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Where The Locals Go: Visiting The Olympic Park Made For Brazilians

An installation in Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay announces Olympic swimming. Built about an hour's drive from the aquatic center, it sits in water along the roadway between Copacabana Beach and Rio's revamped port district.

Olympics fans enjoyed some great weather on the opening weekend of the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro — and they also saw some amazing results Sunday.

But what about the locals? Over the weekend, thousands of them visited a new park that's hosting a large party for the next two weeks. While the megacity of Rio is notoriously hard to sum up, on Sunday we saw many people who were happy to check out Rio's renovated waterfront and its Olympic flame.

The duplicate Olympic cauldron (or pyre, as organizers call it) was lit early Saturday on Rio's waterfront, in an area that's been remade as part of the preparations for the games. It's at the heart of a nearly 2-mile Olympic Boulevard that will host a festival that runs into the evening every night of the games.

While much of the Olympic Boulevard is here to stay, there are also large-screen TVs and performance spaces, where some of Rio's 6 million residents can gather to watch the city's Summer Games.

Lit from the official blaze in Maracana, the Olympic flame in the boulevard burns in a historic part of the port, in an outdoor spot that uses the famous 200-year-old Candelaria Church as a backdrop. A kinetic sculpture — the big moving fan we saw on Friday — is also there.

In the run-up to the games, a long and graceful museum was built next to the bay, jutting out into the water like a prow on the ship of the city. It's the Museu do Amanha — the Museum of Tomorrow — another of the Rio organizers' nods toward the future and sustainability.

Encouraged by warm and bright weather, thousands of people were visiting the Olympic Boulevard on Sunday. Resting in front of the museum as if it had been flown directly from Maracana on Friday, a white canvas airplane (like the one used in an elaborate part of the Opening Ceremony) is on display.

The plane sits in a large plaza, where kids seemed unable to resist climbing all over a large installation that's made of 5-foot-tall letters spelling "Cidade Olimpica" — Olympic City — and posing for pictures. All around them, tourists took photos and filed into rough lines toward either the museum or the new boardwalk that goes along the waterfront.

Unlike the Olympic Park that's about an hour's drive away, in this part of Rio, we heard only Portuguese being spoken — not the Russian, French, Japanese and English that often blends with the host country's language in the park. And that seems to reflect the Olympic Boulevard's mission: to give locals and tourists a convenient way to soak in a bit of Olympic spirit without a long trip — most of the venues are an hour's drive or more from Rio's downtown — and without paying for the privilege.

A trip down the boardwalk and around the corner from the Museum of Tomorrow finds the walkway opening into another, narrower plaza. That's where food trucks are arrayed in a rough circle, with tables and chairs for people eating burgers, porchetta, and linguica, a sausage sandwich that's a national favorite. The only hint that a global sporting event was going on in the city was in the beverages — only products from Olympic sponsors Coke and beer brewer Skol (owned by AB InBev) were on offer.

Nearby, an eight-piece band (five horns and three drummers) was playing for tips, getting people to sing and dance. There were families and kids, grandparents and young couples — in short, the people we often refer to when we talk about Cariocas (Rio natives) and Brazilians.

I visited the area with NPR's South America correspondent, Lulu Garcia-Navarro. When I mentioned the large crowd's friendly energy, she told me it felt like Rio's residents were happy and relieved to be able to get out and enjoy an area that they might have avoided earlier, out of concern for their safety and security.

From the vantage point of the "Cidade Olimpica" sign, the political and economic dramas that have dogged Rio and Brazil for months felt even farther away than the Olympic venues. And along the waterfront, not a soul seemed likely to complain about that.

For more scenes from Sunday and these games, follow NPR's Snapchat account on your mobile device.

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