Rio Rises to the Olympic Occasion
The Olympics are coming to a close this weekend, and I will be sorry to see them go. Every day for the past two weeks, I’ve turned on the TV to enjoy a few dozen channels of the world’s finest athletes in heated competition in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
What is most significant about this year’s Olympics is, despite the avalanche of negative press on Brazil’s preparedness for the Olympics, there have been no major problems. With dire warnings about political unrest, incomplete venues, terrorism, and the threat of Zika, the only sad element has been the thousands of fans who stayed away. Many of the venues aren’t full, thanks to foreigners convinced that Rio was too dangerous to visit.
The truth is the First World seems far more worried about Zika than Brazilians, who have been living with the fear of dengue for decades. For visitors, who move between luxury hotels and the Olympic Park, the danger from Zika during Brazil’s winter is almost nonexistent. The warnings by the international media have a very patronizing flavor.
This is not to say that the Olympics have been perfect, but what event that hosts 18,000 athletes and their coaches is? There was the camera that fell from the roof of a building in the Olympic Park and the green water in the diving pool that had to be drained and refilled. Then there was the Irish Olympic official who was arrested in his hotel room for scalping thousands of tickets.
While the athletes themselves certainly have a more detailed view of problems than we do, the only glaring mistake I’ve seen was the diving and water polo pools turning green. (Until it happened, I didn’t realize there was more than one swimming pool.) Whoever was in charge of pool maintenance obviously made a miscalculation. There have also been some problems organizing and educating all the volunteers, as well as some food shortages during the first week inside the Olympic Park. Security concerns have also made for long queues to enter venues.
Along with reports on how Rio was under-prepared for the Olympics, the international media even criticized Brazil for being overly prepared, when they joked about how many condoms would be distributed to athletes in the Olympic Village. The International Olympic Committee said 450,000 condoms were made available to male and female athletes. Between 100,000 to 150,000 condoms have been supplied to athletes at each Olympics since 2000 in Sydney. Meanwhile, in 2012, it was reported that London’s organizers ran out of the stockpile of condoms.
The Rio Olympics faced more negative press before its opening perhaps than any other previous Olympics. The media seemed to have forgotten what enormous strides Brazil has made in the past decades. For example, life expectancy in Brazil increased from 63.9 years in 1986 to 74.4 in 2014. In the same period American life expectancy went up by only four years. Illiteracy is still too high but has fallen sharply. Its problems persist, but only a fool would deny that Brazil will be a major 21st-century player. As anyone attending the Olympics must realize, Brazil has a powerful and joyous national culture. As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote this week: “I am tired, very tired, of reading negative stories about these Brazilian Olympics.”
There is something in the developed world that does not like a developing country that organizes a major sporting event. We heard the same warnings in South Africa at the time of the World Cup in 2010. Instead, in Rio we’ve witnessed countless triumphs, from Usain Bolt of Jamaica to Simone Biles, the American gymnast. And what triumph could be greater than Rafaela Silva, the young Brazilian woman from the Rio slum of Cidade de Deus, who won Brazil’s first gold medal in Rio in judo, and then declared: “This medal demonstrates that a child who has a dream should believe, even if it takes time, because the dream can be realized.”
Although many people in the poorest areas of Rio still feel the Olympics are passing them by, a sense of giddiness is palpable across most parts of Rio. Working-class families dressed in the yellow and green of Brazil’s flag stroll along Copacabana’s beachfront promenade at midnight; fervid spectators have been filling stadiums with deafening cheers; and even some shrill critics who warned of chaos and bemoaned the cost overruns have changed their tune, at least for the moment. “What a shame I decided to take a vacation out of the city during this period,” wrote Dora Kramer, a columnist for the newspaper Estado de S. Paulo and a self-described Olympic pessimist.
The TV network (NBC) carrying the Olympics in the US was so concerned about a major disaster that they chose to broadcast the Olympics opening with a one-hour tape delay. However, instead of calamity, we have witnessed beautiful new sports venues and flawless technology, like overhead camera angles in the stadiums and underwater cameras in the swimming pool to enjoy the nuance of every swimmer’s efforts.
Eoin Naughton, a physiotherapist from Ireland working as a volunteer with the rowing athletes, said even the Bay’s much-feared water pollution hasn’t been an issue yet. He said Rio showed the Olympics should continue to be held in developing countries. Rio city officials say Olympic expenditures totalled U$12 billion, including public and private investments in venues, roads, and other related infrastructure. That is a fraction of the estimated U$50 billion Russia spent on the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics — a Games at which transportation, security checks, and food service on the whole worked more smoothly than in Rio. Rio’s challenges have intensified over the past year as the local organizing committee cut costs. Last year, it reduced the target number of volunteers that would be trained to help visitors and made cutbacks in high-end cuisine.
Everything about the Rio Olympics is on a grand scale, even the television coverage. My home cable provider in Curitiba is offering at least 40 high-def channels broadcasting the sporting events simultaneously. I give a lot of credit in Brazil to ESPN and Globo/SporTV for their 24/7 coverage. Globo also recognized that women athletes and commentators attract more viewers, especially women. When else do we have the opportunity to watch the best female fencers in the world? Or field hockey? Or women’s wrestling? Or young women who are 1.5 meters tall (5 feet) and weigh a maximum of 48 kilos (105 lbs.), doing a “clean and jerk” of 100 kilos (220 lbs.)?
Not only are the miracles of technology on hand to enhance our viewing pleasure, but the Olympics themselves are a miracle of international dedication and cooperation. There are sports being played in Rio that don’t even exist in Brazil, or the US for that matter. I’ve never seen American men play field hockey, and I’ve never seen American women play rugby. (It’s the first time women’s rugby has been played in the Olympics.) I’m not sure how popular these two sports are in Brazil, but there they were on TV, the Brazilian women’s rugby team, playing their hearts out. Nor have I ever seen women archers on TV except in the Olympics. When was the last time we got to see TV coverage of the fast and furious game of table tennis? Who knew Brazil had a women’s water polo team or women’s wrestling team? Other than the Olympics, when do we get to watch badminton?
With the swimming events over, we can report that Michael Phelps was wise to come out of retirement to pick up more gold. He’s now the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, male or female, in any sport. Also in the swimming venue, Katie Ledecky, at 19 the youngest American swimmer although this is her second Olympics, succeeded in becoming the first woman since 1968 to win the 200, 400, and 800-meter events. Katinka Hosszú from Hungary won her third gold in swimming with her husband as her coach. Of interest to developing countries, Vietnam won its first gold medal ever.
Does any event in history offer such an exhibition of dedication to excellence? And it’s not only the years of training for the athletes, but also the preparation from the Olympic workers. Is there any occasion that requires as much planning? I cannot fathom how they organize the living quarters and physical movements of the 18,000 participants. How do they make sure all the soccer players arrive in Brasília on time? How do they build venues for sports that nobody practices in Brazil? And how can we thank the tens of thousands of volunteers who helped make all this possible?
Only time will tell if viewers responded favorably to the addition of the newest sports in Rio — women’s rugby and men’s and women’s golf among others. Every Olympics brings new additions, and the next sports to arrive will be in Tokyo in 2020. They are surfing, skateboarding, karate, baseball/softball, and sport climbing, whatever that is.
One man who has attempted to show his appreciation for the Olympics in a big way is street artist Eduardo Kobra. Days before the Olympics began, world-renowned Brazilian muralist Kobra decided to set his own world record for the largest mural created by a single person. The mural, which he calls As Etnias (The Ethnicities), is 50 feet high (15.2 meters) and measures over 32,000 square feet (3200 sq. meters). Kobra illustrated five larger-than-life faces from five continents — corresponding to the five rings of the Olympics. After 100 gallons (400 liters) of white paint, 400 gallons of colored paint, 3500 cans of spray paint, and two grueling months of 12-hour days, the mural brightens up Rio’s port district. (A week later, Kobra’s remarkable effort will earn him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest outdoor hand-painted mural.)
Another artist celebrating the Olympics with a Rio display is French artist JR. JR is one of three designated Olympic artists-in-residence. The other two artists-in-residence are the German writer Tilman Spengler and Gerald Andal, an American Vine-video star. JR produced three giant sculptures installed around the city, each sculpture comes completed with its scaffolding.
In the Olympic Park in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, visitors glimpse what looks like a colossal seascape mural encircling the new aquatics stadium. But what appears to be ancient, cracked decorative tile is actually a scrim of 66 panels of perforated canvas, each 90 feet (27.4 meters) high. The artwork canvas is the largest contemporary artwork commissioned for Rio 2016. The blue-and-white work is steeped in a complicated past that is typical of its creator, Adriana Varejão, the revered Rio artist.
In other art extravaganzas, a model of the city of Rio made with almost a million pieces of Lego, covering about 20 square meters and one-meter-high, is on display at Porto Maravilha on the Olympic Boulevard. The model, weighing more than one and a half tons, was donated by the Danish manufacturer Lego and the government of Denmark as a tribute to the host city, the first South American city to host the Olympic Games.
For me, the connection between Olympic athletes and art is obvious when observing synchronized swimming. I didn’t even know Brazil had an Olympic-caliber team. Watching those eight women perform, thanks to aerial and underwater cameras, is a work of living art.
If ever the world was in need of artistic international cooperation through sports, it’s now. And what better example than the Rio Olympics and the selfie that went viral of the two female gymnasts from enemy countries North and South Korea.
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.
[Research: Wall St. Journal, The New York Times, Univision, NBC News, USA Today, Latin American Herald Tribune]