When Olympic tickets went on sale here three months ago, Brazilians rushed to buy seats at two events: soccer, of course, and beach volleyball.
The men's beach volleyball side is one of this country's few gold medal hopes. But when the two enormous players in Brazilian blue jerseys ran on to the sand on Saturday morning for their opening match, against Canada, the open-air arena on Copacabana beach was still half empty. Brazilian enthusiasm for the sport had run smack into Brazilian logistical weaknesses and a certain Brazilian casualness with punctuality.
"We didn't expect this – it took us more than hour to get inside," said Sergio Alves, who traveled to Rio from Salvador in the northeastern state of Bahia for the game. He and his family didn't get into the arena until Brazil was half-way through the match. "But I understand there are special security considerations, and for the other events, we'll get there earlier.
"It's a Brazil thing," Mr. Alves added.
By the time Brazil nailed a final point to take the match in two sets, the stadium was nearly full, and the temporary structure, built from metal scaffolding, trembled under enthusiastic feet. (There were just two lonely islands of maple-leaf-waving supporters for the Canadians, Joshua Binstock and Samuel Schachter of Richmond Hill, Ont.)
"That was an excellent match – and it was so close, it was pau a pau," said Michele Escobar, using the sports fan's phrase for a tightly-fought match. She attended with two friends and missed the first game on their tickets because of the line, but made it in time to see Brazil.
The line into the arena stretched more than 1 km down the beach by the time that match, the second in the session, was underway. There was just one spectator entrance for the 12,000-seat arena and the security screening was fumbling and slow. A week before these Games began, the Brazilian government fired the private firm it had contracted just a few weeks earlier to do the screening at the venues. The private screeners were replaced with federal and state police with no familiarity with the role, and it showed on Saturday. "They didn't know how to use the machines," Ms. Escobar said. There were also enormous lines as the main Olympic Park out in the western suburb of Barra de TIjuca.
Thaís Porto and her family lined up for an hour and 15 minutes to get into the beach volleyball, and also missed the first match. "We were expecting that we would miss the first game because we couldn't wake up so early after the opening ceremony yesterday," she said. "But the whole time we were in line we were afraid we would miss Brazil's game."
In the end, the line suddenly sped up, she said, and they rushed in just as it began.
Canada kept up with Brazil through both sets, putting up enough of a fight that the crowd erupted in good-natured boos every time Binstock or Schachter tossed the ball to serve. Brazil fans watched Bruno Schmidt closely, knowing he is prone to potentially disastrous attacks of nerves, and attempted to soothe him by rhythmically chanting his first name. (He is known just as Bruno here, or by his as nickname The Magician; Brazilians love his ability to hide the shots he intends to make until the last moment.)
Schmidt missed a series of serves in the first set, while Canada took the surprising tack of playing the game to Alison Cerutti, the taller of the two Brazilian players – apparently betting that by serving to him, his powerful return would be, at least, predictable and easier to block. Cerutti, a silver medalist in 2012, is 6-foot-8 (2.03 m) and known as The Mammoth. Together this side are the reigning world champions.
Binstock and Schachter were visibly elated as they fought back from a four-point deficit and tied the second set at 17, 18 and 19, then went up 20-19. Brazil tied it up again. Then it appeared that Binstock had put Canada ahead 21-20. The play was disputed, and the crowd shrieked while Binstock conferred with the referee. The replay showed the Canadian hit the net on his follow-through, which gave Brazil the point. After that, the Brazilians moved in swiftly to take the match on an error to Schachter, and the finally-full stadium heaved with a sense of righteous jubilation.
The setting itself was irresistible – while beach volleyball has been played in plenty of non-beachy spots (in front of Buckingham Palace, in 2012), this stadium has been hastily hammered together in the sport's spiritual home.
Binstock said after the game that it was thrilling to play in Copacabana, and he didn't mind the crowd's wild pro-Brazil slant – or even the boos – but rather found it energizing. Schmidt called it "a dream come true" to play on Copacabana in front of passionate hometown crowd. He is the nephew of basketball legend Oscar Schmidt, who was one of eight dignitaries to carry the Olympic flag into Maracana stadium on Friday night's opening ceremony.
"This is the best sport there is," Ms. Escobar said. "Look, it's the beach: you sit here in the sun and you look at the sea and there's music. This is the most fun there is."