Rio Reports – The Spectator Experience (Part 1)

Arriving at Barra Olympic Park

By Michael Stafford-Jones

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Britwatch Sports writer Michael Stafford-Jones is over in Rio to watch the Olympics, and has written about the Spectator Experience


CLICK TO BUILD your own trip to destinations worldwide

Critics said holding the Olympics in Rio would never work. They said Brazil couldn’t organise such a massive event and keep so many foreign visitors safe. There were worries about completing the venues, water quality, muggings, violence, economic protests and political unrest.

Olympic HandballSome of these worries still remain, but none of them have prevented Rio from putting on a spectacular show with exactly the kind of fantastic carnival atmosphere Brazil is famous for. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Handball. Spectators were jumping, cheering, singing and dancing the whole time and it felt like one big party that everyone was invited to.

And that is how the whole of Rio feels right now. Most of the locals are friendly, and keen to welcome you to their wonderful city. Some remain silent and stony-faced, and keep their thoughts to themselves, but there is little evidence of the protests cynics feared would happen.

The Rio atmosphere

The atmosphere at Rio 2016 events varies noticeably according to which nationalities make up the crowd, how many of each country’s fans there are, how many Brazilians are in attendance, and how long those Brazilians stick around to watch.

The hosts seem to be having a great time wherever they go. They make plenty of noise, particularly when their compatriots are competing. However, whilst the Brazilians are happy to support foreign athletes they like and those who produce outstanding performances, they quickly get bored if the action does not interest them and frequently leave the when they have seen what they came to see. After they have left, it feels like the atmosphere has been sucked out of the venue and this is a great shame for the athletes still competing.

Athletics Session 1It was worst during the opening session of Athletics at the Olympic Stadium, which BBC Sport reported was only 58% full to begin with. After the medal ceremony of the only final, the Women’s 10,000m, about 75% of fans left. That forced the heptathletes to finish their high jump competition in a largely empty arena. Those that left missed Britain’s Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam both jumping a new world heptathlon best height of 1.98m during a thrilling battle.

Spectator exodus also affected the Badminton session we saw. There was one Brazilian woman, Lohaynny Vicente, competing. When she came out about halfway through the six-hour session, she was greeted by raucous cheers and foot-stamping from the Brazilian fans. But when she departed following a straight-sets defeat about 40 minutes later, so did her compatriots in the crowd, and suddenly the stands were a lot emptier and a lot less noisy. To make matters, other fans left once all their competitors had finished, until there were only a few fans left to watch the last two matches.

On a positive note, the Brazilians appear to really enjoy watching tennis and very few left the Olympic Tennis Centre early when I was there. In fact, the stands on some of the outside courts did not seem to be big enough for all the fans who wanted to watch. But this is how it generally is at Wimbledon, and is exactly how it should be.

Travelling fans make their voices heard

There is a very different atmosphere in places where there are enough travelling supporters to make lots of noise. On the middle Saturday of the Games, when British athletes were hoping to repeat their ‘Super Saturday’ heroics from London 2012, a few hundred British fans were present in the Olympic stadium – which is far more than there have been at most events. The effect was dramatic, as the noise levels from their sections of the crowd rose to a crescendo every time Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Johnson-Thompson competed.

Olympic Men's Singles FinalThe men’s singles tennis final also attracted an excellent, though admittedly unusual, atmosphere. In an arena with a capacity of 18,250, there were about 100 Brits, a few thousand Argentines, a few thousand neutrals and the rest Brazilians. Anti-Argentine sentiment from the Brazilians sometimes meant that Andy Murray had more support than Juan Martin del Potro, but often they kept quiet, and the huge roars and loud singing from the Argentines overwhelmed any other crowd support in the stadium. This lent the atmosphere a Davis Cup feel, and for Murray it would have felt like an away tie – very different from the situation at London 2012. The Brits who were present gave him great support and did their best to spur him on.

Hockey at the Rio Olympics brings in a unique atmosphere which is arguably one of the best at the Games. Very few Brazilians attend, and the crowd seems to consist of several hundred fans of each team playing in that session. This creates the kind of atmosphere you would expect at a cup final between two UK football teams: loud, boisterous and fantastic support for all involved. There are usually some empty seats at the venue, but the fans who are there make more than enough noise to compensate.

Check out more of Michael Stafford-Jones’s Spectator Experience in Part Two (Picture Credits: (c) Michael Stafford Jones)