By Gary Lemke
When IOC president Thomas Bach closes Rio 2016 on Sunday night he will stop short of calling it ‘the best Games ever’.
That phrase has virtually become the norm at recent Olympics as the governing body pulls out every piece of political correctness in the book to appease the hosts.
There have been some standout individual achievements, of that there is no doubt. Michael Phelps confirmed his status as the greatest Olympian of all time when he won another five gold medals and a silver to take his tally to 23 gold and 28 medals in total. This time, he vowed, that’s it. Unlike the years after London 2012, he has retired and won’t be returning.
Katie Ledecky, Phelps’ teammate, dominated the longer women’s freestyle races, winning three golds and breaking two world records in the process. Simone Biles announced herself as possibly the greatest gymnast ever with some gasping displays, which saw her win four golds and a bronze medal.
On the track, Usain Bolt signed off his Olympic career with another extraordinary 100/200m double, for a third successive Games. The greatest showman in athletics has left the building. In doing so, he’s handed over to Wayde van Niekerk, who produced a staggering solo race to win 400m gold and break Michael Johnson’s 17-year record in the process.
Then there was Caster Semenya. And the Ethiopian Almaz Ayana, whose 10,000m world record obliterated the 23-year-old mark sent by Wang Junxia. These were all extraordinary individual displays and worthy of the international press they received. Anyone who witness any of those feats live will be privileged to know they were watching history unfold. And, and, and.
However, it’s not just the individual heroics that make for ‘the best Games ever’. And Rio’s deliverance of the Olympics will, surely, have the bigwigs in the IOC pausing before they again decide to award the ‘greatest show on earth’ to a city in a developing, cash-strapped country, with widespread government corruption and over-spending.
Rio’s population – and there is visible abject poverty in this beautiful Brazilian city – didn’t embrace the Games like London’s did four years ago, just by way of comparison. There were plenty occasions when you travelled off the beaten track that you might not know that an Olympics was taking place. Young kids riding bicycles up and down dusty streets at night, adults making their way home after long days at work, seemingly disinterested in the Games.
The attendances at many of the events were appallingly low. Obviously, there were exceptions, but the sight of an equestrian competition and modern pentathlon, for instance, watched by virtually no-one against a backdrop of poverty, seemed at odds with reality.
There were plenty petty crimes, many of them in the tourist Copacabana beach area, especially after dark, although not uncommon in daylight hours.
Such is the ‘acceptance’ of crime in Rio, that the star American swimmer, Ryan Lochte, and a couple of mates, shockingly fabricated a story to say they were held up and robbed at gunpoint. The world believed their story, because it’s entirely believable in Rio. However, CCTV footage showed them to be bare-faced liars but they were allowed to get away with damning a city, and the entire country, because Rio is perceived to be unsafe.
The levels of security were huge and you couldn’t go anywhere without the visible sight of police and heavily-armed military standing guard. That, sadly, is the state of the modern world rather than any slur on Rio or Brazil. Terrorism is a global reality, and a threat.
Given that Rio, any Olympic city for that matter, was under the spotlight, the media had plenty to feast their negativity on. From unfinished accommodation villages to crime to poor attendances. Rio fell a couple of notches below London 2012, while Barcelona ’92 and Sydney 2000 were also better experiences for the neutral. Yet, Rio remains a spectacular city, with breathtaking scenery and people who love to party. The language barrier led to a lot of breakdown in communication too.
What Rio highlighted is that London was always going to be an impossible act to follow. Tokyo 2020 will likely be better prepared than Rio was, but the big hope is that when the show has moved on, once the down-graded Paralympics is completed, that the ordinary citizen of Rio, and Brazil, isn’t left paying the high cost of staging the Olympics.
Brazilians are passionate and vibrant people, but a Soccer World Cup was a better fit than and Olympics. Soccer, or football, is the pulse of this proud country. Still, the Brazilian team itself performed well. While South Africa celebrated its 10 medals, including two gold, the host nation finished above South Africa on the table. And, they won the football gold medal. It came on the penultimate night and it started the biggest party at the Games.
There is never something as a ‘poor Games’. Some simply ‘work better’ better than others, but the people of Rio at least pulled off what many thought was impossible.