After spending 14 hours in the air, excluding a three hour layover in Toronto, I finally arrived in the Rio de Janeiro on Thursday morning to cover the last four days of the 2016 Summer Games. There is a non-stop flight operated by Air Canada that runs thrice weekly, and it’s the fastest way to get to the Olympic Host City from the West Coast without having to do three or even four gruelling layovers in LAX, Dallas, New York, and Bogota.
But if you are enticed to travel to Rio after watching the Games on television, this quickest route to city will be discontinued come September. Last month, Air Canada announced that its direct service to Rio will end after the Paralympics due to lagging demand from the Olympic period and the forecast of a prolonged weak economic environment in Brazil. The second best option would be to fly the airline’s route to Sao Paolo, which runs daily, and then transfer to another flight to Rio.
View of a column of smoke from a big fire in the Rio area as my plane makes its descent.
This is my second Olympic Games, with Vancouver 2010 being my first, so I’m able to make some comparisons between both experiences. If you’re well-traveled, you’ll know that few airports in North America, and South America for that matter, can beat Vancouver International Airport (and it’s why it’s consistently ranked by Skytrax as North America’s best and one of the world’s top airports).
With Rio, there are two major airports, and the biggest of the two airports – Galeão International Airport – is deemed the ‘Official Airport’ by Games organizers. Galeão handles just under 17 million passengers and 133,000 aircraft movements per year while Santos Dumont Airport, the secondary airport, sees about 9.6 million passengers and 133,000 aircraft movements. In contrast, last year YVR saw 20.3 million passengers 316,000 aircraft movements, an impressive feat considering the Lower Mainland’s population of 2.6 million whereas Rio de Janeiro is the second most populous metropolitan area in Brazil with 12.3 million residents.
There isn’t anything spectacular with the design of Galeão, the airport I landed at, not even the new expansions built specifically in time for the Olympics. It’s quite bleak.
A newly built expansion wing of Rio’s Galeão International Airport.
Originally planned for the FIFA World Cup two years ago, almost 1.1 million square feet of new airport area has been built, including 26 new gates, over 100 new shops and restaurant areas, new VIP lounges, 68 check-in kiosks, and new high-tech passport processing equipment.
I did find it somewhat amusing that all arrivals passengers had to walk into a large Duty-Free shop that had grocery store-like check-out kiosks to reach the arrivals area and exit the airport, akin to the gift shop exits at many museums. This was the only way out.
The 2 billion real (CAD$800 million) expansion increased Galeão’s annual capacity from 17 million to 30 million passengers.
Games organizers expect 2.5 million people will travel through Galeão during the Olympic and Paralympic Games period.
One of many Olympic Buses that transport athletes, coaches, media, officials, and sponsors.
I was the only passenger on the Olympic Bus that transported me from Galeão to my beachfront hotel in Sao Conrado, which I have been told is the most expensive and sought-after neighbourhood in the city. But there’s always a reminder of the sharp rich and poor divide: a hillside favela, framed by a canyon of upscale condominium towers, can be seen in the distance from the patio of my hotel room.
It was a 90 minute drive on a freeway that partially went through some of the favelas, passed by Olympic Stadium which hosts athletics, and into long tunnels deep into the mountains.
From the moment I stepped into the airport’s arrivals area, security has been highly visible across the city unlike Vancouver 2010’s ‘hidden but there’ approach.
Armed soldiers were within feet from the arrivals security clearance, and along the entire freeway route from the airport to the Sao Conrado there were police outposts or soldiers along the side of the road every two or three kilometres. One of my guides said security was much higher at the start of the Games when there were hundreds of dignitaries from around the world attending the Opening Ceremony.
High security presence along a major roadway between the airport and Rio, going through favelas.
Later in the day, after getting settled in, we made our way to the Olympic Stadium, also referred to by locals as Estádio Olímpico João Havelange. There was a short pitstop at an outdoor entertainment district a few blocks away from Copacabana Beach where people were freely openly drinking on the sidewalk, something so lively and spontaneous that it would be unimaginable in Vancouver.
The Olympic Stadium should not be confused for the historic and much larger Maracana. Built in time for the 2007 Pan American Games, this is the first time in Summer Games history that athletics events have not been held in the same venue that hosts the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. It originally had 46,000 seats but was permanently expanded to 60,000 seats for the athletics events.
Outside Estádio Olímpico João Havelange.
The security procedures into the stadium were similar to Vancouver 2010, and it merely took two minutes to get through as there was no line. This was partially because we arrived a little late, although once we got in we realized the stadium was only about two-thirds full. The main and most-anticipated event of the night was still three hours away by the time we got to our seats. We were mainly there to watch P&G athlete and Canada’s Andre De Grasse take on Jamaica’s Usain Bolt in the 200 metre final.
My trip to Rio is fully supported by P&G, an official partner of the International Olympic Committee, so I had the opportunity to sit in their sponsor allocated seats on the lower bowl near the front row. Sitting one seat away from me was De Grasse’s family, including his mom Beverly. And yes, I was on TV.
— Ken Chan (@iamkennethchan) August 18, 2016
— Farhan Mohamed (@farhanmohamed) August 19, 2016
To say the least, the experience was surreal. It was a real honour and privilege to witness Canadian sport history up close and the De Grasse family going beyond ecstatic with Andre’s win – a behind-the-scenes experience with the family of one of the world’s elite athletes.
The De Grasse family, with Beverly in red on the far left.
By 10:30 pm, the start time of the 200-metre race, the stadium was almost full for the world’s biggest and most important track meet. The 200-metre start line was at our corner of the stadium, but the finish line was all the way at the opposite end of the track.
The start line of the 200 metre race. Sprinters are about to take their mark.
We were a little concerned about the rain that started about 30 minutes before the event would affect athlete performance, but elite sprinters are well-trained to adjust their technique to handle wet conditions.
Midway through the short 20-second sprint, Beverly was standing on top of her seat for a better view and jumping as her son came second to Bolt. It was a very proud Canadian moment.
— Ken Chan (@iamkennethchan) August 19, 2016
With the De Grasse family, we took an Olympic Bus back to the hotel shortly after the event ended. I had an incredible Day 1, everything has gone so smoothly.
I should also mention that I have yet to see (or hear) a mosquito anywhere. This is Brazil’s winter, when daily high temperatures reach 30°C and humidity levels are lower. The super-sized mosquitos in this region of the world near far hotter conditions to flourish.
The Games end on Sunday, but for me they’re just beginning. Let the Games begin.
It’s now 3 am on Friday morning. There’s more to come from Daily Hive in Rio de Janeiro 2016…
Menu at the food stands inside Estádio Olímpico João Havelange.
Exiting Estádio Olímpico João Havelange.