it could be.
While checking out the city’s famed Copacabana Beach, Team media saw a bagsnatcher successfully evade capture from the city police, making his escape on a bicycle through crowded traffic, and displaying skills that an Olympic mountain-biker would be proud of.
Further into the Games a few of the swim team’s management and I found ourselves back at Copacabana Beach on a sun-drenched afternoon.
Not all of us had sampled the famous (or infamous) caipirinha cocktail. But one of the most seasoned team management members most certainly had. One’s spoilt for choice on the sprawling beach – step on to the sand in team kit and there are cries of ‘South Africa – Madiba, Nelson Mandela, Bafana Bafana’. And then the bargaining begins.
A jovial chap yelled: ‘Caipirinha?’ An affirmative nod and the scene unfolded. Four beach chairs were unfolded and placed quicker than you can say ‘Yes, please’. A cooler box was dug out of the hot sand. Then an umbrella.
Suddenly, as out of a mirage, appeared who I surely thought was Miss Brazil 2016. She sauntered over, a smile as broad as the beach.
Cocktails were served, followed by another. Time to go? Or not! Just like the mirage, a shower, I kid you not, emerged from the depths of the sand.
‘Miss Brazil’ hovered near the shower. She took off her T-shirt. Another caipirinha, yelled the vendor? Damned right, said the Saffers.
Main image: Athletes’ Village dining hall