Before the athletic spotlight is shut off for another four years, let us highlight the lasting effects of the games on Rio, for better or worse.
This summer’s 2016 Rio Olympics managed to turn Father Time himself into a sprinter; it seems like only yesterday that the world soaked up the sights and sounds of London’s own opening and closing ceremonies of 2012. It will take a generation to top the scene of James Bond escorting Queen Elizabeth II of England to the helicopter that “skydived” her into the stadium. When the Brits embrace soft power, they excel.
For any city designated to host the Olympics, the speed with which the games come and go can feel like a fleeting dream, leaving its citizens punch-drunk in a tsunami’s wake of global attention following the years of disruption of construction sites, blocked-off roads, and traffic jams.
One hopes, however, that Brazil can continue to bathe for longer in the afterglow of the extravaganza. Though Rio could never plaster over the cracks of crime and economic hardship, it skilfully juggled an armful of spanners that made finishing Olympic building projects seem like a small inconvenience; from Zika-bearing mosquitoes to polluted waters, abject poverty, corruption, and an impeached president.
For two weeks, the statue of Christ the Redeemer watched a world’s low expectations turn into an edgy juxtaposition of favelas and fun, medal podiums and cultural coolness, made possible by Brazilian ingenuity, imagination, and love of life. Their central concept of “gambiarra” focused on sustainability and renewal, in which the discarded is transformed into a thing of value and relevance. Even the silver medals were made from recycled mirrors, solder, and x-ray plates, and the tragic death of thirty-five year old Stefan Henze, Germany’s team coach in canoeing, from a car crash during the games, was commemorated in gratitude by the four lives his donated organs will now be able to save.
Every Olympics is marred by some dystopian element, whether it be buying citizenship for foreign athletes or doping. And Rio faced more uncertainty still with a near total ban on Russia’s participation, as well as fears over a terrorist attack. Yet the games proved a success, albeit dampened by low ticket sales and organizational glitches that left many visitors stranded between venues and slow queues.
What shone above all else was Brazil’s generosity of spirit, not just in the purest gold content and largest-sized medals ever presented at the Olympics, but in the quality of sporting participation hosted by a country whose unique and inextricably complex layering of ethnicities and heritage defines it like no other.
Nations, new and old, with non-powerhouse sporting programs—Fiji, Bahrain, Vietnam, Kosovo, Jordan, Tajikistan, Ivory Coast, Puerto Rico, Singapore—also took home a piece of Olympic glory—a first-ever gold medal—thus becoming another facet to a global prism of growing international inclusion. “It’s so important for all of us to see ourselves reflected in the world,” commented an African American from New York’s Bronx neighborhood.
Victories embraced not just Olympian superstars and their multiple medallions but a 58-year-old British show jumper Nick Skelton, the oldest competitor in the last one hundred years, who won gold, as did a young female judo athlete from a Rio slum and a Kuwaiti double trap shooter without a home team. The Polynesian island of Tuvalu sent one athlete who doubled up as flag bearer, a British boxer—clinically obese and flipping burgers in 2012—competed for a medal in 2016, a team representing the world’s 65 million refugees was given a flag and an anthem, and a selfie of a North Korean gymnast giggling with her South Korean counterpart went viral.
Global media coverage could never fully convey the spill-over effects of street-level bonhomie and newfound connection between athletes, trainers, family members, sponsors, and visitors from 207 participating countries. Yet, how big will the inevitable hangover from such celebrations prove to be, when the grandiose gestures of social cohesion and cooperation end up as platitudes in a country where 60% of its political representatives are under criminal investigation?
The Rio Olympics could end up as a short-acting salve to endless, unaddressed tensions. The cement cracks of languishing stadia may well be crazy-paved by Cariocan urban regeneration, while the floors of the corridors of power wax over a favela mother’s counsel to her young son: ”Get away from the window, close your eyes, dream about something nice.” Running away from gunfire, while paralyzed by destitution, is still a way of life for too many.
But, for a moment at least, the Rio Olympics managed to create benign battlefields out of its running tracks, swimming pools, gymnasiums, roads, beaches, and oceans, where the individual images of sporting defeat as well as victory rubbed away at the anonymity of the traditional enemy, and where a national anthem acknowledged the ties to the winner’s nation as well as to the flags of others on the podium. Achieving unity and peace will never be clean and easy, but at least both were alive and heartfelt over these last couple of weeks in Rio.