RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — As a journalist covering an event as hectic as the Olympic Games, you can sometimes lose track of the real world – which day of the week it is, and exactly where you are.
But every now and then, you get a little reminder and realise just what a privileged position you’re in. After frantically running from pool to track to rowing lake, something happens – you look up and catch a glimpse of the Christ the Redeemer statue, or the famous Sugarloaf Mountain and realise: “Oh yes, I’m in Rio!”
Here in Brazil these reminders also often involve dancing or a samba beat. On Saturday night, I decided to sit up in the stands rather than the media centre for my last night of swimming and it was worth the switch. About 25 minutes before the programme was due to start, the rhythm kicked in and soon the pool deck was covered with musicians and dancers.
Only in Brazil – and particularly Rio, that famous carnival city.
It reminded me of a trip between venues on the metro the other day. A couple boarded the train and the man started to give a long speech in Portuguese. As my Portuguese is beyond limited, I wondered for a split second if this was a mass-mugging – we’ve all heard the horror-stories. But then, out of her jacket pocket, the women produced a device that played music and the man began to pull some serious hip-hop dance moves. I was happy to place a few coins in the hat that did the rounds afterwards.
In the build-up to these Games, much was made of the rampant crime rate and animosity of the locals towards the hosting of the Olympics. Of course these problems don’t just go away, but so far we’ve managed to focus largely on the sporting stage for the past 10 days which has been great.
The Games have produced some epic encounters so far. Here are a few of my favourites…
MOST DRAMATIC MOMENT
It was the women’s cycling road race that served up one of the heart-stopping moments of the Games. Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten was in the lead with less than 10km to go when she went flying over her handlebars and landed in a crumpled heap in the gutter. She lay there, seemingly lifeless while the rest of the field passed her by. Many of them said afterwards they were convinced Van Vleuten was dead. But miraculously, the Dutch rider only sustained three cracks in her spine. And just a few days later she was up and tweeting from the track cycling venue where she was supporting her teammates.
MOST PAINFUL MOMENT
I still can’t bring myself to watch the video clip of French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd landing horribly during a vault in the qualifying rounds of the men’s gymnastics. The crack was apparently heard around the arena – he had broken his tibia and fibula and had to undergo surgery immediately. “The operation went very well, I should be back on my feet in a short time,” he has since told The Daily Mail. “I will go back to the training camp to encourage my friends because the competition is not over.”
In true Olympic style, Said was also already talking about his plans to compete in Tokyo four years from now.
Warning: video below contains images some people may find upsetting.
BEST UAE MOMENT
Of course this one has to go to Sergiu Toma, who won the country’s only medal of the Games – a bronze in the 81kg judo. He may have represented Moldova at the last Olympics, but Toma was proud to bring back the bling for his adopted country. “Doing judo in Moldova is not as possible as in the UAE. And the career of an athlete is short. In the UAE they gave me the chance to represent them, they always believed in me,” he said after his victory for the bronze.
MOST AWKWARD MOMENT
The press conference following the women’s 100m breaststroke final had everyone feeling just a little bit awkward. USA’s Lilly King, who had been highly critical of Russia’s Yulia Efimova’s participation in Rio, had just won the gold while Efimova claimed the silver. What followed was more criticism, with King standing by her earlier statements. Efimova was in tears and bronze medallist Katie Meili was stuck in the middle of the two, not too sure where to look.
BEST NON-OLYMPICS STAR SPOT
Former All Blacks captain and World Cup winner Richie McCaw on his way to supporting the Kiwi crew of Eric Murray and Hamish Bond in the men’s pair rowing. It obviously did the trick – the duo went on to win gold to continue their incredible unbeaten run which started back in 2009.
Surrounded by mountains with the Christ the Redeemer statue looking down on all the boats, the Lagoa Stadium – where all the rowing took place – has definitely been my favourite spot so far.
They are hosts after all so we’ll have to go with Brazil on this one. There’s been some criticism of empty seats in the stadiums, but those who are here certainly make themselves heard. When one of their athletes is announced, chants of “Brasil, Brasil” or the athletes name can be deafening – and the response when they walked into the stadium at the opening ceremony was just phenomenal.
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The small village of Mohi is a relatively unknown area in the Satara district of Maharashtra. Steeped in poverty and lack of basic amenities, life in Mohi is well removed for the hustle and bustle of cities like Mumbai.
It is here that Lalita Babar began her journey that ultimately culminated into one national record after another. Growing up in the 90s, a six-year old Babar would regularly sprint to her school which was almost four kilometers away from home. Her parents, farmers by occupation, could not afford shoes, so the little girl would run barefoot.
Representing the state at a national level competition for schools held in Pune in 2005, Babar clinched gold running without shoes once again in the 3000 meters race. A decade later, she now finds herself facing the opportunity to clinch gold at the Olympics, 32 years after PT Usha last qualified for an individual track event final at the Summer Games.
BABAR’S EMERGENCE AS A PROSPECT
The scouting of Babar’s talent occurred under the most unusual circumstances. It was during a kho-kho event that her coach Bharat Chavan singled her out. Watching her sprint in the 400m and 800m races, Chavan persuaded her to compete at national level. The rest, as they say, is history.
As a long distance runner, Babar turned her attention to 3000m steeplechase in 2014, following her victory at the Mumbai Marathon. At the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, she finished third, but was promoted to the silver medal upon disqualification of the gold medalist Ruth Jebet.
Her effort in the final was timed at 9:35.37 – a new national record in the discipline. For the first time in her track and field career, Babar was beginning to reap the rewards of dedication and hard work.
BREAKING NATIONAL RECORDS REPEATEDLY
The 2015 Asian Championships saw her set the games record and bettering her own personal record by clocking 9:34.13.
At the 2015 World Championships at Beijing, Babar scripted a new national record for the third time in two years with a time of 9:27.86 in her qualifying heat. However, she completed the finals at a modest eighth position after leading the pack for an appreciable fraction of the race.
In a remarkable turn of fortunes, Babar found herself sidelined from mainstream athletics after picking up an injury during the 25km race in Kolkata that was aggravated during the Mumbai Marathon in early 2016. It was not until February that she could return to the track.
Limited preparations, however, refused to be a hurdle for the 26-year-old who has been championing obstacles right from her childhood. She settled for nothing less than gold at the Federation Cup in April, shattering the national record once again with a timing of 9:27.09.
AWE-INSPIRING PERFORMANCE AT THE OLYMPICS
Participating alongside fellow runner Sudha Singh, Babar lit up the track at Rio with yet another national record during the 3000 Steeplechase heat – this time at a staggering 9:19.76 seconds. She finished just outside the top three in her heat, but managed to qualify for the finals despite falling early in the race.
Monday will decide whether destiny rewards Babar’s struggles against poverty, apathy and ignorance with material honor, but medal or not, it may be safe to assume that the Maharashtrian girl will return home as an icon in the eyes of aspiring athletes in India.
More than a billion Indians stayed up Saturday night with hope that the Indian tennis mixed doubles team of Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna would assure their country of a first medal at Rio 2016. But it was not to be as the fourth seeds squandered a one-set lead to lose 6-2, 2-6, 3-10 to the American pair of Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram.
They will now take on the Czech combine of Lucie Hradecka and Radek Stepanek in the bronze medal match on Sunday. Suffice to say, it won’t be easy and the Indians will have to be at their very best if they are to secure this last medal-winning opportunity.
As the highest seeds remaining in the draw, much was expected of Mirza and Bopanna against the Americans.
With four Olympic gold medals to her name, Venus Williams looked a shadow of herself in the first set and the Indians took advantage of this to take the opener 6-2 in just 26 minutes.
In the second set, Williams returned to her imperious best to guide the Americans into a 4-2 lead. An inspired Ram was colossal at the net and reeled off a number of outstanding points to force a tie-break (6-2).
The Indians quickly regrouped and looked to have rediscovered their form when leading 3-1. But that would be the last time they led the match as Venus unleashed a number of strong forehands to level the tie-break 3-3.
After that, it was a one-sided contest and the Americans claimed the next seven points to win 10-3.