Athletes’ spirit only hope of Rio redemption

August 5, 2016

As the Sun rose over Copacabana and Rio de Janeiro scrambled to put on its best face on the eve of its Olympics, a gaggle of tourists were queuing to have their photographs taken with a giant version of the five rings installed in the picture postcard setting of one of the world’s most famous stretches of water.

Even now, the rings retain their allure. Despite the Russian doping revelations that have further eroded the world’s faith in what they are about to witness.

Despite the economic and political chaos that has engulfed Brazil since it won the right to host the Games in 2009 at a time when it was a coming superpower. Despite the sense at times that both the city and the International Olympic Committee itself are teetering on the brink of chaos.

Despite the cost-cutting and last-minute scramble to literally iron out the kinks in the dressing that will cover temporary venues that had Rio 2016’s head spokesman cheerfully telling all concerned to “fasten your seatbelts” for what will be a bumpy but no doubt exhilarating ride.

Inspite of all that, the influx of more than 10,500 athletes from 206 countries has quickened the pulse of even this most thrill-seeking of cities.

As Juliana Barbassa points out in her excellent account of Rio’s allure and challenges, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God, Cariocas have a phrase for anything that is built for foreign eyes but of little use to the local population.

The aim for the organising committee, and for Rio’s thrusting mayor Eduardo Paes, will be to prove to his own people that the world’s ultimate sporting jamboree is not merely “para inglês ver” – for the English to see.

This city of extremes, where huge wealth coexists cheek by jowl with poverty and the stunning setting hides a crumbling infrastructure, is in many ways an apt setting for a Games that stands at the crossroads.

Within the bubble, journalists and officials speed down Olympic lanes in coaches and grumble about the wrinkles in the road.

Outside it, organisers need to cut through the understandable cynicism and indifference of their own public to a sporting event that does not strike to the heart of the Brazilian psyche in the way that the World Cup did.

One recent poll found that only 16% of Brazilians were enthusiastic about the Games, while 51% had no interest in them. For the Games to succeed on their own terms, they will have to convince Cariocas, not normally known for their reticence, to join the party.

The mood has not been helped by the deep blanket of cynicism that has settled on sport in the wake of the Russian doping scandal and the long tail of related issues around world sport and the way it is governed.

Throughout its shambolic, confusing handling of the aftermath of Professor Richard McLaren’s report into systemic, state-sponsored Russian doping the IOC has glibly maintained that it has the interests of the athletes at heart.

Yet, as its 85 members met for their traditional pre-Games talking shop at the high-end Windsor Oceânico, there was little sign that they understood the scale of the challenge posed to the very soul of their movement’s centrepiece and cash cow.

Cushioned by the knowledge that the IOC is sitting on reserves of $874m and recently signed a $7.65bn deal with NBC, plus perhaps the pleasant thought of their own per diems of up to $900 a day, they instead politicked and plotted.

In a scene that could have been beamed in from the Kremlin, the IOC president, Thomas Bach, asked for a public show of hands in support of the stance it has taken on Russia in the face of incontrovertible evidence of state-backed cheating.

Mindful of the extent to which loyalty to their leader is expected if they are to continue to ascend the complex hierarchy of the Olympic movement, all but one raised their hand.

Only the British former skeleton slider Adam Pengilly, whose own membership is time-limited by his role as an athlete representative, raised his hand in opposition.

The upper stratum of Brazilian society in some ways minted the model that has sustained Fifa and the IOC, and the cascading layers of international sporting federations that sit below them.

It was João Havelange, who gave his name to the stadium in which the athletics will take place, who introduced to Fifa the fluid Brazilian way of doing business that blurs personal, political and corporate funds and interests until they become all but indistinguishable.

Recent scandals have been a reminder that the IOC might ostensibly have more rules and regulations than its freewheeling, corrupted football cousin but that it is in many ways cut from the same cloth.

After waffling about peace, berating the Rio 2016 committee over the last-minute panic to prepare for the Games and slapping themselves on the back for introducing five new sports to the schedule for Tokyo 2020, the IOC members filed out into the night for their dinners and their receptions.

In their curious parallel universe, they did so in a world where all was well and they could look forward to the launch of their own dedicated Olympic Channel, where Los Angeles and Paris are going head to head to host the 2024 Olympics and where they could feel worthy and warm about the introduction of a refugee team.

They also moved to shoot the messenger, blaming Wada for delivering the bad news about Russia to their door on the eve of the Games.

Bach’s press conference was again dominated by questions about Russian doping and the shambolic procedure that has left hundreds of athletes who arguably should not have been there in the first place in a state of limbo.

He said he could look into the eyes of the athletes with a clean conscience having weighed the arguments carefully. But it was some of those athletes who most eloquently cut to the quick of his problems.

“The Olympics needs to stand for something. It can’t all be about money. People need to have trust in it like they did trust Lance Armstrong, for example, and then my heart was broken, everyone’s hearts were broken by this thing,” said Pete Reed, the British rower aiming for his third gold medal.

“There will be kids who are watching the Olympics and if they are thinking: ‘Are they, aren’t they? Is this real?’ Then what are we? I am real and we are real,” he said slowly and carefully, standing on the edge of the shimmering Lagoa at the rowing venue which, with its water-quality issues and stunning setting, seems to encapsulate the paradoxes of Rio’s Games.

“We are not doing this for money, we are not cheating to win and get these performances. One of the things we want to do is to inspire the youngsters and so these kind of stories break our hearts. I think the IOC made the wrong call.”

Reed cuts to the heart of the matter. That for all the fogeyish attempts to pimp up the Games by adding skateboarding and surfing to the programme, if the public loses faith in what is before them then they will eventually melt away.

Not for the first time, that pressure is transferred to the shoulders of the athletes. Once Friday’s cut-price but creative opening ceremony is out of the way, attention will turn to those sporting venues scattered across Rio according to the ambitious plan forged in the white heat of optimism in 2009.

To the team of refugees whose stories cannot help but stir the soul despite the prevailing cynicism, to the spectacle of the peloton charging down Copacabana in a riot of colour and noise on Saturday, to those for whom this will always be the pinnacle of their sporting lives.

For better or worse the success of the Games, guaranteed to look stunning against the natural beauty of Rio’s beaches and mountains that will provide the perfect backdrop for world’s television cameras, is now in their hands.

Tracey Crouch, the UK sports minister in a government that has underwritten a £350m investment once again remorselessly channelled into winning as many medals as possible, was insistent that once the Games begin they will weave their magic.

For her, the well honed rhetoric that those British medals have a societal and inspirational value beyond their sporting merit depends on it.

“I think once the Games start, all the issues that have rightly been the focus of attention will become side issues and people will start focusing on what is happening in the venues over the next two weeks,” said Crouch, who had spent the previous evening with 120 members of the British team, Princess Anne and Sebastian Coe at the spectacular British House venue hired at great expense to wring maximum benefit in diplomatic and trade terms from that huge investment.

Mario Andrada, the Rio 2016 spokesman, likes to argue that in paring down their Games Brazil has unwittingly alighted upon a new model of the kind espoused by Bach in his half baked Agenda 2020 vision. Time will tell if it is a case he is still able to make come the closing ceremony.

The truth is that no one in Rio or beyond would have chosen a journey that has been as hazardous and choked with traffic as a rush hour attempt to travel the 20km up the coast, past the strip malls and high-end high rises that recall Miami more than Rio, to the Olympic Park.

For now, the world will still tune in hoping to be awed and willing Rio to succeed even as it holds its nose at the antics of the IOC.

But while the stakes are high for Rio, they are higher still for the often self-aggrandising Olympic movement. Beneath the gaze of Christ the Redeemer the Games itself, sullied by those supposed to be nurturing it, will rely on those athletes who embody its lofty ideals to deliver redemption.


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