Rio in the rear view: The Globe's Olympics team recounts its most memorable moments
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
An impromptu party
On the evening of Aug. 22, I was rushing: photographer John Lehmann and I had made a plan to watch the opening ceremony well away from the fireworks and dance routines at the Maracanã stadium – we were going to join a family in a favela, one of the informal settlements that is home to one in five residents of Rio, around their TV.
In the lead-up to the Games, there was so much focus here on the use of public money when Brazil can't pay doctors or teachers; on the people displaced to build the new transport lines and Olympic spaces; on the jacked-up police presence that was meant to keep tourists safe but was making favela residents more vulnerable to violence than ever before. The Globe thought it was important for readers to see the kick-off through more than just a spangle-filled TV screen.
But hours before we were to join our hosts, a woman was killed by gang members in their community, and a no-go order went out – leaving me scrambling for a plan. So when my taxi pulled up in Praça Mauá, I was rushed, stressed, and filled with dark thoughts about the Games. And then I stepped out of the cab, and into – a giant party. Mauá is a new public space, a derelict part of the old port that got an Olympic makeover into an airy square fronted by two lovely museums.
It opened about six months ago, but residents of Rio were slow to discover it: the old, frim reputation of this space, at the foot of Rio's first favela, has proved tenacious. But that night, there was a giant screen on the stage set up to show the ceremony later, and a band was playing samba when I arrived. There were beer and snack vendors circulating with ice-chests. Everyone was dancing; most of the crowd sang along. And there was a sense of delight, among people there, to find themselves there, in the heart of Rio, in the centre of the attention of the world, with all the best things about Brazil. That night, I stopped, for just a minute, to dance in the square. Improbable, unexpected moments of joy – those are the best ones, especially when you share them.
Undaunted, at 16 years old
As a sports reporter, you're on hand for a lot of remarkable moments in an athlete's career. You're there when they succeed or fail. Occasionally, you're there when it ends. For the most part, you see them in the middle of it, when they think it'll last forever.
What you are rarely there for is the very beginning.
Sixteen-year-old Penny Oleksiak came to Rio with no advance press. This was her first major swim meet. She hit a podium on the first Saturday of competition and became that thing that every country craves in the early going – a reassuring surprise.
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
Five days later, she won her first gold. That changed things.
You'll remember her from the pool, but I remember her in the winner's press conference. She'd tied with Simone Manuel. The American – a more self-assured 20-years-old – dominated proceedings.
Oleksiak sat there with a wide-eyed, open-mouthed look we all recognize. The 'How did I get here?' look. Whenever she was called on to speak, she ducked her head down so close to the tabletop, she nearly smashed into it. She seemed both delighted and deeply embarrassed by all the attention.
Afterward, she was shuffled into an anteroom to address the Canadian press. She was backed against a conference table, kneading her hands and slowly grinding one foot into the ground.
"I never thought I'd win gold," she said, really meaning it.
Most great athletes get to become that way in some form of isolation. Oleksiak was doing it from day-to-day and even minute-to-minute, while everybody in Canada watched. How daunting must that be? Oleksiak reeled, but was never daunted. At 16 years old.
What she managed in the pool was incredible. How she managed it outside the aquatic centre was, to me, even more impressive.
The electrifying Usain Bolt
When Usain Bolt emerges from a tunnel at one end of the track at the Rio Olympic Stadium, the crowd begins to roar. All Bolt is doing is walking. He hasn't begun to run yet. But it's as if this superstar moves with his own magnetic field, and the crowd cannot resist. Seeing Bolt run is its own kind of magic. You can see the race better on TV, with its close-ups and zoom-in at the finish line. To be there in person, though, is to experience the raw excitement of Olympian achievement. It is unforgettable.
I watched Bolt and the other sprinters in the 200 metres, including Canada's Andre De Grasse, on a drizzly night in Rio. As the clock ticked down to 10:35 p.m, the competitors made their way to the starting blocks and crouched into position. At this point the cheers turn to deep silence. All you hear is the thwack-thwack of a distant chopper propeller. It feels like an entire stadium, and world, is joined in a moment of pure anticipation.
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
The crack of the starter pistol breaks the quiet. Suddenly, the fans are on their feet, as if the adrenaline from the track has leapt over the barriers and into the stands. I covered competitions during the Olympics at the gymnastics arena, diving pool and rowing lagoon. The spectators cheer enthusiastically for their country's teams or their favourites. But Bolt transcends national favouritism. The whole stadium seemed to be shouting his name. They were glimpsing a legend propel himself to the finish line and create Olympic history.
I won't pretend to know exactly how the race unfolded. Bolt flew past me at the bend and was gone. It's over in 19.78 seconds, less time than it takes to read this paragraph. But the crowd never sat down, and the roars never stopped, and soon Bolt was doing a victory lap with the Jamaican flag fluttering behind him. Over the course of the Rio Olympics I got to witness the exaltation of Canadian medal winners and the tears of the fourth-place finishers. Bolt offered the wonder of watching the world's fastest human on the biggest stage on Earth. It was electrifying.
So close, yet so far
The Canadian duo of Sarah Pavan and Heather Bansley had made a thoroughly dominating run through the preliminary rounds of the beach volleyball tournament. Along the way, they had inserted themselves into every conversation about who might win a medal in what was a glamour event here in the spiritual birthplace of the sport.
Most athletes arrive at an Olympics with expectations tempered by results they've had in competitions leading up to them. They know they are not likely to return home with a medal but they will try their hardest nonetheless.
What it feels like to almost get to that final rung of the Olympic ladder only to slip and be forced to let go of dreams you may have had for a lifetime most of us will never know.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
When I consider one moment at these Olympics that will forever stay with me it was the sight of Pavan and Bansley outside the beach volleyball stadium after they were knocked out of the tournament by the eventual gold medal-winning Germans. Prior to that, they had mostly kept their emotions in check as they made their way through the corral of journalists waiting for them after the match.
After the scrum was over, I walked outside the side door of the stadium with a small group of Canadian journalists and was startled to see Pavan and Bansley both there. Bansley was sitting and sobbing into a towel; her body heaving. Pavan had collapsed into the arms of her husband, inconsolable. The moment provided a raw, heart-breaking fathom of their despair. It felt awkward and uncomfortable to stand there and watch such a private scene unfold .
As a journalist, you don't often get to witness something like that. Athletes are usually allowed to grieve an Olympic-ending loss by themselves. This time that didn't happen . Mostly, it was a powerful reminder that underneath the stoic façade that most Olympic athletes construct around them there are human beings as emotionally vulnerable as the rest of us.
The crowd stopped
There is nothing in sports like the moment right before the 100-metre sprint. When the starter calls the athletes to take their marks, it's as if time stops cold.
But heading into the 100 metres in Rio, there were legitimate concerns about whether the kind of silence needed for a clean start could be achieved. Across the board, the Rio Olympics were a rowdy, raucous, and noisy affair in the stands – which was usually a great thing.
Though critics and some grumbling athletes dismissed Rio's singing, chanting and stomping fans as unruly 'football crowds' – which in Brazil happens to be a huge compliment – the atmosphere at many of the venues brought energy to the events.
But what are sports if not loud and engaging? When the packed Maracanã Stadium sang the Brazilian anthem before the gold-medal soccer game against Germany on Saturday, the volume was spine tingling. When Brazil won in penalty kicks, the noise somehow managed to grow louder.
Before the 100 metres, it seemed as though Rio's sports fans could not be tamed.
That became apparent when sprinting legend Usain Bolt walked out of the tunnel and Estádio Olímpico erupted in adulation, chanting his name.
In an already nervous atmosphere, though, worries about a false start loomed large, since it can change the complexion of a race. And the 46,000 people in attendance had already shown they could not be contained.
As the sprinters got into their blocks, the announcer called for silence. And then – as if defying the laws of sound – the place went silent. It was immediate, like hitting mute on the television. The faint 'chop, chop, chop' of a military helicopter in the distance was the only sound. It was as if, for three or four seconds, an entire city had stopped.
Sporting events are usually defined by big plays, and big noise. But the moment before the 100-metres is eerily quiet. There is nothing like it.
The calm before the storm
John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
Like all Olympics with athletes performing at their best and emotions running high, the days are full of incredible moments. Looking back however at this summer games it's not one moment but the individual Brazilians I met during my long days over three weeks here on assignment.
Of the six Olympics I have now covered this was by far the most relaxed. Sure some of the venues were old, some unfinished and the photo positions were often in frustrating spots but the people of Brazil made up for the shortfall left by the organizing committee.
As a photojournalist or sports photographer covering the Olympics you're constantly looking for and shooting athletes at the peak of their performance or looking for an image that shown the emotional high of winning or the silence of defeat.
I also like to shoot the quiet moments before the events. Athletes often arrive several days early to practice and is often great opportunity for better access when their aren't hordes of other media around.
I arrived early one morning to cover Team Canada's women's eight rowing team and managed to arrange for access into area not normally granted to photographers. The great access and picturesque rowing venue backlit by the beautiful morning light all added-up to one of my more memorable images of the women's eight leaving the dock.