The great and the good of the Olympic “family” gathered in Greece last week amid much mutual backslapping for the vaguely absurd flame‑lighting ceremony that links the ancient Games to its modern incarnation.
That very afternoon, tragedy hit when a much heralded new cycleway built for the Games in Rio de Janeiro crumbled into the sea, killing two people and leaving three more missing. The contrasting events seemed to underline the gap between rhetoric and reality as the daily countdown to the Rio Games dips into double figures.
A couple of days earlier Bloomberg reported the Rio chief of staff, Leonardo Espindola, saying the state was “nearing a social collapse” and that a funding crisis could make it difficult to carry out basic functions, such as fuelling police cars and maintaining hospitals. Weighed against such dire warnings, the ability of a modern pentathlete to get from A to B feels less like a matter of life and death.
On the spot in Olympia where the founder of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin, decreed that his heart should be buried, the high priestesses did their thing with an olive twig and a concave mirror to focus the sun’s rays and begin the journey of the Olympic flame towards Rio. The high-camp caper beneath sunny skies, amid fluttering white doves, seemed a long way from what is fast becoming, in an admittedly crowded field, the most troubled run-in to a Games since De Coubertin revived the concept in 1896.
Some aspects are not unique to an Olympics at this stage – last-ditch panicking over venues that are not yet finished, fretting over ticket sales and the public appetite is almost de rigueur and it is true to say that every Olympics faces searching questions at this point in its life cycle and that most are luxuriating in praise by the time the curtain comes down, even if criticism may return at greater volume afterwards. Twelve months out from London’s Games, the capital was on fire amid widespread looting and with 100 days on the clock from Wednesday there was still a huge panic over security provision to come.
On the other hand some factors, such as the Zika virus and the political and economic crisis convulsing the country, are more specific to a Rio Games which has by turns beguiled and alarmed International Olympic Committee members since the bold leap into South America was taken in 2009.
In the face of all that Carlos Nuzman, the Rio 2016 president who played a key role in winning the right to host the Games, insisted in Olympia that the flame “brings a message of peace that will unite our dear Brazil”. Thomas Bach, the IOC president, took up the theme. “In these difficult days that Brazil is facing, the flame is a timeless reminder that we all are part of the same humanity,” he said, digging deep into his bumper book of Olympic cliches to declare that the Rio Games would bring a “message of hope in troubled times” for the country.
This, then, seems to be the agreed party line: that no matter the issues facing Brazil and its people, the world’s biggest sporting event can act as a feelgood fillip, a balm to be poured on open wounds. Even allowing for the mystical qualities imbued in the flame by true believers, and the undoubted boost it can give to the mood of a host country even to the most jaundiced eye, it feels like a tough sell.
It was Nuzman who choked back tears alongside then President Lula and Pelé in Copenhagen in 2009 while a crowd of 50,000 Cariocas celebrated on Copacabana when Rio was awarded the Games. The first South American Olympics was to be a grand coming-out party for a new global superpower. It has not quite worked out that way. The all-consuming corruption allegations that have caught up with the overlapping political and corporate classes are snapping at the heels of the Olympics. One of the main contractors involved in building many of the main venues is implicated.
There are also serious question marks over whether a vital metro link between the main Olympic Park and the rest of the city will be finished in time. Even if it is, access will be limited to those with tickets or Olympic accreditation. Fewer than half the tickets for the Olympics and less than 15% of Paralympic tickets have been sold.
The track has yet to be laid in the athletics stadium, the velodrome is behind schedule and continuing problems with sewerage and waste in the sailing venue Guanabara Bay were most starkly illustrated recently when a severed human arm was found floating in the water.
Meanwhile, the country’s president Dilma Rousseff stands on the brink of impeachment. But unlike the protests that swept the country during the Confederations Cup in 2013, this is no populist uprising. Amid angry claim and counter claim her supporters have decried the process as a coup designed to remove her left-leaning government from power in favour of the establishment.
Many of the other troubling aspects that gnaw away at the soul of so-called “mega events” are equally concerning, from forced evictions to make way for the Olympic Park to feared police crackdowns in the favelas. Some of these questions cut to the heart of what the Olympic Games should be. While preaching sustainability and economy, the IOC has tended to revert to gigantism and grand gestures whenever possible. And beyond that, the sport – the very thing supposed to bring the world together as one and remind us of those timeless Olympic values – will be undercut by the bitter taste created by the presence or otherwise of Russian track and field athletes implicated in a state-sponsored doping scandal.
During the World Cup any cracks were just about papered over and, for all the trailing wires and half-finished bridges, the tournament triumphed against the odds and a greedy Fifa on the brink of collapse. There is not the same level of antipathy towards the IOC as was directed at the Fifa fat cats, largely because many Brazilians bought the concept that a Rio Games would turbocharge long neglected infrastructure development.
One thing is all but guaranteed: the Games will look fantastic on television. Rio’s natural beauty and the enthusiasm of its inhabitants will guarantee that. As the world knows, Rio knows how to party.
Whether it will be remotely in the mood to do so is another matter. And whether the reality on the ground lives up to the carefully curated image sold to the world remains to be seen. There are still 100, undoubtedly very eventful, days to go.
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