Was Interning Abroad in an Olympic City Actually a Terrible Idea?

Natalie Southwick
Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a...
Interning abroad in Rio during the Olympics

When I told people I'd be spending the summer interning in Rio, I got at least one of three standard reactions:

  1. "Rio? So exciting! How's your Portuguese?"
  2. "Rio? So dangerous! Aren't you scared?"
  3. "Rio? So cool! Are you going to be there for the Olympics?"

Although years of living abroad in "dangerous" locations in Latin America (where, honestly, I feel far safer in public spaces than I have in the US lately) has just about worn out my patience for question #2, it's true that the international image of Rio somehow manages to combine two opposing stereotypes of endless beachside samba parties and constant armed violence -- and now we've got the Olympics in the mix, too.

While I'm so glad that I came here... there have been some less-than-positive side effects of working in an Olympic host city right before the rings light up.

Being in Rio for the Olympics was really just a result of scheduling stars aligning for me, but I was excited to be here at the same time as the world's fastest humans, and some of its biggest stories. I'm interning with an organization that does community-based reporting in and around some of the city's many favelas, and it seemed like an important time to help document the conditions and lives of the millions of people for whom Rio is home, rather than a vacation destination.

While I'm so glad that I came here and incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn from so many courageous, inspiring local leaders, there have been some less-than-positive side effects of working in an Olympic host city right before the rings light up. In fact, I've occasionally wondered if timing my internship to coincide with the Olympics maybe wasn't the best idea -- but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

1. It's Hard to Be an Olympic Fan Anymore


When I was a kid, I used to get really into the Olympics -- who can ever forget Kerri Strug's iconic vault that won the gold for the Magnificent Seven at the 1996 Games? And don't even get me started on how much I love the Winter Games figure skating competitions.

But, like most other topics of international interest, seeing how the sausage gets made takes away some of the magic. And the Olympic sausage is ugly, destructive and more than a little bit of a bully. It's a lot harder to get amped up about Michael Phelps or the amazing Simone Biles when I know people who have seen their homes demolished to make way for athletes' housing or official merch shops, or public school teachers who haven't been paid for three months while the city drapes decorative banners over all of its tunnels and builds walls to block the view of favelas from the highway.

I'm still planning on watching some of the events, of course, and will cheer wholeheartedly for the U.S. women's gymnastics team and the scrappy Colombian rugby players, but, for me and many other people working and living here, the medals definitely won't shine the way they used to.

2. Everyone Is Really Stressed Out

The famously laid-back cariocas (Rio residents) are generally pretty hard to upset, but it's been a really difficult year for most of them.

With political turmoil, economic upheaval, public health crises, cuts to vital services like education, changes to transportation routes, and construction absolutely everywhere, not to mention the recent declaration of a "state of calamity" by the acting governor of Rio de Janeiro state, neither Rio nor Brazil as a whole is likely to look back at 2016 with much fondness.

Many people here are lukewarm at best about the Olympics, and most understandably seem to be just trying to put their heads down and get through it as best they can. Meanwhile, residents in more contested and militarized areas of the city are too busy just trying to stay alive to worry about who wins the gold medal in pole vaulting. Plenty of cariocas are sad about the missed opportunity to create positive, sustainable change in the city, but at this point, most people just want to get it over with -- and with minimal damage.

3. You Thought Transportation Was Bad Before?

Rio de Janeiro

There's no shortage of things to be righteously indignant about in Rio these days, from the militarization of civilian spaces to the total failure to clean all those flesh-eating bacteria out of the water. But ask most residents about their main issues, and the snarling transportation nightmares plaguing the city will likely be near the top of their list.

The massive 2013 protests that spread across Brazil began over proposed bus fare hikes, and things in that realm haven't improved much in the years since then. The Olympics were supposed to help ease the city's congested traffic and crowded public transit with the introduction of a range of fancy new toys, including a new metro line, bus rapid transit (BRT) routes and even a light rail system.

But the implementation has fallen short: that metro line goes to wealthy neighborhoods near the Olympic park, where everyone already has a car in their fancy gated community parking spot, rather than serving other communities that could benefit more from access to public transportation. Oh, and did I mention it's scheduled to open for the first time the day before the Olympics begin? No recipe here for disaster, not at all!

Meanwhile, the light rail primarily seems to connect tourist sites in the city center, which are already close to metro stops. And don't get anyone started on the BRT -- in July, it took one of my friends three hours to get across the city on it, and that was the express line! Obviously, these systems are covering pretty significant distances (for those of you following from back home, Rio is huge), but it's a bad sign when the new transportation system makes your commute even longer than it was with the old one!

4. Immersion? What Immersion? I'm Surrounded by Gringos

Part of the draw of interning abroad is the opportunity to get to know a location on a deeper level than you would if you were just passing through on vacation. Of course, the experience is what you make of it, and people can find connections in a city in two short weeks, or spend a whole semester inside watching Netflix and never even try to learn the local language.

This is my first time in Brazil, and I was really excited for the chance to spend a few months learning about a new city and working on my language skills. I've had plenty of opportunities to do just that, and I've been fortunate that my work has allowed me to meet people and spend time in communities far beyond the tourist circuit, exactly as I'd hoped for.

But when work or life brings me back into those shiny tourist zones, it's like the Ultimate Gringo Encounter in there. Even before the real crush of athletes, spectators, and media arrived, the city already felt like it was filling up, the touristy beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana packed with caipirinha-sipping foreigners slathered in sunscreen and bug spray (want to find a foreigner in Rio? Just look for the person using bug spray on the beach in the middle of the day). I usually have to throw some elbows when navigating public transit here, but now those elbows are hitting people who don't even glare at me in Portuguese.

On the bright side, I guess, people keep mistaking me for someone who is competent enough to give them directions, so I'm choosing to take that as a compliment.

5. I Think I'm Paranoid

I'm about as far from a hypochondriac as anyone can get -- I usually refuse to acknowledge that I'm sick until I physically can't get out of my bed -- but all this doomsday talk around the Olympics has got me (and plenty of other people here) more than a little freaked out.

At this point, I'm very used to navigating large cities, and I've got years of practice trying to outsmart thieves and pickpockets, so those things don't faze me. Running into dozens of heavily-armed members of the military isn't something that had really been part of my daily routine until recently, however, and I know some people that don't want to go anywhere near popular tourist sites or transportation hubs during the Olympics for fear of terrorism.

I recognize that I've been incredibly fortunate to grow up in a place where this kind of militarization and fear isn't the norm, and plenty of people, including many cariocas, have been forced to live in this context for years. Still, it's jarring to feel like you're suddenly in the middle of a dystopian sci-fi novel or the lead-up to the Hunger Games -- it's not really a feeling that aligns with all the glossy photos of Copacabana beaches and Sugarloaf.

6. Is This Even the Real Rio?

Rio de Janeiro

Mega-events like the Olympics, World Cup, or crazed political conventions make for a strange time to be anywhere, and it definitely changes the atmosphere and even the personality of a city, to some degree. Though the last decade has seen a series of major events held here, everything kicked into another gear in the last stretch leading up to the Olympics. There are more soldiers in the streets, more construction crews to trip over, more roads closed, and more faux-inspirational ads by Olympic corporate sponsors plastered all over billboards and bus stops across the city.

There's no way to know, of course, since I don't have any previous experience to compare it against, but it's hard to imagine that this is how the city would feel if everything weren't so oriented toward a few weeks in August. Someday, I'd like the chance to come back and meet Rio on its own terms, without all these outside stressors, to see just how different it might be when the city has a chance to let its unique personality shine.

I don't want to seem like I'm complaining about Rio itself, or any of the people here, or my internship, all of which are amazing. I'm so grateful for the opportunity I've had to witness this unique moment in history up close, and there's nowhere I'd rather be right now.

The journalist in me loves being immersed in one of the biggest stories in the world, while my little idealistic heart has been inspired by the work of the organizers and activists here who are actively trying to make their city a better place, despite all of the awful things happening around them. If you fall into either of those groups, the Olympics might be exactly where you want to be for an internship. Just remember, if you're considering an internship abroad that coincides with the Olympics, World Cup or another massive event, it's worth asking yourself if that's the version of the city you want to experience and remember.

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Photo Credit: Fernando Stankuns.