Why the Olympic Mission to Rio Matters
If the Olympic Games has become the modern day equivalent of the moon landings as the whole world watches on in anticipation as something extraordinary unfolds, then the Rio 2016 Games was like a modern day lunar expedition to uncharted territory in the Olympic universe as the Games traveled to the South American continent for the first time.
There were many “Houston, We Have A Problem “ moments and the journey to Rio was a rocky one, filled at times with foreboding that the Olympic brand could suffer damage upon entering Brazil’s financially, socially and politically charged atmosphere.
Fears escalated in the countdown to the Games that Rio’s landscape might collapse like sink holes under the weight of hosting planet Earth’s biggest peacetime project, and athletes require space suit like protection against hazardous local conditions including disease, pollution, violence and unstable infrastructure that could endanger life and threaten elite sporting activity.
Indeed, it momentarily seemed the Olympic Movement’s flagship may have indeed landed on the dark side of the moon or Mars as giant digital bugs stretched across the stadium floor of the Opening Ceremony, which had been transformed into a lunar-like surface depicting the origins of life.
But Rio defied the critics and delivered riveting Games; Games that may not have always been perfect, but had enormous heart and soul, and engaged and energized cities, countries and communities across the globe through like rarely before. Bravo Rio. Bravo. Take a bow.
Rio’s Olympiad was not for Games purists, and fluctuated often between trouble and triumph.
The Rio Games often went against conventions and expectations built up from previous Olympics that had rotated for decades primarily between Europe and North America and more recently regions of Asia.
These were Games for and of our times, and in these troubling times, the Olympic Games in Rio showed the capacity of the human spirit to create, innovate and overcome. Rio delivered against all expectations, providing a series of ‘Olympic Only Moments’ that further enriched the mythology of the Olympic Games as the greatest show on Earth.
These are moments that only seem to happen at the Olympic Games, and can highlight the redemptive power of sport and belief in sport, and can unite a country even in very dark times, but rarely if ever has an Olympic Only Moment meat as much to a nation than Neymar’s last gasp penalty goal over arch rivals Germany which secured victory in the Olympic football final for the first time, prompting an outpouring joy across Brazil rarely seen before in a host city, highlighting the important role sport can play in a nation’s life – a key element in an Olympic Moment.
Neymar’s goal also underscored how elusive the success at the Olympic Games can be, with Brazil having previously won five FIFA World Cups but no Olympic football tournament.
Rio also had electrifying sport and electrifying athletes like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps who resembled Marvel Super Heroes, and showed why sport is still one of the most inclusive and unifying forms of human activity and expression on the planet.
RIO’S OLYMPIC OPERA
If the Olympic Games is a human opera of life in the pursuit of dreams and achievement, Rio staged one of the grandest symphonies of sport and the human spirit ever produced, as athletes choreographed performances that were delivered under enormous pressure and expectation.
The stories of the athletes have always been central to the Olympic Games. While building support for the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, the founder of the modern
The Rio Games took the world-wide interest in sport to new levels. The storylines of the Games seemed so unlikely they could have been dreamt up by a team of sports science fiction writers until a string of almost impossible scenarios materialised on Rio’s playing fields, manifested in performances of electrifying speed, endurance, strength, resilience, movement and imagination that seemed almost implausible – including a fairytale ending for Phelps and Bolt, who said good bye with the Triple Treble something so unlikely that it had not previously even been contemplated as possible.
Rio’s real life scripts also included athletes who had overcome cancer, awoken from comas; recovered from severe spinal injuries or emotional breakdown, and who moved us with stirring performances that pointed to new horizons and possibilities for progress and purpose in life even in these dark times.
Rio was like a live non-stop action, romance drama movie full of twists and turns, and some film noir as well. Never has the so-called Olympic Family been so broad and diverse.
Rio started a global discussion about the rich and diverse tapestry of sport, culture and life on display at the Games.
The Games had everything from athlete twins, triplets, medal winning brothers, married and same sex couples, engagement proposals, doping, missing persons and buses, phony hold ups and passport seizures, and the dawn hotel arrest of a leading IOC official – almost as much action behind the scenes as on the fields of play.
More than any recent Games Rio highlighted the unique character of the Olympics as a sporting event that is about more than sport; a sporting event that transcends sport. Rio was also about the human condition and it made a statement about the condition of the world and society at large as reflected through Games and the host city.
Rio’s residents were perhaps the unsung heroes of the Games, adjusting and adapting to constant change in their communities as Rio was reconfigured and reimagined as an Olympic host city amidst a series of economic, social, political, and environmental disasters and the public health Zika virus threat that causes severe birth defects, battering the lives but not the spirit of most Rio residents who put aside the far more immediate and urgent concerns in their lives to welcome the world to their city and volunteer for Games duties.
Sport seemed to rule the world during the Rio Games as Olympic news went viral, newspapers printed special editions and television constantly replayed Olympic highlights.
Above all, the athletes at the Rio Games provided hope, and showed that hope can be found in unlikely places, including the favelas – the first gold medal of the Games for Brazil was won by Rafaela Silva who grew up in Rio in one of the city’s slums made famous in the ‘City of God’ movie about the favela just a few miles from where Silva won her gold medal – another Olympic Only Moment.
So too, a selfie of a young North Korean female gymnast united with a young South Korean female gymnast, a powerful next generation human legacy perhaps from the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games when the North and South Korean teams entered the Olympic stadium together under the same flag, also an Olympic Moment.
Rio residents will also find hope in much needed new transport systems, connections, urban infrastructure and new sports venues built for the Games and longer term future of Rio; hope that this will bring new business and new opportunities; and hope that this will underpin economic development and bring relief and recovery in the years ahead.
Hope on the ground in Rio initially however had been as hard to find as a professional golf majors champion, although doubt and uncertainty now seem to be a permanent fixture at every pre-Games location, including two of the most successful Games of modern times, London 2012 and Sydney 2000 – indeed popular travel writer Bill Bryson observed that “it is literally not possible to name a catastrophic contingency, short of asteroid impact or nuclear attack, that hasn’t been mooted and exhaustively analysed” in Australia’s press in the lead up to the Sydney 2000 Games.
In a city where it seemed the Games were surviving on a wing and a prayer, a model of the first biplane, invented by a Brazilian aviation designer, took flight from the Opening Ceremony stadium, taking spectators and global audiences on an uplifting journey across the Rio skyline, circling iconic beauty spots, including Christ the Redeemer, providing views that sent spirits soaring and reminded everyone including IOC members of the settings and communities below that had been so instrumental in bringing these Games to Brazil and South America in the first place.
A record 206 nations and territories, including the first “national ” team of athlete refugees, including a Syrian swimmer who helped to save a sinking boat load of people from drowning, participated in Rio, and reminded us that the Olympic Games is still the single largest gathering of nations in the world – bigger than the United Nations ; – and a reminder also of the Olympic Movement’s wider focus on peaceful development and change through sport, helping perhaps to better understand the IOC Executive Board’s pre-Rio decision not to ban Russia entirely from the Games for doping violations, placing a greater emphasis instead on sports diplomacy and participation rather than international humiliation and condemnation.
RIO TURNING POINT
The storm clouds over the Rio Games began to part as the teams ventured to the venues, evoking a powerful sense of history as Olympic competition commenced for the first time on the continent, heralding new era in world sport. The start of competition lifted the curtain on the Rio Games, and the protective seal wrapped around the Rio 2016 Games laboratory where the latest Olympic extravaganza had been planned over seven long years was also removed, bringing the Games into much sharper focus.
And the world was fascinated by what it saw in the Rio venues, admiring the skills of the best athletes in the sporting universe, athletes from all backgrounds and cultures, talented and skilled in ways that would leave leading players in the world’s premier sporting leagues struggling to keep up.
The athletes – including a multitude of world record holders, knowing they would forever be judged by their Olympic achievements – performed at awe inspiring levels delivering a cavalcade of new world and Olympic records and personal bests, almost always with humility, grace and goodwill whatever their fate or outcome.
LEARNING FROM RIO
While the Opening Ceremony focused attention on the fragility of the planet, the Rio Olympic Games has highlighted the potential vulnerability of major events and infrastructure projects like mega international multi sport events in the current period of prolonged geopolitical and economic uncertainty and terrorism.
While Rio’s staff and food shortages, security lapses, judging inconsistencies, transport mistakes, empty seats, and other issues may prompt debate about the location of future Olympic Games in cities beyond the traditional comfort zones of Europe, North America and Asia, many of the problems encountered in Rio have also been experienced at recent previous Games as well – although less visible – and were primarily the result of the extremely difficult economic, social and political conditions in Rio during planning and preparations for the Games.
The Rio Games was also impacted by organisational decision making issues, and severe budget and revenue cuts constituting “a state of public calamity” in the countdown to the Games.
The Rio Games model however was able to withstand these pressures, which also highlight the challenges in identifying and selecting future Olympic host cities that can sustain the impact of possible further rapid geopolitical and economic changes in a world of low growth and rising terrorism, climate, and social challenges.
As well as street crime, the Rio Games also focused attention on crimes against sport, with the success of track and field in Rio highlighting the importance of ongoing reforms in the fight against doping as undertaken recently by IAAF President Seb Coe, and the need for further action led by WADA and the IOC to combat doping more effectively in wake of extensive Russian government sponsored and supported doping activity, revealed in the pre Rio Games McLaren Report.
Rio reminds us that while it is not realistic to expect sport to solve all our social ills, sport can point to what is important to address. Above all, in a world of terrorism, war, obesity epidemics, economic decline and urban and environmental crisis, Rio showed that sport matters.
By Michael Pirrie, executive advisor for the London 2012 Olympics Organizing Committee
This story first appeared in the blog, The Sport Intern. The editor is Karl-Heinz Huba of Lorsch, Germany. He can be reached at ISMG@aol.com. The article is reprinted here with permission of Huba.