RIO DE JANEIRO — I went to watch Olympic fencing. Many people mock fencing as being antiquated and a bit silly, but in fact of all the Olympic sports, it is physically the most difficult to get to from my hotel.
Getting from Point A to Point B is the hardest part of the Olympic Games, and I include the marathon in that statement. A lot of uninformed people — you, for example — think the Olympics are like the Magic Kingdom, where all the things you want to see are in one compact area, so you can easily walk from Space Mountain to It’s a Small World of Dolls Shrieking That Hideous Song.
Listen carefully as I explain something to you in capital letters so you will comprehend: THE OLYMPICS ARE NOT LIKE THE MAGIC KINGDOM. The sporting competitions are located ALL OVER the place. You cannot walk from Point A to Point B. You can’t even be sure where Point B is, because the host country uses a foreign language PLUS the metric system, so the signs call it “Ponto C.324.” This means you, as an American, must attempt to get directions from local residents using the standard American system of foreign communication, namely saying the same thing — which the local residents clearly do not understand — over and over in increasingly loud English (“Point B? POINT B??”) while waving your hands in a way you think is explanatory when in fact you are making a gesture that in the host country could well mean “I wish to have relations with your cattle.”
My point is, the Olympic events are located all over Rio, and Rio is a very, very big city.
Q. How big is it?
A. Part of it borders on Connecticut.
As a veteran Olympic journalist, I knew all of this, so when I decided to go see fencing with my daughter, Sophie, I hired a car with an experienced local driver named Jose, and we set out from the hotel four hours before the event start time. Plenty of time!
Our first obstacle was the traffic. Rio has severe traffic congestion, and the Brazilians — even though they are, in person, consistently warm and friendly people — are very aggressive drivers.
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Q. How aggressive are they?
A. Many of the cars have gun turrets.
So we inched along, mile after mile (or, in local measurement units, we millimetered along) while lunatics on motorcycles whizzed past, driving between cars, over cars, under cars, sometimes hurtling through a car window, across the car interior and out the other side. Finally, after almost two hours of millimetering, we were getting close to the park where the fencing competition was being held.
This was when we encountered our second obstacle: the police. Their job is to keep the Olympics safe, and the way they do this is to make sure no human being gets anywhere near the Olympics. Following a brief argument in Portuguese, they ordered Jose to turn around and go another way. We wound up on a rural side road, where we millimetered along in a line containing what appeared to be every motor vehicle in South America. At one point an old man walked past leading an old horse, both moving faster than we were.
Finally, we reached the end of this road, where we encountered: more police. They told Jose he could not drive through, but — in a serious lapse of security — they allowed Sophie and me to proceed toward the Olympics on foot.
We had to walk for nearly an hour to reach the main park entrance, during which I had to seek directions several times in my fluent Portuguese (“Main entrance? MAIN ENTRANCE??”). But finally, after four fun hours, we made it to Olympic fencing.
I am out of space, so I can’t give you too many details about the competition itself. Basically two people in white space suits lunge at each other until one touches the other with the tip of his or her sword — which is called an “epee,” “saber” or “foil” — and colored lights go on to indicate a point has been scored.
It was interesting, but I think it could be made more entertaining with the addition of some dramatic elements, such as pirate outfits, or bloodshed. Or maybe the fencers could swing from chandeliers. I’d come up with more helpful suggestions, but it’s already August, and I’m hoping to get back to my hotel by Christmas.