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Postcard from Rio: 'Flintstones Gym' offers Muscle Beach vibe, better view

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RIO DE JANEIRO – James Thomas came to Brazil on a budget. He’s staying with friends he met through a study abroad program in Denmark, and he’s sleeping on the floor in one rented apartment. But he’s from Santa Monica and, like so many Southern California natives, he wants to stay in shape in between meals of churrasco and rice and beans. So he asked for a place to “sweat out the caipirinhas” without blowing a fortune on a monthly membership.

That’s when he heard about the “Flintstones Gym.”

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The name didn’t quite make sense until Thomas, 24, walked along the beach in the southern part of this city and came upon a park called Aterro do Flamengo. And there, on a plot of sand, facing out toward the bay and Sugar Loaf Mountain beyond, was a gym without spin classes or Stairmasters or a smoothie bar. Or even walls.

What the gym did have was barbells fitted with rocks, dumbbells made of cylindrical stones, and a bench press constructed from a wooden platform. It really does look like something Barney Rubble would use.

“It’s good to get in touch with your Neanderthal roots,” Thomas said.

Don’t laugh, though. Because the regulars at the Flintstones Gym are chiseled.

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The vista at the Flintstones Gym is hard to match. (Yahoo Sports)

The vista at the Flintstones Gym is hard to match. (Yahoo Sports)

The best part about the spot is also the worst: the view. It’s not only on a beach – many of the people who work out here do so in flip-flops – but it looks out onto one of the most gorgeous landscapes in the hemisphere. Even the view from the bench press is straight up at a palm tree set against a gorgeous blue sky. It’s tough to huff and puff when the scenery is constantly taking your breath away.

There is other scenery as well, for both men and women. Most of the people here look like P90X infomercial extras, and the passersby look like they spend plenty of time in the sun. Let’s just say even the most vain among us wouldn’t stare into the mirrors here, even if there were mirrors.

“When you have cute girls walking by,” Thomas said, “it can get distracting.”

All of this causes some irritation for the beefcakes: namely, the tourists. Visitors feel like the Flintstones Gym is part of the Rio experience, and so they loll about and take photos while the locals try to concentrate. And since the gym is free and has no doors, anyone can come in, do a couple of reps and leave. Every hour is amateur hour.

So while one buff dude with headphones is doing push-ups on the parallel bars, someone else is petting the kittens that slurp water at the base of a palm tree. While one regular is lining up his weights and his sets, an interloper is trying to figure out how many pounds is equal to the 36 kilograms written in chalk on a barbell. While one local is in need of a spotter on the bench press, a foreigner might be spotting a girl in a bikini on the bike path.

All this creates a problem if the single rule of the Flintstones Gym is broken.

Don’t drop the weights.

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The barbells are not easily replaced, and since there is no fee for use, a broken weight hurts everyone. There are a handful of supervisors who watch over the gym, but they can’t be there all the time. So they’ve attached paper signs to palm trees that sternly advise against breaking the lone rule. The Flintstones Gym is a collective guardianship among the regulars.

And one visitor found that out the hard way.

Last Sunday afternoon, an older man completed his set of bicep curls and released the weight. It dropped with a thud and a clink.

The man was immediately met with glares and harsh Portuguese words. When he refused to apologize or even show some understanding, a group gathered around him.

The man picked up the weight and dropped it again.

What ensued was a tempest of finger-pointing, yelling, gesturing and, ultimately, the summoning of police officers.

Eventually the perpetrator sidled away to spend time with his wife and child, who were watching from a distance. The regulars went back to their workouts, shaking their heads.

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Rio's public workout spots have become a popular spot for tourists to work out. (Yahoo Sports)

Rio's public workout spots have become a popular spot for tourists to work out. (Yahoo Sports)

Despite that disturbance, this area has been quite calm during the World Cup. One local said the park is usually populated with homeless people. But that changed right before the world arrived.

“They just vanished,” said Raffy Calvalheira, 30, who said he comes here every day.

Calvalheira said it’s happened before, during prior international events in this city. The homeless in this area suddenly don’t show up at the park. Then, once the James Thomases of the world return home to places like Santa Monica, the homeless people return.

You would think city resources devoted to the park and the beach could also be used to buy more weights for the Flintstones Gym. It wouldn’t cost much. This spot is just as scenic as Venice Beach, if not more so, and such a jewel shouldn’t have to be threatened daily by careless visitors.

But that’s the sad paradox of the whole World Cup: the long run doesn’t matter as much as the short term. And city officials, like the people who come here for a workout, want to be able to flex for anyone who’s watching.

The backdrop of tension, though, melts away against the backdrop of beauty. That’s the truth of the Flintstones Gym and the whole city.

“In the middle of a set,” Thomas said, “you’re looking out at the beach, looking out at the ocean, and you forget how tired you are.”

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