Rio’s chaotic 2016 Summer Games is the latest example of what’s wrong with the Olympics.
AT THE RISK of spoiling the big party on tap down in Brazil: The Olympic Games as we knew them are on a death watch, and it doesn’t take a genius to see the signs.
One of them was strung up in the arrivals area last month at Rio de Janeiro’s main airport, held aloft by some of the 2016 Summer Olympics host city’s first responders.
“WELCOME TO HELL!” the banner blared. “Police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.”
It wasn’t the only warning that people arriving to set up for the Rio Summer Games, which launch — presumably — on Friday, Aug. 5, received on the way to hotels. Another chimed in: “Welcome! We don’t have hospitals!”
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Buyer’s remorse, meet buyer’s anguish.
A caveat: Some degree of pre-Games dyspepsia is a given in every host city. The dire warnings that emote from every Olympic run-up have become an Olympic tradition, ranking right up there with gripping broadcasts of 14-hour-old events on NBC. Venues aren’t ready. Bus drivers can’t drive. Someone ordered the wrong medal-stand flag for Chinese Taipei!
But the typical byproduct of all this chaos — athletic thrills that make people forget, temporarily, the host nation’s unseemly bar tab — rarely fails to blot out the initial angst.
Here’s a sad prediction: Not so for Rio.
Brazil’s Olympics have all the earmarks of a modern Games turning point. And the new path, unfortunately, is a barrel ride over Snoqualmie Falls. These might be the first Games to have failed in the eyes of history before they began.
The omens of calamity have long been there: Promised cleanups of sewage-infested Rio waterways never happened, leaving venues that actually pose serious health risks to athletes. (Swifter, higher, antibiotic-resistant?) The mosquito-borne Zika virus, for which, like Justin Bieber, there is no present cure, is rumored to have scared off as many as half of the predicted Games visitors — including a major share of those insufferable big-bucks sponsors.
Oh, and this: The host Brazilian government, flush with cash when these Games were awarded seven years ago, is on the verge of complete collapse. As in: The police cars are out of gas. There’s open warfare on streets between cops and thugs. Just weeks ago, body parts were found sticking out of the sand “just feet away” from the beach volleyball venue.
Sound bad? The big picture is actually worse. The sickness poisoning the Olympic movement is far more intractable than this trifecta of incompetence, bad planning and plain ol’ bad luck in Rio. The Brazilian city didn’t invent what ails the Olympics; it’s just putting the Games’ two most-fatal flaws on high-definition display:
First, the ethically challenged International Olympic Committee — motto: “We Were FIFA Before FIFA” — has developed the nasty habit of handing out Games to places the Olympics simply should not go. (Not to mention names: Beijing, Sochi, Rio, Beijing … ) Second: The results on the field of play simply can no longer be trusted, because the assembled youth of the world are mostly hopped up on performance-enhancers you wouldn’t force-feed a horse.
THE OLYMPICS, despite all this, are not dead to me — not quite. But someone really should be making funeral arrangements. That’s a harsh assessment, but not one made flippantly. As a former Olympics journalist for The Seattle Times, I covered the Games for more than a decade, in person in Nagano, Sydney, Salt Lake City, Athens, Torino and Vancouver, and a couple other times by remote. I wrote a book about the lore, history and allure of the Winter Games, and met my wife amid the insanity of Olympic mixed-zone interview corrals.
The Games are in our blood; for a long time, this was an honored gig. Oly journos (R.I.P.) have an inside seat to both athletic splendor and unfolding history. Despite all their foibles, the Olympics, I like to point out, are the only occasion where the people of the world regularly gather to do something other than try to kill each other.
But even two decades ago, when my own journey through the Games began, they were an undeniable mix of the transcendent and the unconscionable.
On the side of good, the Games have a unique way of crystallizing emotion — not just for participants, but for entire populations. I will take to my grave the wonder I felt on a spring evening in 2000 in Sydney, Australia, as white-suited runner Cathy Freeman, an aboriginal Australian and a woman from a country whose history had been kind to neither, placed a torch into a pool of water at her feet, sparking a river of flame that rose to the upper rim of the stadium to light Sydney’s Olympic caldron. Theater, sure. But sitting there in the gravitational pull of the moment felt like being witness to a national catharsis.
This was magic, I thought. And in the world we live, only the Olympic Games present a stage large enough to create that sort of sorely needed public passion.
Yet at those very same Games, the ugly side of amateur athletics wagged its pesky, pointed tail: U.S. track star Marion Jones was indirectly implicated in a doping scandal by way of failed doping tests by her then-husband, American shot-putter C.J. Hunter. It was the beginning of an unraveling that, four years later, would place her at a podium in New York City, where she would look into the eyes of media types prepping for the Athens Games and warn us that any further digging into her alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs would be dealt with severely.
“You’re messing with my livelihood!” the track star sneered to a question about juicing.
Bingo. For Jones and countless other since-convicted dopers, the Olympic Games had become not just a lifelong pursuit of an athletic dream — to be the best in the world at one simple thing — but a potentially lucrative payday. (Jones ultimately admitted to lying about her drug use, and was stripped of five Sydney medals.)
And that is a problem. Cheating in sport, in crude forms, has been with us forever. But it took big-money corporate sports sponsorship to elevate this from a rarity to business as usual in a world where billions in revenue are there for the taking.
MONEY, DOPING and the cloudy future for Olympism go hand in hand. For hosts, the price tag for an Olympics has morphed from insane to mind-boggling. If the figures are to be believed, the 2014 Sochi Winter Games cost Russia more than $50 billion; the Rio Games will cost already-bankrupt Brazil as much as $12 billion.
It’s true that the Sochi Games, in which shirtless egomaniac Vladimir Putin insisted on carving an Olympic retreat basically out of solid rock, with his bare hands, from mountains along the Black Sea, were something of an aberration. But they also serve as an extreme example of the Games’ increasingly obvious flaw: the insistence on reinventing the expensive wheel of Olympic venues, every two years, almost always to the detriment of the people stuck with the bill.
Some host cities have made truly creative re-use of Olympic sites (see: The Richmond Oval near Vancouver). But white-elephant Olympic buildings stand like corpses from Sydney to Athens to Beijing. Let’s face it: There’s only so much post-Games use for a $105 million bobsled track.
And on a fragile planet increasingly hip to sustainability — or lack thereof — Olympic bids far more modest than Sochi’s are now being rejected at an unprecedented rate by citizens of potential host cities all over the world. Bid-nixing (here’s to you, Boston) has practically become its own Olympic demonstration sport. Where cities once stood in line to kiss the ring of the IOC, they now queue up to say no, hell no.
In a development that feels inexorably related, the IOC, in its quest to sow the seeds of its global goodness as broadly as possible, plays enabler by cashing checks of host nations that really should not be writing them.
Case in point: Rio, aka Hell. Granted, nobody at the IOC in 2009, when the Brazilian Games were awarded, could have foreseen the financial quagmire and subsequent chaos now besetting the country. Zika, a threat looming so large that some health experts have called for the Games to be canceled, was unknown.
But warning signs that the Brazilians had hung their bid on false promises were evident for years. The IOC should have known that Rio’s promise to clean up its sewage-infested bays was about as realistic as Beijing’s Scouts-honor promise to scrub its skies. Skeptics would say they told you so if they could stop wheezing.
So yes, the IOC knows — and cares not. An organization accountable to exactly no one, it has no “reconsider” mode. Billions of dollars of ad spots already have been sold. “Public calamity?” Tough break. Someone find a match and light the caldron, already.
THAT’S ONE PROBLEM. Here’s the other: Even if the Rio Games, by some miracle, run like clockwork, the Summer Olympics once again will become just another contest in which the results are likely fiction. If he heals from an alleged injury in time, global superstar Usain Bolt of Jamaica, the fastest human ever timed, will race for a third straight gold medal in the 100 and 200 meters. Is he clean? Who knows? What we do know is that Bolt’s primary challenger, America’s Justin Gatlin, 34, will compete in Rio despite having already been busted for doping — twice.
Sad, and true. The Olympics have devolved into a bizarro-world event in which athletes compete, win medals and go home — then wait several years for the revised results. It’s not just athletes cheating, but their governing bodies — the supposed prosecutors of crimes exposed by doping cops — who accept cash to look the other way at positive test results.
Add to this the stunning re-emergence of state-sponsored doping, exemplified by systemic cheating in recent years that appears to have stretched to the highest levels of the government of Russia. Don’t think this is atypical: The immense pressure for “home” athletes to dominate always ups the incentive to dope. Russian spies actually infiltrated and corrupted Sochi’s IOC-sanctioned testing facility.
Is there no limit to this? Not yet. Fact is, it worked, and if not for a courageous whistle blower, unearned medals from Russian cheaters would be in the record books forever. Simply put, not even the supposed state-of-the-art testing employed by the World Anti-Doping Agency at IOC-sanctioned events can be trusted.
AND THAT is tragic.
Beneath all that swirls around an Olympics, the remarkable devotion of athletes who do compete clean — and there are many — has always made the Games special. Two Olympians I came to admire as athletes and even more as people after those 2000 Games say they feel the sting personally when asked about death knells of an institution that once dominated their lives.
Megan Jendrick, who won gold in the breaststroke in Sydney as a 16-year-old, believes in Olympism, and revels in being an “Olympian” for life. She observed a large leap in commercialism between her first Olympics in 2000 and her last in 2008, “and it has changed significantly more since then.”
The three-time medalist, now 32, is incensed about doping — she issued a stinging public rebuke of Lance Armstrong after he finally fessed up. But she says she still trusts Olympic results, on the whole.
“I competed clean, and I beat athletes that I knew were doping and some that eventually were caught,” she says. “So I refuse to stop believing that clean athletes who do the right thing can be the best in the world.”
Now aquatics services director for the City of Fife, the former Megan Quann believes more aggressive policing of doping is possible — and essential. “I’m disgusted that it isn’t being done.”
And she doesn’t think the Olympics are on a deathbed, at least not yet: “The Olympics always turn out to be magical.”
Swimmer Gary Hall Jr., a three-time Olympian, is both troubled and hopeful.
“You’re absolutely right to be concerned,” says the 10-time medalist. “What I hope more than anything is that this prompts change.”
The IOC bid process is corrupted by money, Hall says. And the doping revelations from Sochi highlight the need for more-drastic penalties.
“My daughter right now is at swimming practice,” says Hall, 41. “She’s 10. I don’t want to be putting her in a sport where there’s that type of pressure to take God knows what in order to be able to compete. And that’s what we’re facing.”
CAN THAT change? If the Games are to survive as an honored event, it must. Pressure created by big money must first be reduced, Hall and many others believe. He looks favorably upon aggressive Olympic reforms such as establishment of permanent Games venues.
The idea is that the stable venues, funded by all participating nations, would be easier and cheaper to secure and maintain. Olympic nations could still compete to serve as hosts of the Games, running the ceremonies and other cultural aspects — at a fraction of the cost. The “home” team pressure to cheat gets dialed down commensurately.
It makes sense. The Games wouldn’t be the same, but they would be practical, reliable and predictable — three things the movement needs most.
It would be a difficult sell to the current Olympic power brokers. There will always be a nation desperate enough for world acceptance to bear the unseemly cost of a start-from-scratch Olympic buildup — their own citizens be damned. Sponsors, the economic engine, could force changes, but exhibit little interest. They’re still making out just fine, thanks. And IOC members themselves get only fatter and happier playing the same old game.
“I love the Olympics — still,” Hall says. “I think it can be salvaged. Maybe something good can come from this. I hope so. But it’s really going to require systemic change.”
Who can force that? Perhaps only the clean athletes themselves, Hall says. They have lost the most in the corruption of a once-great world event. They have the most to gain in restoring its luster. And they alone might possess the power to tip the swinging pendulum of the Games back toward the side of good.
It’s an old-fashioned concept, and it’s been attempted before, but Hall thinks the time is right for a working Olympic athletes’ union. To survive, the Games must become, to borrow a modern buzz word, sustainable. The athletes, Hall believes, could light the way forward — and, for their own sake, they must.
At some point, restoring honor to the world’s most-visible field of play might require something as dramatic as simply stepping off it.