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5 things I learned in Rio

I grew up in Barcelona in the post-Olympics era listening to my parents’ stories about how great that summer in 1992 was for our city. As kids my little sister and I dreamed of participating. Four months ago she qualified to participate in rowing, and without a moment’s hesitation, I packed my bags and went to share in that childhood dream with her.

I spent one week in Rio and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Here are five things I learned:

1. “Um mundo novo”

The motto for Rio 2016: “Um mundo novo” describes it perfectly. These games represent a new world. I’d never been to Brazil before or taken part in these games. But it was immediately obvious that the city had transformed itself to welcome athletes and visitors for a summer unlike any other. From the moment you landed in Brazil and got your passport stamped with the Rio logo, to the flags and colours covering the city, this “new world” was inescapable and utterly inspiring.

2. We all wore our country…

American and British fans wore their flags in every imaginable way. The Italians and French were in blue; the Canadians, Spanish and Swiss in red; the Dutch in bright orange; the Kiwis in black; the Brazilians in yellow, and well, the Norwegians in Viking helmets, of course! National flags were literally everywhere: as capes, hats and t-shirts, so no matter what, you basically always knew where the person sitting next to you was from. The best thing about this very visible celebration of national and cultural diversity? You’d start conversations with all kinds of people, usually based on the fact that they’d been to or lived in your country or vice versa.

3. …And cheered for a new one

Everyone cheered for their country every time they had a chance, of course, but it was all about sports, first and foremost, and embracing countries because you lived somewhere or you knew someone from there was part of the fun. I found myself cheering for Switzerland every time I saw a Swiss athlete compete because I’ve lived in Zurich for the last four years. I also convinced all of Team GB to cheer for Spain when my sister was racing, because I, by myself, needed to be louder than the group of 20 Kiwis sitting next to me!

4. It was all about the pins (not Pokemon)…

Pins were the Pokemons of Rio and you needed to catch them all! Athletes got some pins from their countries. Television networks, partners and the IOC also had their own pins. Volunteers collected them as treasures. Displaying your pins on your jacket or hat was the best conversation starter I witnessed. Veteran collectors were hunting for rarities, while newbies were happy with whatever they could get their hands on, and literally everyone was talking about them. Around the city there were even known spots where you could go and exchange pins.

5. …And the athletes, of course

Athletes were the easiest to spot around town. They had to wear their official national uniform in basically every situation, from the opening ceremony to the podium. People would stop my sister just to ask her what she was competing in and to congratulate her. And basically all athletes – including my sister – were happy to be stopped and asked to be taken a picture with. Inspired by all the athletes walking around the city and the sport “stations” set up by sponsors all over town, Rio had probably never been quite this active; from beach volley to jogging and even surfing (which will only become an Olympic sport in 2020), everyone seemed to be taking part and absolutely loving it.

Photo by Jesper Cronsioe

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