The Rio Olympic Games ended with an energetic, international Samba party that will be unforgettable for athletes, Olympic fans and many others alike. And, depending on how you like to do the math – they were a success.
It wasn’t an easy road for the Rio organizers, one that took them from the Bella Centre in Copenhagen Denmark where in 2009 then IOC President Jacques Rogge declared them the winners for these 2016 Games – to Maracanã Stadium where the biggest event in the world opened, and then closed Friday night.
But it’s wasn’t supposed to be easy.
What is easy though is to put a microscope on petty crime occurring in a city of over six million inhabitants. Robberies, shootings, and other misdemeanors in any large city should not be a surprise to anyone – even if amplified by over 20,000 international media professionals scouring the city for a story.
It’s also simple to pinpoint infrastructure deficiencies in a project, the biggest of its kind in the world, that is futilely time-boxed and critically deliverable while the nation’s economy is at its worst.
Lack of funding, budget cuts, a ridiculous travel warning by the World Health Organization regarding mosquitoes that were apparently elsewhere and the sudden onslaught of hundreds of thousands of pairs of feet and another few billion eyeballs would be daunting to any city at any time.
And even after the last gold medal was won, just as the organizers believed they were in the clear and ready for their final farewell party – rain and winds pummeled Maracanã for a final twist of the dagger. The resulting power outages inside the stadium and across Rio provided the last battle that organizers would face before the Olympic flame was to be extinguished, ironically by staged rain even though the venue had already been sufficiently doused.
Despite poor traffic, unreliable food, green pool water and disgruntled absentee volunteers – the job that counted got done. We saw sport that will inspire and fuel a generation.
When Rio won the Games, the nation’s economy was strong. Now, in its worst recession ever – organizers refused to give up. It would have been easy for the Cariocas to throw up their arms and resign, and let the IOC deal with the mess – but they didn’t.
They did what was hard.
Rio 2016 President Carlos Nuzman proclaimed, as he gripped his soggy, blowing speech notes “it was seven years of a lot of struggle and work, but it was worth it. Every minute.”
“Organising the Games in Rio was a challenge. A successful challenge.
“These Olympic Games proved that your sons, Brazil, do not flee from the battle.”
They brought the world together to compete against, and with each other. They created a selfie with athletes from the two at-war Koreas. They provided a platform for the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. They raised a podium for ten nations to receive their first-ever gold medals. It wasn’t perfect, but it got done.
More modest ceremonies, a smaller cauldron, less signage – it doesn’t matter. Ultimately every single gold medal was awarded.
IOC President Thomas Bach said “during these last 16 days, a united Brazil entertained the world with unforgettable and emotional moments of pure happiness despite the rather difficult surrounding environment.”
“These were marvelous Olympic Games in the marvelous city.”
“History will talk about a Rio de Janeiro before and a much better Rio de Janeiro after the Olympic Games.”
Only time will tell whether the Games has been a watershed moment for Brazil, as its unemployment continues to rise and the national leader faces impeachment and corruption charges. But a record seven gold and 19 total medals for the South American host nation, including the coveted Olympic football championship, will help drive acceptance of the Games and an intangible legacy that may inspire the next generation.
These Games won’t be remembered as great Games. With empty seats, insufficient funding and a subsequent downsizing of the Paralympic Games – those who experienced Rio 2016 will recall the struggles, the challenges and the overall bad press that kept sport tourists away in droves.
Or, perhaps they’ll recall Michael Phelps’ record extending medal haul, Usain Bolt’s triple-triple on the track and Simone Biles gymnastic artistry. It all depends on how you do the math.
The wrong message to take from the Rio 2016 experience would be that the IOC made the wrong choice in selecting a host – that it should play it safe in the future. Despite the struggle, the Games ignited sport not only in Brazil, but across South America where the Games were staged for the very first time. Teams across the continent were warmly welcomed by the Brazilians, even rivals Argentina received loud cheers at the Opening Ceremony.
The Games are designed to be shared, and Rio proved that even developing nations can, and should be considered to do the job, if the focus remains on sport.