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Rio Is Better Than What You See On TV

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

RIO DE JANEIRO — Usain Bolt looked straight ahead, dusted off both shoulders and smirked. Michael Phelps stepped onto the starting blocks, bent over and swung his arms around his body. I know they show these images on TV, but seeing them happen as the building falls silent save for slapping of Phelps’ hands on his own back or the collective Shhhhhhhh of nearly 60,000 people awaiting the 100 meter gun is something else.

At the Maracanãzinho stadium where indoor volleyball is played, the Darth Vader theme from “Star Wars” is cued up on play challenges. The sounds of the Olympics are incredible, and the visual clues are a reminder of how much thought and organization must go into planning something like the Summer Games. Most of the courts, pools, arenas and stadiums I’ve seen are brightly colored in typical Brazilian bravado, the colors often communicating rules or designating certain areas of play. I’ve been keeping track of some of the best Olympics data visualizations I’ve seen, like the water polo pool, the fencing arena and the indoor volleyball court.

But shapes and sounds inside the stadiums don’t change the atmosphere outside them, where the careful planning evident in the presentation of many sports is at odds with the disconnect from reality that goes into planning the Olympics outside the field of play. Olympic Park, the main hub of the games with nine venues, was built in a new neighborhood in Rio’s West Zone, called Barra da Tijuca, about 20 miles (and an hour-plus bumper-to-bumper drive) from the iconic Copacabana and Ipanema beaches that Brazil typically evokes. Instead, the park is surrounded by dozens of high-rise residential apartment buildings (that most Brazilians have vacated to make way for people like me) and several shopping malls, including Barra’s own New York City Center.

The quirks of Brazil can be charming — when I first arrived, I was baffled that my apartment is #808 but to get there I need to press 9 in the elevator. (It was explained to me that in Brazil, you add one on the elevators!) But local quirk quickly gives way to Olympic disarray. At Olympic Park, it’s common for spectators who have paid for an event to miss it because of long security lines and no good way of quickly moving throughout the sprawling concrete campus. Media personnel can enter only through one designated entrance on the very farmost corner of the park, even if the stadium you’d like to get to is on the opposite end. And aside from the event venues themselves, there’s not much to do once you’re inside: a few food stands, one cafe, a Samsung booth and the mega store selling Olympics merchandise.

Some of the other venues scattered around the city offer more in the way of scenic Rio, like the rowing venue at Estadio Lagoa, a beautiful blue lagoon tucked inside one of Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and the beach volleyball courts that sit on the shores of Copacabana, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. (Most of the banners have already fallen off of the bleachers, exposing the stadium’s metal poles, but I’ll take scaffolding on the beach over Olympic Park any day.)

The realities of Rio de Janeiro are still present — a media bus was allegedly shot at last week, and a group of American swimmers that included Ryan Lochte was robbed in a taxi at gunpoint — but thankfully I haven’t experienced anything like this. Whether it was on purpose or not, the separation of Olympic Park from some of the notoriously dangerous areas of Rio has made crime a nonissue for many visitors.

Some of the only interactions I have with Brazilians are when I’m driving between venues, a few moments to ask my drivers whether they’ve had a chance to see any events or whether they hate the fact that the Olympics are being hosted in their home. One driver I met, William Luiz De Souza, joked with me after a mosquito had flown in our window. “Get out! Go find Hope Solo!” He got a laugh out of me and all the Americans afraid enough of Zika to tuck their pants into their socks, but he was also genuinely concerned about my impression of Brazil: How was I liking it? Was I enjoying myself? Did I feel safe and welcomed and impressed with his country? “Brazilians are very proud,” he told me. “Most Brazilians are very hard-working, not like they say on the news. We are good people.”

Allison McCann is a former visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.