Don’t ask me about Rio de Janeiro because I don’t know the city and I never will, even though I am here to cover the Olympic Games.
I see it through the windows of media buses each day as they transport us dutifully to and from the venues – very efficiently as it has turned out.
I don’t know how the neighborhood around the Olympic Stadium rates in terms of desirability as far as Rio inhabitants are concerned. But we are warned not to wander.
Houses with numbers on, and bars over the windows. Swift views of yards, with dogs lying in shady corners. Roadside stalls selling fruit. Everywhere, graffiti. At every big street corner, armed police.
As the liveried buses pass back and forth, people stare up into the semi-opaque windows. We stopped briefly the other day, and a man came out and pounded the side of our vehicle with his fists. He may have been drunk. He may not.
Never, in my experience, has there been such a polarity between this quadrennial, multi-billion dollar bandwagon and its setting.
Copacabana Beach has a different feeling to it, inhabited by joggers, its beaches genuinely dotted with young people playing volleyball or football, with groups of middle aged men, topless and sweating, performing sit-ups and pull-ups on customised metal frames. Skateboarders glide through, singly. It could be Venice Beach.
As the sun goes down at the Stadium, the surrounding hills, which resemble giant heaps of houses, turn into twinkling, magic mountains. But they are sinister.
To a greater or lesser extent, at a Games, one always exists in an Olympic bubble. At some Games – Barcelona, Sydney, London – it is easy to step freely in and out. At others – Beijing, Rio – it isn’t.
Each day at our media venues, volunteers carefully arrange sugar and powdered milk sachets in bowls at refreshment areas and tidy discarded cups away. Rarely is there a day when hot water, tea bags, coffee, sugar and cups coincide.
This is not, repeat not, a complaint. It is just that the image holds good in a wider context. The people of Rio, the people on the ground, have done their absolute best these past couple of weeks to make Olympic visitors to their city welcome, without being given the wherewithal to deliver all they would wish to.
Not all of the volunteers signed up for Rio 2016 have been unendingly helpful, it is true – at some venues only 20 per cent have turned up after collecting their work outfits and complimentary wristwatches.
But then, as Baron Pierre de Coubertin once announced, “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning, but taking.”
Or if not it was something very like that.
This, however, I can personally vouch for. I have been helped looking for taxis. I have been offered free water. A Rio resident walked the length of Copacabana beach with me to show me the way to Pyeongchang 2018 House, where I was due to cover a visit by the IOC President Thomas Bach. Every night, at two, three in the morning, the staff at the shop in our media village are always smiling and friendly. The simple act of offering volunteers a pin sometimes has the effect of making them dance. It’s almost heartbreaking. And these are the things you remember from the Olympics, as much as, if not more than, the dramas of competition.
Higher up – it is always higher up – is where the problems emanate. The catering, for both media and the general public, has been inadequate.
The Rio 2016 organizers insist that 82 percent of the Olympics tickets have been sold – yet the venues are half-empty or worse, and people queuing cannot get tickets.
Meanwhile, the moral basis of the Games themselves is coming under critical view as the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) differ diametrically in their view on whether Russian athletes produced by a tainted system should be allowed to compete.
In such circumstances, one seeks things that are good, that are genuine.
For instance, the stance taken here by the IPC Sir Philip Craven not to allow any Russian athletes to take part in Rio 2016 because of their “broken, corrupted and entirely compromised” anti-doping system may not have been politic, but it was genuine.
Sporting values have not been universally adhered to in the Olympic Stadium, or in other Olympic venues, since the Games got underway as home spectators have often booed efforts by other nations when Brazilians are in with a shout at medals.
The men’s pole vault competition was a startling example of this when it became clear that local boy Thiago Da Silva was in with a big chance of winning.
Suddenly the defending champion Renaud Lavillennie was being booed on the runway, and his failure at 6.03 meters was celebrated as if it was a Brazilian clearance at the same critical height – which soon came to pass, with even noisier results.
Sam Kendricks of the United States, the eventual bronze medalist, also got the treatment. Well, it was certainly genuine – but it wasn’t what you expect in an Olympic arena.
Lavillenie pointed this out after taking his silver – and at the following evening’s medal ceremony his introduction was accompanied by a sudden storm of whistling and booing. For a moment I thought Brazil’s interim President Michel Temer had walked in.
That said, the athletics arena has witnessed turns of events that have reminded all present of what, at bottom, these Olympics are about.
Watching Mo Farah get knocked down, and get back up again, because nothing was going to keep him down in the 10,000 metres he went on to win stirred memories of Lassie Viren’s fall during the 1972 Olympic 10,000m final, where he did the same.
One applauded the fortitude – but at the end of the day these were admirable but self-interested decisions.
What took place during the women’s 5,000m heats on Tuesday morning was in a different category.
New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin was tripped and fell, bringing down as she did so the US runner Abbey D’Agostino. The American was up first, and helped Hamblin to her feet before both continued.
But soon D’Agostino limped to a halt before subsiding to the track and holding her right knee with a grimace of pain. Hamblin, who had been running next to her, stopped to offer words of comfort before resuming the race, clearly in tears.
D’Agostino eventually resumed and hugged Hamblin at the finish line before leaving the Stadium in a wheelchair.
There were echoes here of John Landy’s gesture in the Australian Championships that preceded the 1956 Melbourne Games, when he turned back to check on the then 19-year-old Ron Clarke, who been tripped by another runner while leading. Both men set off again, and Landy went on to catch up the rest of the field and win.
Hamblin didn’t manage the second part, but that’s not the main point.
Her view of the incident was this: “I went down, and I was like, ‘What’s happening? Why am I on the ground?’ Then suddenly this hand on my shoulder, like ‘Get up, get up, we have to finish this’ and I was like, ‘Yup, yup, you’re right. This is the Olympic Games. We have to finish this.’ I’m so grateful for Abbey for doing that for me. That girl is the Olympic spirit right there.
“I’m never going to forget that moment. When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years’ time, that’s my story.”
Years from now, the story Haitian 110m hurdler Jeff Julmis will tell with pride is the one where he crashed through the first hurdle in his Olympic semi-final, cartwheeling within it like a man going over Niagara Falls in a barrel before coming to rest in front of the second hurdle, which he crawled under.
Then, clearly hurt and with the rest of the field a distant blur, he made the decision to complete the race with a series of agonised hops over each of the remaining eight barriers, eventually stopping the clock at 25 seconds and something.
Technically, Julmis had to be disqualified for running out of his lane. But to all intents and purposes he had stayed the course.
There are echoes here of the 400m semi-final at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where Britain’s Derek Redmond, stricken with a hamstring tear, tearfully hobbled through the rest of his race, a lonely figure who was suddenly supported down the final straight by his father, who had rushed out from the crowd.
The thing is, this was not some athletics version of Eric the Eel. Julmis is a 29-year-old American-raised hurdler competing for Haiti in his second Olympics. He had already qualified from the heats, and has a best of 13.50sec, and finished fourth in the 2013 Central American and Caribbean Championships.
He said he had been inspired after seeing other athletes finish at the Olympics following crashes.
In truth, the same impulse animated the former Russian athlete Yulia Stepanova, denied a place here after her whistleblowing helped bring about the investigation into Russian doping which led to the suspension of their track and field team from these Olympics.
When she ran in the 800m heats at last month’s European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam she was clearly off the pace, having had to train under the supervision of her husband at a secret location in the United States, for fear of retribution from her home land.
When the injury she had been carrying to a tendon in her foot flared up on the final bend, she could just have stepped off the track. Instead, to a curiously neutral reaction in the Stadium, she walked determinedly to the line.
Julmis told reporters after his fall and rise: ”I actually went under it [the first hurdle]. My lead leg went under it and I caught it and tumbled over. It happens. On any given day, anything can happen in this sport.
“The moment I fell it was like “aah, why here?” but I got up and I said I have to finish the race. It doesn’t make sense to go down as a sore loser and walk off the track. So I got up and finished the race as a man.”
Julmis’ courage in the face of heartbreak was applauded on social media, where his hurdling fail quickly went viral.
“When the crowd cheered me on, that was the best part. I felt the spirit that I have seen on the videos. It was bittersweet. It was a hard pill to swallow but at that moment when the crowd cheered me, it helped me finish the race,” he said.
“It was a heartbreaker but as soon as the crowd started cheering me on I got back up, and I felt like I did before the race started. It was a great experience.
“But I will be in Tokyo in 2020. Definitely. You can’t stop me now, man.”
For Hamblin, for Redmond, for Julmis there was, on the face of it, nothing to be gained from what they did. And yet what they gained was inestimable.
Actually that earlier quote from De Coubertin wasn’t quite right. What he said was this: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”
By Mike Rowbottom
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz