Olympics in Rio: Redeemed by a golden moment
Each day, it seemed, the headline sporting acts were overshadowed by headlines away from the action
F or months Brazil’s people had been hoping for the best and fearing the worst. How will the Olympic Games ultimately then be best remembered? What is certain is that for 16 days in Rio there was never a dull moment, even if stadiums were rarely full to anywhere near capacity.
They also began against a difficult backdrop: damning reports of waters livid with pollutants, spiralling crime levels, in a context of crippling recession. Just for starters. Fears of a Zika virus epidemic, which saw some leading competitors withdrawing, including Irish golfer Rory McIlroy, added to the sombre mood. It seemed Brazil had been saddled with an $20 billion extravaganza it could ill-afford.
From an Irish perspective, things turned gloomy before the Games began when boxer Michael O’Reilly tested positive for a banned substance, becoming the first Irish competitor sent home from the Olympics for failing a doping test. Spirits were soon lifted on the water of Rio – of all places! – when Ireland produced two timely reminders of why the Olympics can be so special: brothers Paul and Gary O’Donovan snatched silver to became the first Irish rower medallists, and then, four years after an agonising fourth in London, sailor Annalise Murphy also won silver.
Only for the mood to turn again: Michael Conlan was victim of what is widely seen as among the worst judging decisions in Olympic boxing history, and that, coupled with Katie Taylor’s exit in the opening bout of her gold medal defence, sent Irish amateur boxing into near meltdown.
After the subsequent arrest of Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) president Pat Hickey for alleged involvement in ticket-touting, everything, it seemed, was going from bad to worse.
Each day, it seemed, the headline sporting acts – US swimmer Michael Phelps adding to his gold medal treasure chest, gymnast Simone Biles outshining fellow American Gabby Douglas, Usain Bolt winning an unprecedented treble-treble – were overshadowed by headlines away from the action.
The meeting of cultures was sometimes uneasy too, none more so than the outrageous case of US swimmer Ryan Lochte, who, with some team mates, feigned an armed robbery.
The first Olympics to be staged in South America appeared cracked all over. At times it seemed in danger of falling apart. Only then, on the penultimate night, inside Rio’s most iconic sporting venue of all, the Maracana, Brazil won the football gold for the first time in its history, Neymar scoring the winning goal in the penalty shoot-out with Germany.
It felt like redemption and revenge rolled into one for the night of humiliation two years ago when Germany had hammered Brazil 7-1 in the 2014 World Cup semi-final. In that moment, all of Brazil had found their moment of glory to be best remembered, possibly enough to forget all the rest.