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Amy Donaldson: An Olympic farewell letter to Rio

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I won’t take it personally that on my last morning covering the Olympics, I woke to no power and no hot water. Frankly, I never knew if I would have hot water, so I feel pretty fortunate that most days I did.

Dear Rio,

As the reason for my visit ends tonight, I felt compelled to tell you and the people who call you home a few things.

First, my feelings for you are simple.

My feelings about the 2016 Summer Games, hosted for the first time in South America, are more complicated.

I came to write about athletics. But the Olympics are never just games. The fact that it’s impossible to separate culture from competition during these 17 days is what makes these events so unique, so enduring, so transcendent.

I came to see the games as a burden that most of you didn’t want but chose to embrace. Sort of like a demanding house guest your spouse invites to stay in your home at a really inconvenient time, without your permission or maybe over your objections, and then leaves it to you to make them feel welcome.

As one of the demanding guests, let me say “muito obregada.”

I know this city is suffering one of the worst recessions in the country’s history, as well as rampant corruption in the government. I know it is not true that no public money was used in hosting these games, and I know you have and will suffer because your leaders chose to host the Olympics over improving daily life for you. I know some of you went without paychecks, retirement payments and other things so the infrastructure for the games could be finished.

I do worry about what will happen to you, to your cariocas, when the world’s journalists leave.

I wonder what you will gain from laying out the welcome mat to the world. I wonder if it will be worth it.

I wonder if the IOC will ever understand the desperate need to honestly acknowledge the shortcomings in its system. It certainly won’t do it publicly, so I am not hopeful.

Still, despite the circumstances of our meeting, I have tried to see the best in you.

I tried not to be afraid of your water, your mosquitos, your poverty and your crime. I overlooked the fact that the organizing committee created short-sighted housing layouts with an impractical set-up, including housing men and women in the same suite (which, let’s be honest is a misnomer).

I found this out when I returned home at 3 a.m. to find a man in my room. And while this seems like an obvious problem, easily solved to me, it took quite a bit of discussion and multiple complaints before it could be solved with even a mediocre solution.

I won’t take it personally that on my last morning covering the Olympics, I woke to no power and no hot water. Frankly, I never knew if I would have hot water, so I feel pretty fortunate that most days I did.

If I'm honest, I had a hard time complaining about creature comforts when I saw the poverty with which some of your residents struggle. That made focusing on the competitions so much harder, because well, sports seem unimportant when you see suffering like there is in Rio, oftentimes just a stone's throw from million-dollar facilities.

Look, I know we were hard on you. We media types tend to be a little more negative by nature. We’re cynics, we’re critics, we’re doubters. But in a lot of ways, you proved us wrong.

I give all credit to your people. Where the Olympic organizers fell short, where your government failed, your people saved all of us with their warm hearts and fun-loving traditions. Nobody knows how to throw a party like Brazil. It may not always start on time or have everything that was promised, but it will be so fabulous, the flaws will be forgotten or forgiven.

Their kindness bridged every gap in planning; their desire to have the world see their culture in the best light made this experience one of my favorite Olympic adventures.

Your people had a lot to work with. The beauty of this place is breathtaking. Yes, there are abandoned buildings and garbage and an ineffective effort to hide it from us Gringos. But the city is cradled between mountains and the ocean, and it sits in the largest urban rain forest in the world.

Every day, the view was, like this experience, both beautiful and heartbreaking. Even the favelas were a dichotomy, climbing the hillsides in uneven rows, they were like unintentional works of art, full of color and sound during the day, twinkling like grounded stars at night.

Your food was, for this small-town American, an adventure. My favorite dishes were feijoada, Pao de queijo, coxinhas, pasteis, tapioca, any dish you make with coconut. Oh, and pouring condensed milk over everything, including caramel corn — genius.

I take many things from my time here. The lessons taught by the athletes who sacrificed so much to compete in these games. They were the reason I worked 16 and 18 hours a day for 17 days. There was not enough time to experience all of the moments of beauty and victory and sportsmanship.

My favorite experience was watching Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross play for bronze under a full moon on the iconic Copacabana Beach. With the waves crashing behind the stadium, and the samba music playing across the street, I felt the convergence of all the individual strands that make these games feel alive.

The match was a come-from-behind victory for the U.S. against Brazil. The stadium roared to support their own, and I could feel the energy in my chest.

In your city, I saw Michael Phelps swim; I watched Usain Bolt run; I stood with your people in the street as Neymar earned Brazil’s first Olympic gold in soccer.

Every day was a jumble of difficult and beautiful, and I suspect that’s simply the way it is here in Rio. I won’t forget this experience, this eclectic city, nor the generosity of your people.

Com ador,

Um amirador

Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: adonsports