Niyo: Rio Games amaze and agonize
Rio de Janeiro — The Olympics are about legends, and they are about myths.
And as Brazil bid farewell to the world Sunday night with one more colorful blast of its vibrant culture, that was the lingering message.
Rio’s Closing Ceremony was a show of hands, in many ways, a raucous party designed to hold up a mirror as Brazilians rediscovered their national identity. But one can only hope the same is true for the Olympic movement, which can no longer separate the legend from the myth.
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, officially declared the Rio 2016 as “iconic” Games. And surely there were some iconic figures who helped captivate the world — fabulous farewells for the likes of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, and the emergence of others like Simone Biles, the powerhouse gymnast who carried the U.S. flag into Maracana Stadium on Sunday night.
But there is this iconoclastic view that seems to go hand-in-hand with the Olympic ideal anymore. And by foisting this Olympian task upon a cash-strapped state and its people, by shifting priorities and then shifting blame, one can’t help but wonder how much hurt really was done here in Rio along with all the good — and great — things that were accomplished in the field of play.
This city, and country, couldn’t afford these Olympics. And even with all the budget cuts, as well as the inevitable blunders they caused, there’s still a deficit than runs several billion deep. And there is zero confidence here that the government — President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment trial begins this week — will be able to dig itself out once the Olympic facades are torn down and the screens hiding the favelas are removed.
But, Rio couldn’t afford not to see them through, and that the cariocas did, in their own uniquely Brazilian way, was a remarkable feat in itself.
They endured the ridicule, in the midst of a recession. And the scandals, in the middle of what was supposed to be South America’s shining moment. There was finger-wagging about the Russians who shouldn’t have been invited and veiled threats from the ones who showed up, after all. Doping remains a dark cloud hanging over all sport, but particularly the Olympics, it seems.
There were brush fires burning and bullets flying, cameras that came crashing down on spectators and a diving pool that turned foul for the athletes. A kayaker hit a submerged sofa in the lagoon, and a severed limb — not the first to be discovered here this month — was spotted near the sailing venue.
Sure, there were some half-empty arenas, but there is also a 71-year-old IOC executive sitting in a Rio prison at the moment for his alleged role in a $3 million ticket-scalping scheme. He was naked when local police arrested him — a TV crew in tow — at his posh beachfront hotel. It was as if Rio wanted the world to see the emperor had no clothes.
To that end, Bach had the gall to insist in his closing press conference Saturday that there was “no public money in the organization of these Olympic Games,” conveniently ignoring the fact that there was, and a lot of it, with tens of thousands of military troops and police stationed around the city the last month. Even the Paralympics scheduled to start here in Rio next month are in serious financial jeopardy.
So what of the Olympics themselves? With the backing of long-term sponsorship deals, as well as broadcasting fees like the $7.75 billion deal NBC Universal agreed to in 2014 for the U.S. TV rights through 2032, the pressure points are well-insulated.
But gigantism has swallowed up the Games, from the more than 10,000 athletes competing in 42 sports to the budget for the last Winter Olympics that exceeded $50 billion. So while Rio 2016 may not be Brazil’s White Whale — time will tell on that front — they have become sport’s white elephant. Too big to move, too big to fail.
And as gifts go, even the Swiss-based IOC is finding it ever-more difficult to find takers for future Games. Boston, Istanbul and Hamburg, Germany, are among the major cities that’ve abandoned bids for the 2024 Summer Olympics, while Tokyo’s ambitious 2020 plans have fallen prey to soaring construction costs. The most recent completed bid process — for the 2022 Winter Olympics — was more of a concession than a coronation, as would-be host cities in Europe — Stockholm, Oslo and Krakow — all withdrew citing the huge costs and a lack of public support.
That left only the mighty Almaty, Kazakhstan to compete with Beijing, a winter wonderland (cough, cough) where it doesn’t snow. Beijing, which also hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, won the bidding — the skiing events will be held in Zhangjiakou, on the edge of the Gobi Desert — prompting
another round of criticism about the IOC.
Even about one of the Beijing bid committee’s official songs — “The Snow and Ice Dance” — which sounds more just than a little bit like the theme from the Disney film “Frozen.” A pirated version of “Let It Go”? Sounds like a fitting new theme for Olympic movement these days, frankly.
Spirit still alive
But we can’t let go, and we won’t. Because these Olympics in Rio did what they always do, captivating with thrilling triumphs and agonizing defeats. There was Usain St. Leo Bolt striking that pose, and there was American dominance in the medal count, led again by the women, winning 27 of the 46 golds. Flint’s Claressa Shields turned a giddy cartwheel as she won the last of those Sunday afternoon, and it was a perfect way to sum up Team USA’s time here.
There was more, though. There was Brazil’s soccer hero, Neymar, dropping to his knees in tears after a redemptive penalty-shot gave the host country its first Olympic futebol gold. And there was U.S. wrestler Jordan Burroughs, heavily-favored to defend his gold here, awash in tears of disappointment, and in his words, “disgrace.”
Indeed, there was considerable grace to be found amid all the Olympic grime and, yes, also the Rio crime, including that ridiculous Ryan Lochte caper. Perhaps no moment better illustrated it than the collision on the track in the women’s 5,000-meter event, as American Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin both hit the deck.
D’Agostino tore her ACL in the fall, but after picking herself up off the track, she insisted her dazed competitor do the same, telling Hamblin, “Get up, get up! We have to finish this!” And “I was like, “Yup, yup, you’re right. This is the Olympics Games,” Hamblin said. “We have to finish this.”
Finish this, they did. But now comes the hard part for the Rio — and the Olympic Games — as they go their separate ways.
The legend makes the myth, but the truth is always harder than the fiction.