From the dilapidated favelas of Sao Paulo where poverty-stricken children battled kites from the windows of their shacks on a hillside, to chants of “Ole!” within Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, the 2016 Olympic Games inspired more than just athletes in Brazil.
Fifty journalism students from Muncie, Indiana traveled to Brazil to report on stories that would later be picked up by major media outlets as a part of a class called Ball State at the Games.
Colin Grylls, a state champion sports writer for The Southwestern College Sun and current Sports Editor at Ball State University, was among them.
Grylls opted to take part in a month-long journey that included cultural reporting on food, government, people and customs as well as coverage of the 2016 Olympics. They visited the famed Christ the Redeemer statue, received cultural history lessons and visited impoverished favelas.
Grylls said his visit to the favelas, where over 11 million people live in extreme poverty, stayed with him.
“There is exposed wire everywhere, spray paint of ‘fuck the police,’ water bins on top of the houses to catch rain and the power goes in and out,” he said. “There are a lot of drugs there run by the gangs. We passed by kids a few times who had walkie-talkies and could hear them say ‘there’s 20 gringos coming through.’ I feel like I was the only one who recognized what was happening.”
Grylls said what stayed with him was not the poverty, it was the sport they played. Their favorite sport in the favelas was not soccer, it was kite fighting.
“They’re up on the hills where it’s windy so they just hang off their balconies, throw out their kites and try to slice each other’s’ lines or haul them in to take them,” he said. “A couple of younger guys were playing and a bunch of older guys on a roof up above were watching. I don’t speak Portuguese, but I know what it sounds like when people are making bets. They were cheering, laughing and half of them would cheer or groan because they won or lost their bet. It’s a weird thing to pick up on, but they got so much enjoyment out of it.”
Finally the Olympics were upon them. Ball State journalism students came up with their own story ideas, which would later be picked up by major media outlets to give the writers exposure. Grylls said his favorite event was the rugby gold medal match between Fiji and Great Britain. “Brazilians supporting the underdog Fiji sang an altered version of their country’s chant to ‘Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Fiji, Fiji,’ he said. As Fiji won their first ever gold medal in the country’s history.”
Grylls had his story picked up an NBC station in Fort Wayne, while another one of his classmates had Time Magazine run an article about American swimmer and gold medalist Lilly King.
When Brazil played soccer, Grylls said people crowded around TV’s in the streets and the world was put on pause. Grylls found this out the hard way when he injured his hand there and needed surgery.
“Cultural difference, exchange rate is favorable, you can get a liter of Bacardi for $10,” he said. School insurance covered his hand, but during a Brazilian soccer match, while waiting to go into surgery, he was delayed by doctors watching the game with anxious screams through the hospital.”
Grylls found himself in awkward situation at a Brazilian nightclub as he was the only man in the program and he was asked to carry women’s possessions, one of which was a tampon.
Grylls even posted a blog on the Ball State at the Games website about the run in with security.
“At first I thought he was wondering why a 6-foot-3-inch, 275-pound man had a tampon, so I tried to explain. ‘For friend, for friend!’ I blurted out in English before switching to Spanish in hopes that it would be close enough to Portuguese for him to understand. ‘¡Para amiga! ¡Para amiga!’ Nothing.
It wasn’t until he rolled the tampon in his fingers and sniffed it that I realized that he had no clue what he was holding,” he said. “For a split-second, I reveled in the fact that there was at least one man on earth that knew less about women than I, but then I realized I had no way to explain the situation. He didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Portuguese.”
The security guard summoned his female coworker who also didn’t recognize the tampon. Grylls’ guide and interpreter came back for him just in time holding back laughter as he explained it all.
Grylls left Rio with a greater sense of appreciation for Brazilian culture and a plethora of wisdom to propel his personal and professional life forward as he aims towards his bachelor’s degree.
Grylls said he even met with the soccer coach who trained with Neymar and Marta. Grylls said he has never felt celebrity shock however, he did dish out some advice for young journalists.
“When you go to talk to an olympic athlete, it is the same as when you’re talking to someone from the Favela,” he said. “They’re just people and you have to treat them that way.”