The Olympics is one of those events that's engrained in us from childhood. Every four years, folks around the world set aside time to cheer on their home team. So when I got the chance to actually attend the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this year, I thought I knew what I was in for. After all, having tuned in on television for years, I knew there would be plenty of cheering, team pride, and even some inevitable chaos. And while all of that held true, I learned many more tidbits that could only be picked up while on the front lines. Here are six of those things.
1. Not all athletes are created equal.
When you think of the world's best athletes, people like Michael Phelps, Serena Williams, and Usain Bolt come to mind. They're paid millions by sponsors and leave people starstruck. But those stories are few and far between. I got my first taste of this before I even set foot in Rio. On my flight from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, I spotted a couple of athletes from the Colombian soccer team. One of those players sat next to me in the middle seat. It wasn't glamorous -- there were no private jets or special services. The only difference was that they were going to be competing for a gold medal and I would be a mere spectator.
2. Athletes are fans too.
During the opening ceremony and several sporting events, I snapped approximately one thousand photos. That's typical fan behavior, especially given that this moment occurs every four years. Funnily enough, the athletes we were there to cheer on were doing the exact same thing. During the opening ceremony, they had their phones out to take photos of the stadium as well as one another. I even watched as they went up to athletes on other teams to ask for selfies. In other words, Olympic athletes, they're just like us.
3. The opening ceremony might have been better on television.
I've watched the Olympics opening ceremony several times on TV and always thought how incredibly spectacular they must look in person. Though it was breathtaking to see the fireworks and feel the overwhelming camaraderie of nations first-hand, most of the technical marvels were designed for those watching at home. Approximately 30 million people tuned into this year's ceremony -- about 400 times the number of spectators in the stands. Given this information, it makes sense that the event was geared towards TV watchers. The 3-D projection mapping of performers jumping over buildings didn't translate as well in person and the sheer number of people in the Parade of Nations made it difficult to see the athletes. I caught myself watching the big screens to get a better sense of what was going on more than a few times.
To make it even more enjoyable for viewers at home, the broadcast was delayed by an hour to a more convenient time (it aired 8 p.m. EST rather than 7 p.m. when the opening ceremony actually began). While the evening was nothing short of spectacular, the best seats for viewing the opening ceremony were clearly the ones on the couch at home.
4. Crime and Zika were talked about more on the news.
There are security risks at most major events in the world, but Rio was particularly in the spotlight this year. There was political uncertainty and unrest among the residents of Brazil, high crime rates, a crumbling infrastructure, and fears about Zika. All of these things were top of mind before heading to the games, but once there, it was never the main topic of conversation.
Of course, I heard the stories of cameramen being robbed, but it didn't scare me (or others) from exploring the vibrant city. Did I walk around by myself at night? No. Did I wear jewelry or keep my phone out? Also, no. The water is contaminated, so I stuck to bottled water. Zika is spreading, so I wore long pants and sprayed any exposed skin with bug spray. It was a matter of taking precautions and limiting myself as a target. I stuck with a group and for the most part, people were in high spirits.
The only time I noticed a lack of structure was at the opening ceremony. The lines to get into the stadium were chaotic. Others who had previously attended the Olympics described an orderly system. In Rio, however, it seemed a bit disorganized. I even discovered that about 35 percent of the volunteers didn't show up to the ceremony after getting their free shirts the day before. All of that being said, the discussions still mainly surrounded the sporting events.
5. Attending the Olympics is a workout.
Getting to and from the events at the Olympics required quite a bit of walking. To put things in perspective, we left three hours in advance for the opening ceremony show. Not only was the line long, but it took about a half-hour to walk to my seat once inside. In the Olympic Park, it took up to a half-hour to walk from one area to the other, depending on where the next event was being held. To top it off, there were plenty of stairs to climb, just in case your adrenaline wasn't already pumping during the competitions.
6. Timekeeping is a huge undertaking.
Three things make the Olympics possible: talented athletes, a place to host the competitions, and a way to time them. While there, I had the opportunity to chat with the official timekeepers, Omega, to find out exactly what it takes to make sure the results are precise.
Since medals can be won and lost by milliseconds, taking on the responsibility of timekeeping is a rather crucial one. "We create the technology that takes the scores and measures the points and times. It's about precision, accuracy, and attention to detail," Omega timing CEO Alain Zobrist told Oyster.com "There's a whole system in place to make this happen. We have 480 timekeepers and 450 tons of equipment that record the results for all the athletes for the entirety of the Olympics." He also explained how the first timekeepers actually go down three years before the event to start setting up. In addition, they test the equipment for a full year before the very first event. "Every sport is tested in the environment not only technology-wise, but also for security," he added. "We're already in Pyeongchang working on the 2018 Winter Games."