Rio not so grand: Is it game over for the Olympics?

Brazil’s political crisis, doping and Zika have dampened anticipation for this year’s Games

 

Like it or not, the Games of the XXXI Olympiad are coming. Blanket coverage begins late on Friday night with the opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium.

Even if you’re not interested, you can’t have failed to notice it by now. The insistent rumble of pre-publicity started a week or so ago, and has been gradually increasing in intensity since. Roll up, roll up for the greatest show on earth.

But this year, the mood music sounds more than a little off-key. With only a couple of days to go, there’s not much sense of excitement.

Most previews are hedged with reservations and caveats about the value of the event.

Sometimes an Olympics can act as a barometer for the world’s mood, and Rio 2016 has been overshadowed by suspicion and dread.

Add in rampant cynicism about the handling of the Russian doping scandal, reports of last-minute chaos, pollution, mosquito-borne infections, and the fact the host country is in the midst of a constitutional crisis and economic slump, and the party feels flat before it begins.

If you live in the developed world, the chances are you will experience about 20 summer Olympic Games over the course of your lifetime.

They may account for some of your earliest, haziest memories of TV watched during childhood holidays. Which goes some way to explaining why the Games always evoke a sense of innocence lost.

The fact those sun-dappled days probably also included bankruptcy, terrorist atrocities and steroid abuse on an industrial scale somehow doesn’t seem to register so strongly.

In fact, there never was an age of innocence. In 1908, Edwardian marathon runners sipped a cocktail of brandy and strychnine to enhance their performance; East German athletes in the 1970s were forced to take the pills that would give them an advantage in the proxy Cold War which the event became for decades.

New books published this summer on the history of the event show how corruption, greed and creative accounting practices have been central to the enterprise from the start.

More globalised

The sense that the world is watching is what makes them such a powerful product for the major TV companies, especially in the US.

And for more than a generation, since Los Angeles in 1984, the combination of broadcast rights and commercial sponsorship has, in theory at least, been the Reagan-era business model which sustains them.

That model brought money pouring into the main sports, sweeping away the last vestiges of amateurism and increasing opportunities for corruption. As TV comes to rely more and more on live sports rights in the face of competition from digital media, the money is likely to keep flowing.

For idealists, though, there should be more than this. “So was the best and biggest thing I was ever involved in, the best and biggest thing I will ever be involved in . . . was that a complete waste of time?”

Frank Cottrell Boyce, co-creator (with Danny Boyle) of the unusually creative and eclectic London 2012 opening ceremony, lamented following Brexit.

Non-threatening

For the host country, in theory it’s a chance to project a positive image of itself to the world: as a bright arrival on the international stage (Melbourne, Seoul), a superpower (Moscow, Beijing) or a city reborn from a dark past (Munich, Barcelona).

London is generally seen as the most successful recent Games – less totalitarian than Beijing, less financially ruinous than Athens – but with the UK’s mood darkening in recent years, some buyers’ remorse has set in there, too.

Was it really necessary to hand over the 2012 stadium – for free, essentially – to a privately-owned club in the world’s most lucrative football league?

Has the promised regeneration of the city’s eastern wastelands actually happened? Was it all just a symbol of the PR-driven shallowness of the Blair-Cameron years?

These are the sorts of probably unanswerable questions facing any city considering a bid to host the Games.

Great claims are made in advance for the tangible benefits of being a host – construction jobs, urban regeneration, new sports facilities – as well as for less easily measured bonuses: enhanced national reputation, new trade opportunities.

The fact this cost-benefit analysis increasingly doesn’t stack up can be seen in the number of cities which have withdrawn their bids in recent years.

Boston, the favoured US contender for the 2024 Games, pulled out of the process following fierce local opposition. Germany’s preferred bidder, Hamburg, withdrew following a “No” vote in a local referendum.

Politicians in the UK acknowledge that, had there been a similar referendum in London, the 2012 games would never have gone ahead there.

Russian kleptocracy

If that trend continues, the Games may soon become the preserve of governments that don’t have to worry what their populations think. Step forward, Doha and Baku.

Some observers argue the bidding process itself is the problem, and that the Games should return permanently to their original location in Athens.

This would remove at a stroke all that potential for graft – and therefore will never happen.

None of this is fair to the athletes, particularly those who devote their lives to reaching Olympic standards in sports which don’t command large crowds or money.

RTE’s excellent Road to Rio series (showing again all this week) gives some insight into the huge sacrifices and disappointments involved.

But there’s no going back to the days of amateurism, which was itself a thinly veiled form of snobbery (anyone who was by trade a mechanic, artisan, or labourer was barred) and later became an institutionalised fraud.

And yet the Olympics motto, Faster, Higher, Stronger, retains the power to thrill. “These three words represent a programme of moral beauty,” said de Coubertin. “The aesthetics of sport are intangible.”

A bit pompous, perhaps, but true all the same. The sight of Usain Bolt in full flight, the chance to cheer a local hero all the way to a medal, even the once-every-four-years experience of staying up late to watch the end of the pole-vault – all these can transcend the ugliness and excess once the Games begin.

Live coverage of the Olympics opening ceremony on Friday starts at 11.30pm on RTÉ Two and 11.40pm on BBC One

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