I wrote this essay after the Olympic opening ceremonies in Rio, struck by the way the Olympic experience repeats itself. Sadly, that insight might better have been sold as prediction, rather than analysis, as it proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy in which no one was interested, since they had been seduced and distracted by the games…..
The Olympic Games in Rio are underway, and like a battleship’s slowly turning cannon, the media’s focus has finally been shifted away from crime, or pollution, or shoddy construction, or corruption, or even an unexpected change of elected government, and over to the competitions themselves (and the attendant questions of which athletes and federations are ‘clean’ of performance enhancing products). With swimming one of the early foci of attention, the federation quietly reinstated a twice-banned Russian swimmer, apparently deciding that if the water in the pool did not bubble or steam when she entered the water she must indeed be drug-free.
This is the eleventh Olympics at which I have worked, eight in the summer and three in the winter. The first was in my then-hometown of Montreal in 1976, and it set the pattern for virtually every games that has followed. The month’s run-up to the games produces stories about ineptitude and delays in preparation, about potential accommodation and transport disasters, and in some cases about the government corruption, mis-apprehension of funds, or political unsuitability for staging the world’s biggest sporting event. Then the games begin, and the curtain draws shut around the wonderful wizard of Olympic Oz.
Montreal was a veritable showcase of disaster, putting huge financial burdens on both the city and the province of Quebec which took decades to crawl out from under. The stadium remained unfinished because of design flaws and a constant stream of strikes by workers who wound up almost-finishing things with months of golden overtime. French Canadians were furious when it was learned the royal yacht Britannia deposited its royal wastes untreated into the St Lawrence River; a boat was dispatched each day to collect and deposit them instead into the Montreal sewer system, whence they were returned to the river, untreated, because the money for sewage treatment had been spent instead on a magnificent fountain outside the Olympic stadium.
After the financial disaster of Montreal, no one wanted the Games. Moscow already had 1980/ the IOC traditionally admiring authoritarian governments who could allocate resources without voiced complaints. I was at the Olympic Congress at Baden-Baden in 1981 when Los Angeles were ‘awarded’ the 1984 games, with no other bidders. Peter Uberroth’s committee, citing the potential huge losses, cut deals to get services donated, drew on huge numbers of unpaid volunteers, and sought sponsorship for the games. After it was over, far from the expected financial disaster, the Los Angeles Organising committee announced a series of steadily increasing profits, and bonuses for its bosses. The race, as they say, was on.
The IOC moved swiftly to appropriate sponsorship for itself rather than leave it to the organising committees. Tied to the potential bonanza of advertising revenue from American television, the IOC created a profit centre which benefited from both a worldwide audience and an assembly of competitors who did not require payment. The Olympics became a brand cities fought to stage on the IOC`s behalf, with the committee`s VIP treatment extracted from those cities. It was a largesse which only occasionally was revealed to the public when the bribery became too obvious.
Rio de Janeiro is in many ways a poster child for the Olympics. The government was overturned shortly before the games, the kind of timing that is commonplace in Brazil, where bad news is usually run through Parliament just before Carnival begins and thus is ignored for the next weeks and forgotten before the hangover has worn off. The weeks before the games found a steady stream of disaster stories: unfinished or shoddy buildings, including the athletes’ village, the collapsed cycle path, the polluted water, the mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus, capybaras roaming the new Olympic golf course, described as `giant rodents`, which is technically true but conjured up visions of huge plague-carrying rats, rather than cuddly pig-sized hamsters.
Then came the opening ceremony: a Tonga disguised as a WWF wrestler entered the arena coated in olive oil and everyone forgot their problems. It was Vendredi Gras, and it reminded me that London 2012 was not that much different. Who in Britain tracked the property deals that saw virtually all spectators at the Olympic Park routed through a shopping mall. Who has followed the awarding of the Olympic stadium to West Ham? Who remembers the promises to Britain’s youth as luxury flats go up where once sporting arenas stood in East London? In London’s opening ceremony James Bond, The Queen, Mr Bean, and (blessedly) Ray Davies were presented to the world as the happy face of Britain. The £12 billion that came from nowhere in a country whose budget cannot be stretched to pay doctors or nurses is now forgotten. Curiously, the cost in Brazil has been estimated at $12 billion, in a city whose separation between the rich, who live vertically in gated high rises, and the poor, who live horizontally in favellas, seems like a model for a London of the future.
Yet listening to the speeches, watching the happy athletes of the world, seeing Kip Keino honoured for working with children in Kenya, seemed to make it all worthwhile, even to the most cynical of us. When IOC president Thomas Bach said we were all equal in “Òlympism”‘ I almost believed him enough to have my taxi driver try the lane reserved for IOC VIP vehicles next time we got caught in a traffic jam. Then experience, the little Toto of the mind, pulled back the curtain to reveal Frank Morgan pulling levers and playing Wizard of Oz. For the people of Brazil, the one-off Carnival has brought Oz to Rio. The circuses eclipse the bread for the next two weeks. Then, like London, the memories will be happy ones and the questions that linger will remain largely unasked, much less answered. Like Dorothy, Brazil will wake up, thinking `there`s no place like home`.