CHRISTIAN RADNEDGE – reporting from Rio de Janeiro throughout both the Olympics and the Paralympics —- To misquote Mark Twain, the rumours of Rio’s Olympic catastrophe have been greatly exaggerated.
As the city resumes ‘normal service’ after hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games, one can reflect on how the world’s biggest multi-sport event has left its mark.
The Paralympics were undoubtedly a remarkable success. Even with the challenges of late budget restrictions and slow ticket sales, the event turned around and captured the imagination of the spirited locals.
They did not pack out all venues as in London but the Cariocas who did turn out cheered on the Paralympians in the traditional manner Brazilian – deafeningly and melodically.
The Paralympics were also broadcast to many more people around the world, with the IPC not even able to show all the action live to all countries because of various new rights holders.
The Paralympics were a success, and a vindication of striving against adversity.
The Olympics? Not so straightforward.
On the organisational side, for all the scaremongering, the Games played out with no major incidents. Sure, there were a few grumbles here and there about transport delays, the odd stray bullet or two (!) and a green diving pool, but they happened. People competed, won medals, and ensured their place in Olympic history.
Contrary to the buildup to these Games, the body that emerged facing the most questions was the IOC.
After one year in the role of president after succeeding Jacques Rogge in 2013, journalists summarised that Thomas Bach had enjoyed a relatively easy start to his term.
How times change.
The German’s handling of the Russian doping allegation scandal saw him lambasted by the media, for “passing the buck” by allowing Olympic participation to be decided by the international federations and not the IOC.
His decision was in stark contrast to that of Sir Philip Craven, president of the IPC, who sanctioned a blanket ban of all Russian athletes at the Paralympics to absolutely ensure a “clean Games”.
Then, the IOC suffered the FIFA treatment. A hotel arrest of senior executive board member Patrick Hickey threw into the spotlight the shady area surrounding ticket selling at the Games. Brazilian police say the system under investigation was also targeted at Pyeongchang 2018 and Games beyond. No wonder they wanted to question Bach, the head of all things Olympic.
Hence eyebrows were raised when he chose not to return to Brazil for the Paralympic Games. His absence at the opening ceremony was explained away by his attendance at the state funeral of former German President Walter Scheel, of whom Bach was a friend.
No one could begrudge someone attending a funeral but Bach’s office then confirmed he was too busy to attend any Paralympic competition at all. Be that as it may, the inability to show solidarity with the Olympics’ partner event did not look good.
Bach will be back in South America next September for the IOC general session in Lima to choose the 2024 Olympic host from among the remaining three candidates. This past week’s thumbs-down from Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi left Budapest, Los Angeles and Paris to fight it out.
More and more, people are questioning whether the Games are worth the money and investment. Public referendums, such as the one held in Hamburg in 2015, have illustrated widespread concern over whether major disruption and expenditure benefits a city and its residents.
Rio’s struggle to cope with the demands of infrastructure development are well documented. Targets and deadlines were missed and IOC members voiced their frustrations on many occasions.
But Brazil is a country that, while it was booming at the time of winning the bid in 2009, has seen political and economical turmoil sweep the nation like a tidal wave.
Brazil’s currency falls by the day while unemployment rises. President Dilma Rousseff was impeached even during the break between the Olympics and Paralympics. Michel Temer is officially her successor, much to the dismay of a large majority of the nation who make themselves heard in daily protests. Rio’s Presidente Vargas road is a near-constant scene of political protest still.
So while some may criticise Cariocas for not filling the venues at the Games, and certainly sports bodies angrily sought answers from organisers about empty seats, the bigger picture remains significant. There were more pressing issues on many people’s minds than checking out the action at modern pentathlon.
Sport can be a wonderful escape and distraction but it is not an excuse or catalyst for social change which so many profess.
Talk of legacy has dominated sports bids over the past two decades and it is an important aspect but do not forget it is also a tactic to win votes.
Currently the two front-runners for 2024, Los Angeles and Paris, base their appeal on having most of the venues and infrastructure in place. For it is too early to judge if London’s Olympic village project is a success. Beijing’s is not looking hopeful.
Rio survived scrutiny by the rest of the world and can now return to focusing all its attention inwardly on its own citizens.
But it is the IOC which also needs to take a good hard look at itself.