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Learning To Love The Olympics, Filthy Water, Zika-Free Tube Socks And All

We’re on the ground in Rio covering the 2016 Summer Olympics. Check out all our coverage here.

RIO DE JANEIRO — For a lot of FiveThirtyEight sports stories, there’s not much need to be watching live. We’re trained to ignore hot takes from announcers, to remember that fluke plays can be meaningless. Most of what we know and understand about the games we love is gleaned from careful analysis after the game is over.

During the 2014 World Cup, we came to understand Lionel Messi’s greatness by looking at how efficient a shooter he was (the ninth-most-efficient overall, but the best shooter when we adjusted for the shots he took) — that helped us contextualize just how abnormal it was for him to miss this sitter in the final. But his stats don’t necessarily capture the discombobulated, cracked-earth sensation of Messi not being Messi. After he missed that shot, how many Brahma beers were hurled by fans in the sky-blue jerseys of La Albiceleste? His national-team disappointments have been noted statistically, but what does the weight of national expectation sound and smell and feel like in a stadium of 75,000 screaming maniacs?

That’s why I wanted to come to the Olympics. I’ve never covered an event of this magnitude, for this long — and I’m overwhelmed and scared and excited! I wanted to be here for the tactile data: to understand how different countries handle winning and losing, to see whose fans are the loudest and which stadiums are silent — and maybe to share some weird anecdotes about the things I’m doing and seeing along the way.

Before I left, fears about Zika virus were rampant, or maybe they were just especially high at the Upper West Side location of AdvantageCare Physicians. My doctor prescribed the CDC-recommended typhoid vaccine, along with some anti-diarrhea pills (that I haven’t had to use!) and an outfit best described as Ph.D.-student-about-to-ride-a-bike, which was assembled using notes such as “keep your pant legs tucked into your socks.” At the risk of coming off like Hope Solo, here you go:

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I did this only once before realizing that it was overkill. I haven’t seen many bugs, but I know the concern is not about quantity of bugs but which ones carry Zika. I spent time at Guanabara Bay, the main site for the Olympic sailing events, with some of the U.S. sailing team and staff, and they told me that the water seemed a little better since runoff sewage had been closed off from dumping into the bay. The Associated Press reported this week that at a lagoon where Olympic rowing will take place, adenovirus (which can cause fever, diarrhea and pink eye, among other symptoms) readings were lower than they were in March 2015 but still at “hair-raising” levels. From where I was, on the shores of Guanabara Bay, the water appeared clean, if not downright beautiful, with Sugarloaf Mountain in the background. But I didn’t swim in it.

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Over at the main press center at Olympic Park, some journalists have complained about the lack of free coffee and food options. THERE’S A PRESS CENTER WITH FREE COFFEE. It’s packed, and the free stuff runs out. But there’s another place to buy food. As a first-timer, I can’t contextualize just how good or bad things really are; people have told me “it’s better than Sochi” and “it’s so much worse than London.” Once, when I peed, the entire toilet paper holder came free of the wall. But I just set it down and got some toilet paper.

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The best part has been seeing the athletes, who are even more impressive in real life than they are in ESPN’s Body issue. Ryan Lochte’s recently bleached hair looked more blue than blond against a backdrop of the blue Olympics logo, and Claressa Shields — the first female boxer in the U.S. to win gold — is ridiculously jacked and startlingly soft-spoken. It was jarring to hear such a delicate voice come out of a body that could rip you in two.

So far, everything has been pretty great for me in spite of concerns about infrastructure (the traffic is unreal) and security (the Brazil Ministry of Justice fired its security team less than a week ago and put the local police in charge). I’m here for three weeks; I get to see the spectacle and be in a beautiful city, and then I get to go home. The larger issues that have been thrust into the spotlight because the Olympics are taking place in Brazil will still be here — the people who have been displaced, the workers who haven’t been paid, the sewage polluting the waters. But on the ground, Rio isn’t the apocalyptic hellscape from the media hype cycle so much as it is a city that has overextended its resources and is trying to keep its rougher edges just out of view.

I left the press center and walked a few hundred yards to find a home, still inside Olympic Park, with a big sign on it that reads in Portuguese, “Amendment 74 Area of Special Social Interest. We have the right to live here. It remains to be seen if there are any morals left in the justice system or if it’s all corrupt. Not everyone has a price!”

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On the other side of the city, more than an hour away from Olympic Park and the families it has pushed out, I waited in line to take a picture with the Olympic rings on the tourist-filled Copacabana beach. It was crowded but semi-orderly, as people took turns exchanging phones to take photos of one another. I always think selfies turn out better, so I flipped the camera around on my face only to catch a woman dressed all in gold holding a novelty torch.

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“What you can’t get from TV, and what I came to really love about the Olympics, were the little shavings on the factory floor, the curious byproducts of an event that brings together so many people from so many places in such narrow quarters,” reflected one reporter after the London Olympics. I’ll be here for the next few weeks, trying to find as many data-y things on the factory floor to share, but I’m eager to hear what you are seeing at home too. So leave me a note in the comments, tweet me, email me! I’ll try my best to deliver the same data-driven reporting we always provide, along with a sober, skeptical eye on the narratives the rest of the sports writing world is selling.

Allison McCann is a former visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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