When the driver pulled over to ask for help from the Army, I knew we were in trouble.
Writers complaining about bus service at the Olympics is the international equivalent of writers complaining about media food at home. No one wants to hear it. And nor should they. The sports media in particular has a bad reputation for turning the occasional inconveniences of our working conditions – food, internet, parking, seating – into very public Twitter crises. You won't hear me complain about any of that.
So this will be the one time I vent about for the Olympic bus system here in Rio, which has a very elaborate and organized schedule that bears no resemblance whatsoever to reality, even an app that tempts you with carefully choreographed transfers involving imaginary buses. And sometimes, your driver just has no idea where he was supposed to go in the first place.
Yesterday, I tried to take a shuttle bus from the main media center to Deodoro, an active army base about a half-hour away that hosts everything from women's basketball to field hockey to equestrian to BMX to shooting. Allegedly, the shuttles to the women's basketball and field hockey areas ran every half-hour. After waiting for 45 minutes, one appeared.
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The driver got us to the general Deodoro area, at which point he stopped the bus in the middle of a highway and asked me and the other passenger, a Serbian writer, how to get where we were going. Not only did neither of us have any idea, the map of the women's basketball venue in the printed media guides we carried was an accidental reprint of the map to the shooting center (an error duplicated, and never fixed, in the pdf of the media guide).
So we did the best we could to point out where we were going on that map, at which point the driver put the bus in reverse in an attempt to get off at the off-ramp we just passed. That led us into a neighborhood, which led us down some street in the Army base, which led us to ask a group of soldiers for directions. They then blocked the street so the bus could make a three-point turn and reverse direction, driving back past the off-ramp and down a different street. All of this had already turned a 30 minute ride into a 60-minute ride and we still couldn't even see the lights of the field-hockey stadium.
Finally, a volunteer – an angel – who spotted the bus nowhere near where it was supposed to be got on board and guided the driver on another 15-minute loop of the area to where, eventually, we reached the drop-off zone. She taught the driver how to say “I'm so sorry” in English along the way. Total travel time: A shade under two hours.
At least that bus came. I'm sitting on a bus now attempting to get to the main media center, where I can transfer to the shooting center, to see N.C. State's Lucas Kozeniesky compete in air rifle. I showed up at the bus stop in Copacabana hoping to get the scheduled 6:50 bus, but failing that, buses were scheduled for 7:05 and 7:20 which would get me started on my journey in plenty of time.
None of those three buses ever showed up. Finally, at about 7:35, a bus showed up, already two-thirds full. I snagged a seat, where I am busy typing away, but many of the UNC students working as press volunteers here weren't so lucky and now have to stand in the aisle for an hour as the bus sways and bumps its way to the Olympic Park.
There were stories before the Opening Ceremony of buses getting lost, even one that took a detour into a favela to drop off a buddy of the driver. Mine was lost briefly, but quickly recovered. You could see how it could easily go wrong, though.
That ceremony is a unique logistical challenge, requiring nearly every bus allocated for the Olympics to get all the media, dignitaries and athletes to the stadium from all over Rio. (Our group took the subway back to Copacabana afterward rather than risk waiting for a direct shuttle in a pick-up zone that looked like the fall of Saigon; others from Team McClatchy were able to find a cab in the neighborhood around the stadium.) The fact that things haven't gotten any better now that the Olympics have started is a little disconcerting.
There's a subway line that takes about the same amount of travel time to get to the park, but there's no wifi as there is on most buses (a plus) and it's a long walk from where the connecting bus drops you off to the media center. Or it's a $20 Uber or $30 taxi that drops you off an even longer way from the media center.
There are definite advantages to staying in Copacabana instead of one of the hotel clusters closer to the Olympic Park: bars, restaurants, the feeling that you're actually in Rio as opposed to an industrial park in suburban Houston. But spending 3-4 hours a day on buses, plus another 1-2 hours of waiting for buses, makes the days feel awfully short. In fact, at this rate, I'm going to spend more than a day of my life here just waiting for buses, let alone riding them.
Or you can throw money at the problem. Walking out of women's basketball last night, facing a two-hour (if I'm lucky), two-bus ride back to the hotel, I spotted three cabs hanging around. Thirty minutes and $40 later, I was back at the hotel in time to file an updated story, watch Ryan Held win a gold medal on Brazilian TV and get six hours of sleep before heading back out to wait for another bus. (Taking a cab/uber out there, my initial thought, wasn't an option because Deodoro is a military base and there's no telling how close you could get dropped off.)
An hour later, one finally came. The wifi doesn’t work, but at this point, it's just nice to be moving.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock