The stones are moving. Not all of them. Just enough so you notice, turning every third step in some sections of Olympic Park into a test of balance, belief or both. It’s as if the contractors putting the finishing touches on the promenade at the 2016 Games remained hunched over in their work until the seconds before the cauldron was lit, getting to what they could then abandoning the rest like a teenager making his bed then stuffing the leftover junk into his closet just as company pulls into the driveway.
All that time, all that money …seven years, 4.2 billion (and counting) … and even some of the most basic of jobs (like say, masonry) weren’t completed in time for the opening ceremonies in Rio. And really, who could blame them? Haphazardly throw together a 16-day party for the rest of the world _ one where the financial and political mess left behind may not be fully realized for decades _ and maybe it’s only fitting the path ahead was never securely put in place.
Trying to divine the “truth” about Rio de Janeiro from the seat of a bus or a half-dozen walks up and down Copacabana or a wayward Uber trip through a favela or two would be pointless. Three weeks is hardly enough time. Three years might be too. The beauty is staggering. So is the poverty, which conveniently remained out of sight for much of the Games. Sorry, framed shots of ghettos only a mile or two where millions upon millions were lavished on facilities for foreigners to come and win gold medals doesn’t fit the IOC’s or NBC’s respective narratives.
The biggest problem with the Olympics isn’t the athletes – doping, Ugly American Swimmer Bros and millionaires who can’t be bothered aside – or even the increasingly foolish desire by countries desperate to raise their global profiles to mortgage decades of fiscal viability for a what amounts to a lengthy infomercial for the local Chamber of Commerce (a trend that’s hardly new).
It’s the fact that most of the drama that comes along with the games is so unnecessary.
Here’s the thing about the athletes (most of them anyway) when it comes to the Olympics: the ‘where’ does not matter. Tell the best swimmers in the world the biggest meet in the world will be held at the YMCA down the street once every four years and they’ll show up. Ditto the gymnasts and the archers and everybody else. They don’t ask for deluxe accommodations (though I’m OK with them complaining about the inability to flush toilet paper). \
All they want is a chance to do their thing in front of the biggest audience of their lives with a level playing field (i.e., cheaters be gone) for all. That’s it. The rest is just … the rest. No 10-year-old budding track star thinks “I can’t wait to party in the five-star Olympic village” or “they better spend a ton of dough on putting down a new track in 20-whatever or I’m out.”
That’s on the IOC. That’s on the political leaders who cow-tow to the governing body’s bully pulpit and pour money they don’t have into things they ultimately don’t need, certainly not in the long term. (Just ask Greece or Montreal how life after hosting the games worked out). All the hand-wringing over Rio’s preparation (or lack thereof) for 2016 relies strictly on the IOC. The fact Brazil’s political system is corrupt is not new. The fact Brazilians celebrate their (ultimately remarkable) ability to kind of throw everything together at the last minute is not new (hell, they celebrated it during the opening ceremony).
Let’s get something straight off the top. The games were not a disaster. In the moment, they never really are. As my friend Scott says, every two years a small part of the globe turns into “Olympic Land.” Rio was no different.
The buses ran. The Games went on. There were moments of true athletic glory and not even a hint of real danger thanks in large part to the thousands of troops strapped with automatic weapons stationed throughout the city, a sight that was unsettling in the beginning (think ‘Man, that’s a lot of machine guns’) and unsettling in the end, though for an entirely different reason (think ‘man, why are we doing this like this if we need so many machine guns?’)
The Olympics … at its heart … is not about the media’s accommodations or the city’s infrastructure or the local leadership’s geopolitical agendas. It’s supposed to be about the athletes. From here to there and back as fast as you can, as hard as you can for as long as you can.
And as each quadrennial passes, it seems as if the athlete’s interests keep falling down the list of priorities, somewhere after “padding the IOC’s travel budget” and “extorting the host country’s tax base for a new (insert whatever method of transportation/facility you want here).” The way some factions of the media tend to fetishize and in some ways trivialize Olympians doesn’t help matters (looking at you Cosmo and a certain broadcaster who thinks it’s 1956 instead of 2016). These people spend years, sometimes decades, training for this one moment in time and yet when it arrives we want to ask them about their hair, their leotards or their tattoos. Funny, I cover pro sports in my day job and can’t think of the last time I asked Sidney Crosby about his hair or Antonio Brown about his body art.
The majority of these people are badasses 24/7/365, not simply for the two weeks every four years when we bother stopping by to take notice. What they do is hard. Really flipping hard. (Yes even rhythmic gymnastics). It might not be hitting a baseball or catching a touchdown pass, but that doesn’t mean their pursuit is any less important to them than an NFL player’s chase of a Super Bowl ring. Yet we sometimes treat is as such by putting them in prepackaged narratives regardless of whether it’s the truth or not.
The irony here is that for all the ways the business of the Olympics can make you jaded about the Olympics, the one thing that lets the IOC (and everyone else) off the hook is the athletes are the ones that bail the games out. Every. Single. Time. It’s not just Bolt or Phelps or Biles. It’s Jordan Burroughs and Rosie MacLennan.
Rosie MacLennan flies for a living. No, really.
She won gold in trampoline in London. Last summer she suffered a pair of concussions within a month, one from a training accident another when her head was bonked by a car door. She managed to do just enough at the world championships to earn a spot in Rio, though the symptoms remained. When she ramped up her training program in January to get ready for the Olympics, she noticed something weird happening in the middle of her routines.
“My eyes were shaking,” she said. “And if you can’t spot the trampoline you don’t know where you are and I was afraid of getting lost in skills and that fear and that uncertainty took a long time to get back.”
Translation: she was jumping out of a three-story building over and over _ and flipping while she was going it _ And She Could Not Always See Where She Was Landing. In those moments, she wasn’t thinking about the thread count on her sheets in the Olympic village or Zika or whether the city-wide subway (the one that she would never use) would be finished on time or if she could flush toilet paper or even about carrying the Canadian flag during Opening Ceremonies. She was thinking about those 60 seconds on Aug. 12, the ones that would help define her career in a sport that most of the outside world views as a curiosity at best.
That’s where the purity where the Olympic spirit lives. And is some ways it seems to be forgotten by those entrusted to protect it.
The Olympics are too big. They are too expensive. They are too taxing. They don’t have to be. It creates a bubble that is easy to get caught up in. Yet a short cab ride away from where MacLennan won her second gold medal are slums like the City of God “where poverty and violence persist alongside modest programs that aim to get some kids off the streets and offer a path that keeps guns out of their hands.”
It’s hard not to wonder if the billions spent on the Games would have been better served elsewhere. That’s not a sentiment exclusive to Rio. It’s much the same in Korea and Beijing and Tokyo and Los Angeles.
The Games are (or maybe “can be” is the right phrase here) important, and not just to prop up NBC’s sagging ratings by creating a two-week diversion in the U.S. until the NFL regular season starts. Yet it’s time … it’s past time really … for the IOC to get back to the vision Pierre de Coubertin laid out for the modern Games more than a century ago.
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
That’s the Olympic creed. Funny, no demands of glittering venues or state of the art transportation. It’s time for the IOC to start leading in a different way.
Less money. Fewer demands. More temporary venues. More outreach into the community in which it invades. More aggressive anti-doping standards. The original Olympics were competed in the nude. A stripped down version going forward – fewer sports — the cutoff? If it’s the biggest thing in your discipline, it’s in, if it’s not, it’s out or it’s age-restricted (like men’s soccer) – could serve as a light that shines in a host city long after the flame goes out.
Higher? Faster? Stronger?
It’s time for Smarter. Cleaner. Sustainable. The athletes are forced to clean up their act or else. Time for the IOC to join them.
Even better? To lead them.