KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- The journey has been a long, increasingly bumpy one since that deleriously celebratory day for Brazilians in Copenhagen seven years ago when Rio de Janeiro was awarded the right to host the first Olympic Games in South America.
This writer, now in Brazil, was also there in the Danish capital, hovering outside the IOC Session in October 2009 as the voting rounds counted out the opponents, one by one.
First to go was Chicago, despite the persuasive work of Michelle Obama in the days before the vote and the on-stage endorsement of the still-new President of the United States. Next to fall was Tokyo, members frightened off by the brazen personal agenda of veteran Mayor Shintaro Ishihara.
That left Madrid and Rio, spearheaded by the two great veterans of the sport business revolution: Juan Antonio Samaranch and Joao Havelange, former presidents of, respectively, the IOC and world football federation FIFA.
Samaranch, clearly unwell, invited the IOC to grant the last wish of an old man. None of that negativity for Havelange. He invited the members: “Come and join me on Copacabana to celebrate my 100th birthday at the Olympic Games in my city.”
They did. In no time at all IOC president Jacques Rogge was duly producing the envelope and the card which signalled history. Football was taking its World Cup prize to Africa; now the IOC was also stepping out into the developing world.
Brazil’s then President Lula da Silva exploded in sobs of happiness; Pele, too, who had earlier paraded his regret at never having played in the Olympics in the old shamateur era.
Might as well have been a century ago, rather than seven years. At the time Brazil was one of the fast-rising BRIC economies. Apparently untouched by the economic crash in the west a year earlier. Preparations for the 2010 World Cup were not going so well. But the IOC prided itself in possessing a superior touch.
Subsequent events remain fresh in the collective sport business mind. The after-shock of the world financial crash caught up with Brazil in due time and just as a massive saga of corruption at the highest levels of business and politics unfolded.
State oil giant Petrobras was the initial focus but the tentacles of greed and under-the-table self-interest reached far and wide, including key World Cup and Olympics construction contractor Odebrecht. The infection caught up with Lula and his successor Dilma Rousseff, who watched the Opening Ceremony on television while confronting the likelihood of impeachment.
Venue plans were chopped and changed and trimmed to meet a budget which proved merely a moveable feast. Brazilian Olympic and local organising president Carlos Numan talked positively, as if on a different planet. A handful of IOC members even dared talk out of turn for fear that Rio was in danger of missing all its deadlines.
In the end Rio is ready; as Brazil was for the World Cup. Not perfect. Not up to the impossible dream. And it will be a very long time, as president Thomas Bach has hinted, before the IOC ever takes its goose which lays the golden Olympic eggs anywhere but a good, solid host city/nation (For all the withdrawals and negative referenda, such places still exist – viz. Paris and Los Angeles leading the chase for 2024).
Rio 2016 will match the 2014 World Cup. Not perfect. But just about up to the job and everyone can go away happy in a few weeks’ time with memories only of sporting triumph and disaster.
If hosting concerns were all that had assailed sport in general and the Olympic Games in particular, not so bad. However the dark clouds of a governance crisis and increasing public cynicism have blown ever closer to the sport itself.
Bach’s self-righteous tone in addressing various congresses of embattled FIFA was taken with a large pinch of salt. Too many sports federations, the ones mainly below the fold, were anything but models of probity. Officials knew it. The media knew it. Fans did not know the half of it.
So to the Russian doping-and-cover-up strategy. The IOC and WADA had been warned up to six years ago by various investigative journalists and did nothing. In the end – and surely to both organisations’ undying shame – it was the media yet again (and Hajo Seppelt in particular) which brought the pretence house of cards tumbling down.
Bach finally achieved what he wanted, to push much of the mess beyond the end of the Rio Games; Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko probably regards the presence of 270-plus Russians in Rio as a comparative triumph, considering the weight of accusations which he and his boss in the Kremlin had been powerless to rebut.
A Russian television channel called up this writer earlier in the week. The interviewer wanted to know why the Olympic Games came under such sustained attack? Why had Sochi and Rio been targeted when London 2012 escaped such fire?
As far as London was concerned, I told his viewers (however my words may have been translater) that the 2012 hosting had come under heavy attack all the way from initial proposal, to bid, to victory in Singapore to the minute before the Opening Ceremony. The contentious new stadium in a city full of them, the spiralling costs and then the G4S security provision failure.
But, with hindsight, of course, London 2012 is now revered as an oasis of happiness. The pre-event vacuum lends itself to negativity. But once sport itself takes over the air time and headlines all perceptions change.
Olympic sunshine of the spotless media mind.
Back to that Russian TV interview. Why the media fire? Not an issue of geopolitical conspiracy; not even a matter of exposing poor judgment and incompetence along the way (the story of life, never mind merely a sports event).
It’s all about worry and fear. Sport is not a foundation of society such as politics and economics. But it speaks to the human need for a philosophical sphere in our daily lives. The entertainment, distraction, enjoyment, entertainment, frustration of sport is a magnificently important strand in the grand fabric of society for so many billions around the modern world.
Hence the fear of what if? . . . the awful, unthinkable void which would open up should our great sporting edifices come tumbling down.
Easy to be cynical and critical. But great sport is about reaching a higher state. So, for a brief, jagged shard in time never mind the officials and businessmen, clean or corrupt, the athletes whose dedication may have blurred temporarily their own focus on what really matters, just enjoy the sport.
That’s all that matters for now.
Let the show begin!
** Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, bronze medallist in the marathon in 2004, lit the Olympic cauldron after a four-hour Opening Ceremony as substitute for Pele who was unwell.
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