RIO DE JANEIRO — Mario Andrada paced through the Olympic press center Monday afternoon, explaining why he has no time to talk just now.
“There is an expression we have in Brazil,” he said. “ ‘When you have a hard job, you kill a lion a day.’ I have two lions to kill.”
This month, Andrada might have the hardest job on the planet: He is the communications director for Rio 2016, tasked with answering for the mistakes and calamities of the Olympics in front of the world’s media corps. When a bullet landed in the equestrian media center, Andrada rushed to Deodoro and held a news conference. When the diving pool turned green, Andrada offered a series of accounts for five days.
When something goes wrong, he has to explain it. A lot has gone wrong. His owlish features, black frames and gray buzz cut have become the public face of small disaster.
Every Olympics features a daily media briefing, but usually the briefer remains anonymous beyond the journalists inside the room. The unique and myriad troubles of Rio 2016 have thrust Andrada, 56, out of obscurity. His sons, Jonas and Theo, tease him for being on television so much. Walking through the crowd outside the track and field stadium, a stranger tapped Andrada on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, the water will be good!”
Andrada sleeps four hours each night, waking at 6 to review the previous day. He steals half-hour naps on car rides and skips lunch almost every day. On Monday, Andrada scheduled a working lunch at the Courtyard Marriott, so he and his staff could discuss how to handle issues pertaining to the Paralympic Games, which are in danger of being vastly underfunded. That was his first lion.
During the meal, his first lunch of the Games, he received a call about a camera that had fallen from its cables in Olympic Park and injured two women. Another lion. That evening, his staff alerted him to reports of a brush fire behind the shooting center — a literal fire to put out in a sea of figurative ones.
“Usually, I can get three or four lions a day,” Andrada said. “If I get three a day and a guy calls me with yet another problem, I say, ‘Come on.’ ”
Past 9 p.m. Monday, an assistant walked into his office room with a piece of paper with a Post-It note stuck on it. “You need to speak with them today,” she said.
“Who said we need to speak today?” Andrada said.
“The Wall Street Journal.”
“Okay,” he said, sighing. “I’ll call them.”
On Aug. 9, Day 4 of the Games, Andrada was walking in the media room and received a call. The voice on the other end said, “We have a problem.”
“What kind of problem?” Andrada asked.
“The pool turned green,” he replied.
“What the [expletive]? Don’t [expletive] me.”
“The pool is [expletive] green!”
“For Christ’s sake.”
Andrada asked when the pool could be fixed, and the only answer he got was, “Maybe tomorrow.” He decided he needed to provide an update in time for the Brazilian nightly news. Officials told Andrada they wouldn’t have a full explanation for the green pool by then. “I don’t care,” Andrada told them. He went before the world and tried to explain why a pool had changed color when the people in charge didn’t even know.
“We were looking like fools,” Andrada said, “and then we went and did a press conference.”
The saga lasted five days. Andrada tried to relay new information as he received it, but it seemed as though he changed his story every day, searching for a new excuse. At one point, trying for levity, Andrada compared the color of the pool to the Brazilian flag. He later apologized.
At the conclusion of the pool saga, Andrada said, “we overpromised and under-delivered.” It was obvious, but also an admission that probably wouldn’t have come from an American. Andrada felt no need to hide an obvious fiasco.
“In America, once you admit your mistake, it’s just a matter of how much they’re going to sue you for,” Andrada said. “Here the culture is different. And also, the world’s best journalists are here. I cannot waste everybody’s time lying. They’re going to find out that I’m lying.”
Andrada has differentiated himself from most Olympic spokesmen through not only the scale of mishaps he faces. He always defends Rio 2016, even when it requires mental gymnastics, but he operates with unusual candor and expansiveness.
“I make several mistakes,” Andrada said. “I usually talk too much. I explain too much. It’s a bit of my way.”
Andrada joined Rio 2016 two years ago, leaving his job as Nike’s communications director for emerging markets in Latin America. At Nike, he held a news conference two or three times a year, interacting with media using, “mostly phone-call diplomacy,” he said. Andrada felt the opportunity to help produce the Olympics in his home country was too unique to pass up.
“Maybe I didn’t have a clue what kind of job I would have to perform on a daily basis here,” Andrada said.
Two months ago, International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams told Andrada he looked forward to teaming with him for the daily briefings. That was the first time Andrada realized it would be part of his job.
It has been harder than he expected. Every morning a little after 11 a.m., Andrada sits at the center of a long dais, between Adams and a guest. He feels nervous but tries not to show it. IOC officials have told him to stop sitting with his arms crossed or his hand covering his face, because it makes him look defensive or bored. Whenever a reporter directs a question at Adams, Andrada thinks, “Yes!”
During Tuesday’s regular briefing, Andrada sat with his chin in his hand for several seconds. He jerked it down to the table, shuffling papers and grabbing a pen. A reporter asked Adams about volunteers not showing up and low turnout at Olympic Stadium for track and field. Adams called the environment “amazing” and passed the question to Andrada.
“We do have a low turnout and are working to improve it,” Andrada started, before speaking for more than four consecutive minutes. He introduced a series of figures by saying, “I don’t have to tell you these, but I’m going to tell you, anyway.” He claimed the “look and feel” of the Games had an 82 percent approval rating, “although we feel the look could be improved, especially in the Olympic Stadium.”
A reporter followed up about volunteers. In the midst of another marathon answer, Andrada said without prompting, “Sometimes, they are too nice, and they allow people to access places they shouldn’t.”
Andrada strives for honesty in his dealings with the media. “I don’t defend what is not defensible,” he said. But he also acknowledges he works for a company, and he is no rebel. When necessary, Andrada will employ creative interpretation. On Monday, a reporter asked him about the booing two-time drug cheat Justin Gatlin received the night before in the men’s 100-meter final. “Not all of the booing was because of Mr. Gatlin’s past,” Andrada said. “He was the opposition to the chosen idol of the night.” On Tuesday, he cited fans fetching food at concessions as one reason Olympic Stadium looked empty.
While the lions start to circle and Andrada sits in front of the world’s media, it must be remembered: He is doing this in his second language. Andrada learned English at 19, but on a daily basis he speaks Portuguese. It helps explain his wordiness.
“Sometimes, you see that I talk too much,” Andrada said. “Because sometimes, I have to go choosing words and sentences that I know. So sometimes I don’t have the straight line in English, so I choose the curve. Some of my answers are longer than normal, because I miss a shortcut. I try to use only words that I know are right. Sometimes Mark cuts to a question much faster than I do. Sometimes I want to explain, because we’re not hiding anything, and there is a reasoning. But the fact it’s my second language obliges me to go choosing sentences and choosing words that I know.”
Another thing to remember: Andrada would sign up to do it all again. “No regrets,” Andrada said. He knows the Games have not been perfect, rife with glitches and issues. But he is proud that Brazil hosted the Olympics and proud he was part of it.
“We believe, and I believe as well, there is an element of patriotism in everything to do with the Olympics,” Andrada said. “Sometimes a bronze looks like a gold, and you celebrate the achievements of a nation.”
Andrada plans to sleep for 24 hours the day after Sunday’s Closing Ceremonies and then recharge to play the same role at the Paralympics. He will file reports. He will take a vacation. When he returns home, the Olympics long over and no more lions left to kill, what will Andrada do next?
“Find a job,” Andrada said. He leaned back in his chair, and he laughed.