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Deodoro is the poor cousin of Rio’s Olympic venues

Athletes from Spain warm up on the Olympic field hockey pitch as a wildfire burns in the nearby hills of Deodoro, Brazil. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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RIO DE JANEIRO — At the Rio Olympics, thousands of world-class athletes are straining to do their utmost while millions watches on computers, cellphones and television. Here in the Deodoro Olympic Park, the men’s field hockey semifinal between Germany and Argentina felt more like a football game at a country fair.

The pitch was shiny and blue, and the players were performing at a high level, while a few thousand Argentine and German fans noisily sang encouragement. But just one stand was full in this temporary arena and another two, mostly empty in the baking sun.

Not far away, a squad of Coca-Cola sellers hid in the shade of some trees, and gossiped for want of anything to do. A big screen showing Usain Bolt’s 200-meter qualifying heat had an audience of three people.

Deodoro is a military base that for the Games has become a second Olympic hub for a mix of sports, including canoe slalom, shooting, rugby and BMX, but it is the poor cousin of Rio’s Olympic arenas.

Unlike in the main Olympic Park, arenas here are spread out over a large area. Work on Olympic facilities did not start until July 2014 — three years later than planned. Stands were erected beside ones that already existed in this sprawling military complex — most of which are spartan, concrete and utilitarian. Everything else is in tents, containers or temporary structures. There are portable metal fences, covered in Rio 2016 banners. Budget cuts and Brazil’s recession have made this the cheap and cheerful Olympics, a reality nowhere more evident than here in Deodoro.

The Deodoro "Military Village" is a long drive down a busy expressway called Brazil Avenue that roars out from central Rio, into the concrete and brick suburbs that form Rio’s West Zone. To get here, many Olympic tourists take the train. They ride past endless favelas, as the poor communities made of roughshod brick and concrete houses are called. There are green hills beyond them in the distance.

Violence regularly explodes in these favelas in Rio's outer suburbs. A man was killed in a police operation in Acari favela, not far from Deodoro, last weekend, residents reported. Visually, economically, geographically and socially, Deodoro is a long way from Barra, the upmarket suburb of condos, malls and freeways where the main Olympic Park is situated.

“Barra is like Miami,” said Argentine Gustavo Ledesma, 37, as he settled into his seat for the men’s field hockey semifinal. “Here is more …” He struggled for the words. “It’s far from the city center ...” he concluded diplomatically. “Barra is more rich.”

Many spectators travel to a station near Deodoro, then face a long trudge to the Olympic arenas. There is another station situated inside this complex, called Military Village, but it only opens at night for spectators leaving the park.

“It would be good if it was open,” said an Olympic volunteer waving a large, inflatable hand, referring to the station. He spoke on the condition of anonymity. In London’s 2012 Olympics, volunteers gave interviews for features that celebrated their contributions to the Games. In Rio they have been told they cannot talk to the news media.

A group of seven German family members from Stuttgart had come to cheer on their team in the field hockey event. They wore pointy, fluffy hats in German national colors and polo shirts with their names embroidered on the front. They smiled gamely on the long walk from the station.

"This is my journey to hockey!” smiled Erwin Tauer, 58.

“You could do it more efficiently,” said his son Torsten, 29, of the organization. He clutched a beer in a paper cup in the hot noonday sun. “We’re glad we have our hats.”

Rio 2016 volunteers were never very sure what else was going on or when or where it might be.

“I don’t know about the program. I’m just controlling the access,” said a female volunteer at the entrance to the equestrian arena, where show-jumping was taking place.

Inside, the arena was full. Flags fluttered on top of the temporary stands. The crowd erupted into cheers when Brazil’s Pedro Veniss finished a near perfect round. The jumping arena looked beautiful — from the inside.

Hiriam Aguiar, 55, an army colonel from the south of Brazil, leaped to his feet in admiration. “Very good!” he roared.

“It is good for Brazil to have an event of this level today,” he said. “The best riders in the world jumping in Brazil. We don’t see this.”

Some of the spectators had left already for the walk to the field hockey arena. Queila Almeida, 38, was one of a handful of temporary workers hired by a water company to hand out plastic cups of cold water to them as they passed.

“It is the end of the marathon,” she told Paulo Rezende, 57, as he stopped for one, complaining good-naturedly about the heat.

Almeida would like to go to an Olympic event, like beach volleyball, she said. “But it is expensive.” Very few people in the Mare favela complex where she lives had bought them, she said.

It wasn't hard to see why. Field hockey tickets could be had for $18. But Almeida’s temporary job only employs her every other day, and pays just $31 per eight hour shift — which she won't receive until next month.

And her temporary job ends Saturday. “Then I will be unemployed again,” she said.

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