KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Rio de Janeiro is not London or Lausanne or Los Angeles; Brazil is not Britain or Switzerland or the United States. This may appear self-evident. But the image of the 2016 Olympic Games was significantly discoloured by some patronising arrogance from ‘those who know best.’
The organisation of Rio 2016 left plenty to be desired. Brazilians themselves had no doubt about that, either the ones in blazers or people in their own homes and bars. But the sports circus which ran to perfection has yet to be staged.
London 2012 of blessed, sanctified memory? The costings were a movable feast and the army had to be deployed at the last minute after the security operation, supposedly the greatest priority of all, collapsed through the over-confidence then incompetence of G4S.
Rio’s operational stresses were, to be fair, partly self-inflicted and partly a victim of circumstances.
One circumstance was the country’s descent into the political and economic crisis which exacerbated the knock-on effect of the western banking mess; the other was the bid committee’s success in ‘selling’ Rio to the International Olympic Committee in the Americanised promotional and commercial language into which bidding is locked.
Over-anticipation left them exposed to every minor and major setback along the way, even the zika-bearing mosquito which, like a disappointingly high number of expected spectators, failed to put in an appearance.
As the event ‘owner’, the IOC must also shoulder major responsibility for what did not happen. It needs to recognise its own weakness.
The IOC is a rights-holder, nothing more (whatever the moral high ground to which it pretends and which it dropped like a hot potato in the doping scandal). It lacks the staffing specificity and experience of a FIFA which stages its various tournaments in a steady annual stream of different countries and cultures around the world, first world and developing world.
Above all, the IOC needs to be more realistic and ruthless. Sending a five-star review committee of the great and the good every six months is inadequate, to say the least. As with FIFA and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, a local office headed by an empowered executive was essential. When Gilbert Felli was eventually despatched to Rio it was far too late in the day. Fault lines need to be caught early under threat of host rights removal.
Public demand for value should also be an end to the cold war between FIFA and the IOC in the sporting and big-event cause. FIFA could have taught the IOC directors a great deal about the hidden pitfalls of working with Brazil, a country which wanted to learn but which also has its own pride.
It was fatuous of wagon-circling Olympics specialists to declare that the two events had nothing in common. They most certainly did, a core factor: working with the Brazilian political, commercial and operational culture.
The trouble here is that, once the Games are over, the lasting memories – quite properly – are those of athletic achievement: Usain Bolt’s treble triple, Michael Phelps’s medal record, Mo Farah’s double double plus the myriad outstanding performances special to so many different participating countries.
These stretched from Britain’s astonishing improvement on its medal count from 2012 to Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig taking the tennis singles gold, to South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk smashing Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old 400m record.
Brazil also surprised and delighted its own people with seven golds among 19 medals in disciplines barely known to most local sports fans before the Games. Rafaela Silva, the judoka champion from the favelas, was an outstanding ‘story’ and vastly helpful in creating a winning spark so early in the Games.
The sporting negativities were largely off the track: Ryan Lochte’s boorish escapade in concocting the fairytale of a non-existent gunpoint robbery, was one. “Boys will be boys,” said Rio 2016’s wearied spokesman Mario Andrada. Well, yes, but Lochte is 32. Boy? No.
Boxing provided its usual judging controversies and then came the Irish ticketing scandal which, however it turns out, spells the downfall of Patrick Hickey even if he emerges with nothing more than a haircut to show for his spell in Bangu high-security prison.
Hickey has created plenty of enemies during his years as long-time head of the Olympic Council of Ireland, president of the European Olympic Committees, member of the IOC’s executive board and either a longtime apologist for odious political regimes or generously optimistic believer in the engaging and educative power of international sport.
After tout-chasing events at the 2014 World Cup (which dissolved once the initial headlines and domestic political point-scoring had been achieved) the ‘Olympic family’ should have been on its guard. Unfortunately the arrogance of power is not confined to FIFA.
Above all, however, it was the Russian doping scandal which loomed largest over Rio 2016. And not only over Rio. This one will run and run. Or, at least, it should.
IOC president Thomas Bach – his board split down the middle, denying the prospect of punitive action demanded by much of the western media – managed to achieve his aim of deflecting the issue beyond the Closing Cerenmony. But now he must show decisive leadership or he will catapult the image of the IOC into the sort of sporting credibility chasm even FIFA has avoided.
Bach should also ditch supra-diplomacy. His dismissive comment about whatever grisly fate may await whistle-blower Yulia Stepanova was a black mark against human decency; his denial of the reality of the Olympic cost mountain was disingenuous at the least, an insult to the intelligence of all who heard it and reported it.
The IOC must also learn practical staging lessons from Rio. An Olympic park without the main stadium is hopeless. A main stadium in a less-than-salubrious suburb is also a no-no. Further, an Olympic park lacking a direct urban train connection does not work. No wonder fans stayed away.
Rio was its own worst enemy. A new metro line was nailed on to the existing system. But, even after transferring to the famous Linha 4 for a halfhour ride, spectators still had to spend a further 45 minutes on a bus to reach the park.
If the IOC’s co-ordination committee had been doing its job it would have seen that from a long way out and acted. Curious Rio residents visited the park once and never went back. It was Disneyland without Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Other issues: To spend such huge sums for a mere two-week sport festival of such magnitude is ridiculously wasteful. If the IOC wants to justify the cost and elephantine size then at least go to three weeks. Also, if it wishes to accommodate even more sports (five newbies for Tokyo 2020) then impose a cutback on events including ‘made-up’ time-fillers (decathlon, omnium, modern pentathlon all leap to mind).
Cutting ticket prices is also essential to ensure fans come out and pack the stadia – as they did not do in Rio apart from the football final.
Along the way the IOC should drop the po-faced attitude to fan behaviour. Football accepted long ago that fans pay a high price for their tickets and that includes buying the right to boo and jeer if they do not like what they see, whether fair or not.
Cut out fan engagement and the live event is dead. Television would not like that one Olympic iota.
The circus proceeded to the usual domestic background of shootouts between police and drug gangs in the favelas. After all the dire predictions there were comparatively few serious security incidents. All sad and to be regretted but not the carnage some Jonahs had feared.
Overall then, Rio 2016 was a qualified success. Bach & Co, much more conservative than FIFA, had proved the Games can be taken beyond the Olympics’ rich westernised protectorate, even if they have frightened themselves from heading too far afield for many a Games to come.
Los Angeles must have been further esconced as favourite for 2024 ahead of terrorism-uncertain Paris, economically-challenged Rome and major event innocent Budapest.
For Brazilians, the Games were a brief, pleasant distraction from the ongoing political crises. Even more important, in a country where football is king, they won gold at last.
The IOC can earn itself gold . . . if it learns the lessons of Rio. In that case Rio 2016 will have been proved a watershed Games.
A big ‘if’.