The Long Read: a few thoughts on Rio’s Olympics

Rio’s Olympics were so chaotic and muddled at times that, from a distance, it was difficult to know what to make of them.

The Long Read: a few thoughts on Rio’s Olympics

Rio’s Olympics were so chaotic and muddled at times that, from a distance, it was difficult to know what to make of them. From the myriad operational and logistical mix-ups to Hickey’s hotel wake-up call and ‘Lochtegate’, there were no shortages of off-field incidents to detract from a fortnight of sporting action that, as ever, provided no shortage of memorable moments.

Each morning during the Games brought with it a jumble of conflicting reports. While Games organisers implored us to focus on the endeavours of the athletes, it was hard not to get bogged down in the flood of negative press. As expected, the host nation’s flaws were dug up and laid bare before our eyes, as if everyone had arrived in Rio armed with a preconceived opinion of the place and a Spotter’s Guide to Unsavoury Brazil.

Still, the hosts came through it. It is by no means easy to organise the oversized Olympic jamboree at the best of times, but Brazil somehow pulled it off amidst its worst political and economic crisis in a generation. The result was a party that, while seemingly in constant danger of spilling out of hand, felt far more real and meaningful than any of its recent predecessors.

Whether it was all worth it for the people of Rio and Brazil remains to be seen. Those in the business of determining legacy will now set about examining the Games’ impact and crunching the official numbers, but for what’s its worth, here’s a few initial thoughts from my perch in Canada on what was, from start to finish, an unforgettable rollercoaster of an Olympics.

Credit where credit’s due

Shirking responsibility, passing the buck, deflecting the blame. Phrase it however you want, the IOC has an uncanny ability to remain virtually untouchable throughout any crisis concerning the Olympic movement and Rio 2016 showed that the Olympic bubble is alive and well.

Unperturbed by suggestions Olympic bosses exist in a parallel universe, the ever-defiant IOC president Thomas Bach hailed Rio 2016 as “iconic” and insisted the Games turned out to be a triumph because they were staged “in the middle of reality” as opposed to somewhere entirely fabricated, like Sochi. “They were not organised in a bubble,” Bach said. “They were organised in a city where there are social problems, social divides, where real life continued and I think it was very good for everybody.”

If that wasn't triumphalist enough, Bach also applauded his own organisation for showing “it is possible to organise Games in countries which are not at the top of the GDP rankings”.

The IOC certainly took a risk when it took the Games to the developing world, but it should not be forgotten who ultimately hosted them. The Brazilians were the ones who entered the bid, pandered to the committee’s excessive demands, sourced much of the private sponsorship, invested untold sums of money, and, in the end, bore almost all of the flack. They are the ones who deserve praise, not the IOC.

Paralympics in trouble

“Never before in the 56-year history of the Paralympic Games have we faced circumstances like this,” International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Sir Philip Craven said candidly on Friday. “Since becoming aware of the full scale of the problem, we have focused all of our efforts on finding solutions to the problems.”

For all the deficiencies of Rio’s Olympics, it is lamentable that the Paralympic movement could prove to be one of their casualties. The Rio 2016 organisers’ overspending on the Games has left the IPC in perhaps the worst crisis in its history, with barely a tenth of tickets for next month’s Paralympics having been sold. It remains to be seen how deep the promised Paralympic cuts will go but expect closed venues, fewer volunteers and more empty seats. 

The IOC and IPC’s cooperation agreement, which enshrines the current "one bid, one city” approach, will remain in place until at least 2032 after the pair signed a new memorandum of understanding in June, and calls for both committees to, among other things, co-operate with the aim of ‘ensuring the financial stability and long-term viability of the IPC, the Paralympic Games and the Paralympic movement.’ Yet the Rio organising committee’s ongoing cash flow problems reveal weaknesses in the relationship that exists between the Olympic and Paralympic movements.

While on the one hand there are clear benefits in being tied to the Olympic Games, one can't help but feel that the Paralympic movement is being shortchanged by its dependency on them. After the high watermark of London 2012, Rio 2016 is sure to represent a significant step back for the world of disability sport.

NBC is no BBC

Having spent much of my life living in the UK, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience many major sporting events through the unrivalled public broadcasting prism that is the BBC. No other broadcaster - at least none that I’m aware of - does Olympic sport like our beloved yet undervalued Corporation. I may be biased, but its informed coverage and seamless production are, quite simply, the best around, and its online offering is always second to none. By all accounts, it was the same again this year.

NBC, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. Never mind its constant commercial breaks, frustrating tape-delayed coverage and near-exclusive focus on American athletes and storylines, the network’s insistence upon serving up prepackaged treacle hardly justifies the billions it spent on the Games. Its decision to turn the pinnacle of sport into sweetened, family-friendly entertainment meant its coverage was too often unwatchable for avid fans seeking live sporting drama, even if it did serve to drive viewers to its digital platforms in greater numbers.

The biggest benefactor of the Olympic movement can - and really should - do better.

The Olympics will always be about the athletes, until they’re not

It is a refrain repeated time and time again by those who organise sporting mega-events: the athletes come first, everything else is secondary. The problem with that statement, of course, is that there is no preordained order of things when it comes to sport at the highest level. Every ‘stakeholder’, to use sports industry speak, plays an important role in the overall production, and if one member of the cast or crew doesn't pull its weight, a standing ovation is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Rio’s Games were the latest case in point. The Brazilian government, the Rio mayor, the IOC, the local organising committee, broadcasters, sponsors, volunteers, security forces, doping authorities, taxi drivers, ticket scalps, domestic and overseas fans - each had their moment in the spotlight during the event, for better or worse. Somewhere amongst them all - but never first - were the athletes.

Michael Long is SportsPro's Americas editor and this is his weekly column.