Friday, 4 November 2016

From Rio With Love!

A September To Remember

It's hard to believe it, but six weeks ago I was at the Paralympic Games in Rio! Not competing of course, eleven years of confusion, blind panic and 'headless chickening' on the rugby court does not a GB player make (although the day they announce Paralympic Pudding Eating, I'll be knocking on that door, spoon firmly in hand)! No, I flew out to Rio with friends to soak up the sun, drink coconut water, sample some Brazilian beef (calm down!) and of course, take in the Paralympics live for my very first time. It was all rather exciting!

However that excitement was also masked with a certain amount of trepidation as much of the news coverage prior to the opening ceremony had focused on the monetary problems and criminal aspects of Rio: stadiums were being prematurely dismantled, public transport was being cancelled and gangs were roaming the streets, hunting down tourists to separate from their valuables. Well, if any of this was happening then I certainly didn't see it. From the moment I arrived to the moment I left, there was an overwhelmingly positive buzz in the atmosphere, the people were friendly and helpful, and the public transport was second to none, with Rio's subway system putting both London's and New York's to shame in terms of accessibility. In truth, the only time I felt remotely unsafe was when my casters were rattling over the uneven, mosaic street paving which, during our thirteen night stay, inevitably caused more than one of us to stop, drop and roll!

Not the worst view to wake up to!
As for the scenery, good grief! I could fill this entire entry waffling on about the mountains, the jungles and the ocean, all of which you needed only to step outside of your hotel to see. I spent the numerous taxi and train journeys gawping out of the windows as we passed through the city which is built into a wall of mountainous greenery the likes of which I had previously only seen on TV (often accompanied by a gyrating Peter Andre)! And the views from the top of Christ The Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain, jeez! Up there you can fully appreciate the scale and magnitude of the city and its surroundings. I'm not someone who normally gushes about this kind of thing, but it really was breathtaking! Let's not forget, I'm from Middlesbrough, I pull over and take a picture if I see a tree!

Bird's-Eye View!
Also, a quick word of thanks to anyone whose photos appear in this entry. Unfortunately I was unable to take any pictures myself, as the moment I arrived in my hotel room, my phone decided to commit suicide get into the Paralympic spirit by throwing itself off a ledge diving off the top board and into the toilet pool. What a way to begin proceedings!

Christ's-Eye View!

A Few Minor Hiccups

They say that bad luck comes in threes, and this certainly appeared to be true in my case, as sandwiched between my phone's untimely demise was the hotel check-in, where due to a small miscalculation on the financial side, we were greeted with a bill four times the amount we expected, and afterwards the realisation that none of our Paralympic tickets said anything about accessible seating on them. So it came to pass that our first couple of days in Rio were spent frantically organising alternate accommodation and then trekking in the glorious 35 degree heat (this is Brazil's winter!) to the CoSport office to get our tickets switched over, just the standard fun and games you come to expect when wheelers travel en masse! But once that was all sorted out it was time to let the Games begin!

Well, almost...

Active Hands No Brasil!

It would be amiss of me not to mention that the other reason I flew out to Rio was to represent Active Hands, who had won the fantastic opportunity to present their unique gripping aids at the Pitch At The Paras event. During this rather surreal day I would rub shoulders with royalty, pose with Paralympians, jostle with journalists (a Daily Telegraph reporter literally picked me up!) and later take full advantage of the free bar on offer! To read more about the event and to find out how Active Hands got on, click the link here.

The Pitch At The Paras crew alongside double gold medallist Jody Cundy!

Let The Games Begin!

As I said earlier, I had never been to a Paralympics before and so was unsure exactly what to expect from this. If BBC news was anything to go by, only 10% of tickets had been sold, so I went there half-expecting to be greeted by a deserted Olympic Park with sparsely populated stadiums and the odd bundle of tumbleweed thrown in for effect as a lone harmonica player welcomed lost visitors with a foreboding tune. However, the closer I got to the Park, the clearer it became that thankfully this would not be the case! As we rode the subway and bus, it became impossible not to notice the number of people either wearing uniforms emblazened with the Jogos Paralímpicos logo or wearing at least one item of clothing bearing one national flag or another. And then there were those who took the flag wearing a little too literally...
"Whadda ya mean you won't serve me until I put on some pants?!"
After disembarking the bus we joined the steady stream of people flowing towards the Park, crossing over the motorway by means of a temporary bridge constructed entirely out of scaffolding and hardboard that seemed to become less and less 'constructed' as the week went on! As I went through security, entered the Park for the first time and took in my surroundings, I remember thinking, "If this is 10% full then I'd hate to think where the other 90% would fit!" The place was absolutely awash with people of all nationalities, wandering around in between events, taking in the atmosphere and arenas surrounding them. There were music stages, big screens where you could watch events live as they unfolded, dozens of food and drink stands, including one solitary McDonald's which only served McFlurries (go figure?!), and of course the arenas; giant, stylish pieces of architecture, each with their own unique design and feel. However, it was Carioca Arena 1 our group was most interested in, as this was where the wheelchair rugby was taking place...

Rugby Or Not To Be...

Now, I have a confession: I'm not the most vocal or enthusiastic of supporters when it comes to watching sport, instead preferring to quietly take in a game whilst cradling my chin in one hand, my silent musings giving off the (entirely misguided) impression that I know exactly what's going on and what the next play should be. And so when the rugby began, I adopted my customary pose and prepared to muse.
"If only I had a flag to wrap round myself..."
However, it didn't take long for me to become completely invested in the games and with it, far more animated and vocal. My docile, ponderous posture faded and was replaced by all-chanting, Mexican-waving excitement! Yes, the rugby games were all as fast-paced and hard-hitting as you'd expect, with chairs and players sent flying as goal after goal was scored. Yes, it helped that I knew and had played against a number of the athletes on court. And yes, it certainly helped to have bursts of music playing throughout (although the constant playing of the chorus to Foo Fighters' "Wheels" every single time someone made an equipment call has utterly killed the song for me)! But for me, the main reason that I was so uncharacteristically energetic during the games was simply down to the infectious enthusiasm and feel-good vibes being given off by the crowd. 

There were none of the malicious chants or gestures that you see hurled around every week at football grounds, it was just non-stop cheering and singing. Of course there were rivalries on and off the court, but they were rivalries built on mutual respect that ended with smiles and handshakes. And whereas not every game was sold out, it has to be said that the Brazilian supporters certainly know how to throw a party and electrify the atmosphere! The Japanese crowd soon became fan-favourites too, continuously singing, dancing and evening spending one game creating dozens of traditional Japanese hachimaki (headbands) for the crowd to wear whilst chanting "Japão"!

A glimpse of what to expect at Tokyo 2020!
The highlight of the entire Games for me however was attending the wheelchair rugby gold medal match between Australia and USA. This wasn't just because it was a Paralympic Final with the medal ceremony immediately proceeding the game. It was because it was quite simply an unbelievable game of rugby, contested by two extremely passionate and evenly matched teams who shared a single goal: to bring home the gold. The determination, aggression and emotion in the players was clearly visible throughout; with lightning fast pace and thunderous hits reminding everyone just why this sport was initially named murderball! Goals were racked up in rapid succession by both teams, as the lead switched back and forth, with neither side able to pull away from the other. Line-ups were rotated, training ground plays were implemented and the tension kept on rising. By the end of the 4th quarter both teams were level and it took two sets of overtime before Australia finally got the break they needed and edged the USA, 59-58! Cue cheers, tears, embraces and rapturous applause as the arena exploded and Australia were crowned Paralympic Champions!
Left: An emotional Ryley Batt receives his gold medal. Right: The flags of the medal winners are hoisted to military fanfare.

A Lasting Impression

I know I've pretty much solely focused on wheelchair rugby here and you'd be entirely justified in thinking that this was the only event I saw during my time in Rio! In truth, the rugby was where my main interest lay, but I must say that I also had a great time watching track and field events at the athletics stadium as well as the triathlon, part of which handily took place outside our hotel! A big shout out to the blind football too, which I had unbelievable fun watching and wish I could have seen more of. Any game where a player responds to being fouled by gut-punching his opponent and hoping the referee hasn't spotted it is alright by me!

So that was my time in Rio; a fascinating city that has given me some amazing memories but one which I really only scraped the surface of. The Paralympics were an incredible spectacle and one which I hope to experience again in four years. My advice to anyone who visits Rio would be to do some research before going, know what it is you want out of the trip and look for the places where you are most likely to get this. There are some amazing beaches on offer, with Copacabana being the most famous and therefore most commercialised. However there are plenty of other beaches on offer if you're looking for a more traditional feel: Barra da Tijuca, Ipanema and Prainha, to name but a few. If it's nightlife you're after then Lapa is definitely the place to go, with cocktail stalls, samba clubs and trinket sellers lining the streets to create a carnival atmosphere. And be sure not to leave Brazil without first venturing into a traditional Brazilian steakhouse because, my god, the selection and quality of the meats on offer is just exquisite; I'm tearing up just thinking about it!

Upon leaving Rio, I flew to America to spend some time in New York, which in all honesty, I could write an entirely seperate blog entry on! But I won't. Instead I will sum it up thus: An endless barrage of noise, lights, tastes and smells; an absolute assault on the senses in all the best ways; and probably the quickest known route to type 2 diabetes!



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