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News & Features » August 2016 » The Rio Dispatches: Day 2

The Rio Dispatches: Day 2

We’re absolutely thrilled that Akashic author Anthony Ervin is currently competing at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio! Read all about his Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian coauthor Constantine Markides’s jet-lagged adventure through Rio in his latest behind-the-scenes report.

Read Constantine’s first installment here.

ChasingWater_currentThe Rio Dispatches: Day 2
by Constantine Markides

I’m in the Aquatics Center with Team AE, which includes his brother Derek and a motley, as always, entourage of friends. The 50 free prelims are underway, and we’re seated right above the starting blocks. We’re roaring at him when he comes out, but he doesn’t seem to hear us.

Although my nerves are firing, they’re more subdued than usual, fogged over from only three hours of sleep. Anthony just needs to make the top sixteen. Two seconds into the race and it’s obvious that he’ll get through—he had a good start. His time, 21.62 seconds, puts him third going into the semifinals. As the prelims to the 800 begin and my pulse subsides, the fatigue—part hangover, part jet-lagged sleeplessness—begins to close in. Watching the Olympics live is hard work.

It all started with ping-pong. Before last night, swimming had been the only Olympic event several of us had ever attended, so table tennis seemed a natural next step into the Olympic fray. We set off with forty-five minutes to spare with tickets for the women’s medal matches. It was only a fifteen-minute drive, but there were no taxis, no Ubers, nothing. Twenty minutes passed as we waited street-side. We began sticking our thumbs out at passing cars, then waving bills at them, and finally—bolstered by the rounds of caipirinhas we’d just mashed up and guzzled—began accosting stopped vehicles to plead our desperate cause. Eventually, a volunteer from northern Brazil, whose job was to transport officials, offered to take us to the table tennis venue. He had flown out and paid for accommodationsat his own expense just to volunteer for the games, “just for the experience,” as he put it. The only thing he got, he told us, was a meeel.

“A mil?” I said. “You mean a thousand? You get a thousand Real?” Three hundred dollars didn’t sound like much for all the effort and expense.

“Not a thousand,” he said. “A meal. A hot meal during working hours.”

The bronze medal match was underway when we arrived: North Korea vs. Japan. We happened to be sitting in the North Korea section. The rallies were astonishing. Even the serves were mesmerizing. Kim Song-I, the North Korean, would cradle and roll about the ping-pong ball in her fingers, leaning her face into it as if whispering incantations. Ai Fukuhara of Japan, meanwhile, would toss the ball up into the air maybe ten or fifteen feet and then, at the last possible moment, strike it narrowly just over the net.

An essential part of being a spectator is taking sides. It may be random, or out of prejudice or preconception or blind patriotism, or even just ideological ignorance, but what matters most is that the side is chosen. Since the Japanese woman was behind and since we had just been praising the Japanese swimmers earlier, we decided with no further ado to root for Fukuhara. Despite our roars and entreaties, she was felled by the relentless slices of Kim Song-I’s paddle.

As the Japanese player left the arena, the photographers and cameramen, probably two dozen of them, crowded around her, trailing her out. Only one photographer followed the North Korean—the winner of the bronze medal—as she left. It’s as if the media were chastising her for the ruling ideology of her nation. But she wasn’t threatening nuclear attack; she was just playing damn good table tennis. Along with the North Korean contingent, we applauded for her heartily as she walked out. The gold medal match that followed lacked the electricity of the bronze due to the lack of patriotic antagonism: it was China vs. China. Not wanting to miss the swim races, we left before Ding Ning beat Li Xiaoxia for the gold.

So sterile is the area around the Olympic Center, with its gated high-rise condos and mall-style cafes, that we decided to take a taxi (which were now of course abundant) to the beachfront nightlife hub of Barra da Tijuca to watch the swim finals. We just needed a bar with a television. Only upon arriving did we learn that the Brazil football game was underway. Some bars had ten televisions going, but none was willing to change over even one TV to swimming.

“But you have Brazilian swimmers,” we pleaded. “Where’s your support for your swimmers?” It was futile. We finally resigned ourselves and went to have a drink at a small rock bar. Chatting with a Brazilian regular, we told him we had given up trying to find a place that would switch over to swimming. Obviously it wasn’t even worth trying here since the bar only had one TV.

“Oh, no one gives a shit here,” he said. “Hold on.” He went inside, and a few minutes later we were watching the swimming finals to Howlin’ Wolf. From there, the night steamrolled on, taking us with it.

That’s the backstory to the three hours of sleep. After prelims we’re dog-tired, but still jacked with the night’s races looming. By the time finals come around, our pulses are thudding again.

Just like prelims, the 50 free is the first event of the night. The 2012 Olympic champion Florent Manaudou wins the first heat in 21.32, a mere two hundredths off the Olympic record. Nathan Adrian comes in second. The announcer calls out the second heat, which includes Anthony, as well as two Brazilians, so the arena is throbbing. It sounds like a 50 free Olympic final. The announcer quiets the audience for the start. 

The starting signal sounds. Unlike the morning, Anthony is slow off the blocks. (What about that start? What’s he waiting on? Winter? an exuberant friend later messages me. Waiting for tomorrow, I reply.) He’s behind. It’s what we all fear. But Anthony is swimming near flawlessly, catching up with the field to tie for first. Even with a weak start, he still goes 21.46, narrowly missing his best time and less than a tenth of a second off the American record. He and the other winner of the heat are ranked second behind Manadou going into tomorrow’s finals.

The rest of the night is full of too many amazing moments to list here, but the finest one surely is the last final, the women’s 100m freestyle, where American Simone Manuel ties for the gold with sixteen-year-old Canadian Penny Oleksiak. It’s a historic gold, as Manuel becomes the first black woman to win an individual Olympic swimming event. (A San Jose Mercury News headline that gained attention for all the wrong reasons and was later deleted read Phelps shares historic night with African American.) The last gold medal tie was—yes, that’s right—in 2000, when Anthony Ervin tied with Gary Hall Jr. to make him the first male of African American heritage to win gold. In the medal ceremony, Manuel and Oleksiak stand side-by-side on the gold podium as the anthems play, first the American, then the Canadian. Both nations’ flags are placed on the same central pole, with the US flag hanging over the Canadian and the Swedish flag below and to the right. This, presumably, isn’t because Canada is getting the short end of the flag pole, but rather because, alphabetically, Manuel comes before Oleksiak. Even so, it’s a missed opportunity. Flipping the US and Canada flags would have made a more geographically accurate arrangement and a finer photo-op, with Canada to the north, US to the south, and Sweden to the west. 

Hoarse, bedraggled, bleary-eyed, we depart the stadium, lumbering and lurching our way toward our beds. Tomorrow it’s all happening again.

***

ConstantineMarkides

CONSTANTINE MARKIDES is a New York–based swim trainer and former correspondent for the international daily newspaper Cyprus Mail. He has worked with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and was featured on CBC and NPR’s Marketplace. His essays and fiction have been published in various magazines and journals, including Rolling Stone. A high school state champion swimmer, Markides also swam for Columbia University. He is the coauthor of Chasing Water.

Posted: Aug 12, 2016

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