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rio 2016

On the night of the men's 100-metre sprint final, the Internet failed in the track's press tribune.

The hardwire went first. The wireless followed. Then all my cellular signals died.

So, no e-mail, no text and no phone.

This type of communications blackout can create a certain amount of anxiousness when your deadline is a few minutes away and you don't have a telegraph at hand.

As a seasoned professional, I reacted in accordance with the emergency procedures laid out in the Sportswriter's Handbook – I restarted my computer 40 bazillion times and began slamming the table like a deranged orangutan.

We were packed in there pretty tight. People turned and stared. That emboldened me to start yelling. If there had been room, I would've dropped to the floor and begun thrashing about. As it was, I settled for saying some very hard things about the host country in some very unkind language.

The Internet came back briefly. I filed my story. Then I happened to look over at the guy who was wedged directly beside me. He was Brazilian. Which might've occurred to me earlier because he was wearing a "Brazil" T-shirt and reading something in Portuguese.

"Um, excuse me. Sir? Yeah, I'm really sorry. For, uh, those things I said. I didn't, um …"

He turned and laid a hand on my arm.

"It is all right," he said, squeezing gently. "We are all the same when the WiFi goes."

This should be the new motto of the United Nations. Forget climate change or threat of global war. You want to know what common human concern binds us as a species? That we are all the same when the goddamned WiFi goes.

By our standards, nothing in Brazil works. Buying anything requires three visits to three clerks, all of whom have to type in an encyclopedia entry to get the cash register to open.

A lot of people didn't like that about the Rio Olympics. But it was its true joy.

All the Brazilians I met over two sporting tours have accustomed themselves uncomfortably to this ornate and often capricious bureaucracy. As a result, they have boundless sympathy for those of you who have not.

Coming through a metal detector one morning, my bag was pulled aside.

The grim paramilitary cop from the Forca National began poking at it suspiciously and said something that sounded like, "Canny vetch?"


"Canny vetch?"

Shrug with more hand wiggle.

"Canny vetch?"

The man standing in front of me spoke Portuguese. He said something to the cop. The cop said something back to him.

The man said, "He wants to know if you have a knife in the bag."

When you don't have a knife in your bag, this sounds like a trick question.

"Um. No?"

More Portuguese.

"He's making a joke."

He didn't look like he was making a joke.

"Just laugh. And then go."

Cue stilted, non-knife-concealing mirth.

This generalized distrust of authority and processes made the Olympics more loosey-goosey than we're used to. Someone dumped hydrogen peroxide in a pool, turning it into an alkaline swamp.

In North America, this would prompt the question: "Who the hell told them to do that?"

In Brazil, you might better ask, "Who the hell didn't tell them to do that?"

Because I assume this is why it was done. Someone had 80 litres of hydrogen peroxide. When you've got a tub of poisonous chemicals, it's awful tempting to put it somewhere. It's not going to be a Slushie dispenser or a coffee machine. You're not a monster. The Olympic diving pool makes just as much sense as any other place.

Like so much of the rest of the world outside our patrician bubble, this is how things happen here – for no particular reason. Occasionally, they work. Just as occasionally, they don't. Either way, you muddle your way through.

Bus didn't show up? Welcome to the real world, pal. Also, hailing cabs is easy when you have arms.

Fence in the way? Someone will tell you to break it down. Then come over and help you do it.

Totally lost late at night and they've told you never – NEVER – take your phone out of your pocket or you'll be immediately shot dead? Just ask someone.

As a cloistered Canadian, I find this low-grade MacGyver-ing of benign foreign cultures exciting. There is nothing more depressing than going somewhere for several weeks and returning home to report, "Everything worked beautifully. Not a single thing went wrong and, therefore, not a single interesting thing happened. I could have gone there after a radical trepanning and some efficient porter would have strapped me to the hood of a car and drove me to the airplane. Wait'll you hear my stories! I mean, that was it. I just told them. "

Small inconveniences produce the unusual endorphin rush of relying on your own (quite limited) wits and the (nearly unlimited) kindness of strangers. Rio provided that in abundance. Like just about everyone anywhere, Brazilians like to help. All my favourite memories – like that undeserved, reassuring squeeze in the press box – are those small interactions that, in our regular lives, we don't even bother to record. Most don't bear repeating. But they're the things you'll remember.

Complaining about what wasn't turnkey makes us seem like what we are – a bit precious and oblivious to how most people on Earth navigate their days.

Getting out there once in a while and seeing what can go wrong isn't just a riskless form of adventure tourism. It's an object lesson: Don't assume we've figured out the Right Way. We've just figured out a way.

It has the salutary double effect of making you a little more humble, as well as a great deal more grateful for functioning WiFi and the miracle of air conditioning.

The next three Olympics promise to be airtight operations – in South Korea, Japan and China.

If so, more's the pity. I don't go away to have my home reproduced in every detail. I go away to be reminded there's more than one definition of that place.

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