Well done, Rio. Well done. Many of us didn’t think you could pull it off. Well done.
More than two weeks ago, as the saying goes, the youth of the world descended upon Rio de Janiero for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. We saw all the headlines of Zika, crime problems and construction delays in finishing venues. We saw the horrific tales of contaminated water in the rowing, canoeing and open water swimming areas that contained months worth of sewage and a “super-bacteria”. Even heading into the Olympics, there were a few ugly incidents: A robbery of New Zealand’s judoka Jason Lee days before the competition, the Australian Olympic team having their rooms in the Olympic Village burglarized during a fire alarm and the numerous videos and pictures of unfinished rooms still under construction in the 11th hour in the Olympic and media villages. The press headlines coming into Rio was not the best; all the makings of a disaster in progress on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
And yet, as the crowds and Olympic delegations filed into the historic Maracana for opening ceremony, all worries seemed to be set aside. The world was treated to a much less extravagant ceremony than its predecessors in London and Beijing, but to one unique in Rio’s signature style. We saw Amazon Brazil transform to Slavery and Colonial Brazil to free and vibrant Brazil, bustling at the seams with the indomitable human spirit. In typical Rio fashion, the celebration began with a rousing national anthem and the beats and music with which Brazil has become synonymous. The mood set the tone for what would become a theme for the two weeks. In the first Olympic games hosted on the South American continent, an epic party broke out as the torch was lit. With a bang, the 2016 Games were off to a start.
From the first day of competition, the atmosphere was unlike any other Summer Olympics. Raucous crowds packed the beach volleyball stadium on Copacabana Beach, the volleyball games at Maracanãzinho, basketball at Carioca Arenas, the Rio Olympic Arena and the Olympic Aquatic Center. They lined the streets leading into the Sambadromo during the marathons and road races, enthused, engaged and seemingly happy. All of the big sports rocked with some of the most passionate crowds in the world. They cheered on Selecao in Brasillia and the women’s team at Mineirao in Belo Horizonte.
There were plenty of reasons to cheer as well. Through the first week alone, the crowds were treated to history. The world’s greatest swimmer returned to add five more gold medals to his ridiculous tally, only to be denied a sixth gold by a superstar in the making that once idolized him. A new prodigy in the pool proved literally that she’s all alone in a class reserved for the greats. The best gymnast ever and her equally excellent team capped a dynasty with a record haul. A first occurred in the pool with an African-American women touching the wall first an individual event. A relatively unknown female tennis player surprised us all as she won Puerto Rico’s first gold medal in the Olympics. And a refugee athlete won gold for the first time in Games history.
The second week proved to be a perfect sequel. Jamaica retained the sprint crown. The king? “He Stay the King” as D’Angelo Barksdale once said. But, the baton was passed to a newcomer on the women’s side that shows that black, green & gold will be force in the sport for years to come. A young man from South Africa ran an impossible time from an improbable lane and shocked us all. It’s how you start, but how you finish-as a determined Brit taught us. The greatest female track & field athlete of her era lost-by a lean! An American woman won the first gold medal for her country in swimming.
Perhaps the best feeling all week came in the final days from the host nation winning three of its most coveted and precious golds. In the spiritual home of beach volleyball, two Brazilians led Copacabana beach into its wildest party yet. In Maracanãzinho, the Brazilian men team capped the Games with a dominant performance in the finale. The Selecao? They only secured the one trinket missing from an already illustrious trophy case and history belonging to the world’s most recognizable soccer power.
All week long, the vibe from Rio de Janiero seemed to be of a celebration. Even thousands of miles away and through a television screen, the sense was that not only Rio, but the world was tossing its worries aside in the spirit of love for competition and sportsmanship. Politics didn’t matter. Neither did conflict or philosophy. For two weeks, we all came together, whether on the competitive fields and arenas in Rio or through interactions on social media and conversations in public that included that “Did you see…” dialogue.
Suddenly, those of us who love the Olympics were reminded as to why. It’s the only event where the world comes together in celebration of sport and any affiliations and borders that are placed between humans come down. It’s where a North Korean and South Korean gymnast can take a selfie when ordinary circumstances would frown upon it. It’s where a Irani and Isreali athletes can embrace and show respect when tensions between the countries couldn’t be higher. It’s when competitors in Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand and Abby D’Agostino brushed aside the need to finish first in place for decency. During the women’s 5,000, D’Agostino and Hamblin collided about two-thirds through the race. D’Agostino helped Hamblin up, but then buckled as she realized that she was injured. Hamblin and D’Agostino ran the rest of the race well behind the race, but finished within some distance of each other. The two embraced after the finish and had what was one of the top three moments of the Rio Olympics. We now know that D’Agostino finished the race with a torn ACL.
Aside from a very ugly, unfortunate and embarrassment by four of Team USA’s athletes (one in particular who shall not be named and is getting his, as they say), we couldn’t have asked for more. Sure, the venues could have ALL been filled, but what can you do? This has been a problem at the Olympic games for sometime now. We aren’t privy to the other mini-disasters that may have happened during this fortnight or whether any of the legitimate medical concerns that were present prior to the Games actually materialize in a real life case. These stories may come out over time. However, the memories that we will take away from these Games will last for years after we are gone.
We’ll marvel in the dominant overall performances from USA Track & Field and Swimming, winning 31 and 32 medals respectively. about half of them gold and the lion’s share being won by women athletes. We’ll remember that women’s athletes took another step forward in the sporting world towards recognition and respect. We’ll remember the chants and songs sung by these amazing crowds during volleyball, basketball, soccer, track & field, handball and swimming. We’ll remember how the joy of some athletes of just being at Olympic Games trumped any result in any event in which they would have competed. We’ll remember that no one dives better than the Chinese (how do they get in the water so cleanly?). We will especially remember the host nation proudly and fervently sing its national anthem during seven gold medal ceremonies-a record for Brazil during a single Olympics. From Neymar’s tears after the winning penalty kick to secure the gold medal, to Simone Manuel turning around and mouth agape with shock, we’ll remember how much it means.
But, most of all what I’ll remember is Rio. Rio-beaten and battered. Brazil, unfairly judged and criticized. Sure-the country of Brazil has massive problems to deal with long after the Games have passed. Political corruption and turmoil is still rife in the country and is in the midst of presidential impeachment that will reverberate not just in Brazil and South America, but the whole world. Income inequality and inequities suffered by the poor and downtrodden will still be a huge issue. Crime and development issues will be a hot topic of debate. But through it all, the Brazilian people, organizers and government put on their best face to welcome the world with open arms. Most of all, there were no major security issues that materialized and no terror attacks.
I’ll remember watching feature pieces on the tourist and historical attractions that made you wish you were there. Everything from the views of surfing, volleyball and relaxing at Copacabana and Ipanema beaches and the trips through the favelas to see true soul of the Brazilian people. To the many views of Sugar Loaf Mountain to the Confeitaria Colombo and Christ the Redeemer, Rio played the part. The athletes are always the stars of the Olympic Games, but Rio played a great supporting part this time around.
So as the torch extinguished in Maracana on Sunday and world said one last goodbye in the form of a carnival type celebration in Rio, we shift towards four years from now in the Land of the Rising Sun. Four years from now, the youth of the world will assemble in Tokyo to provide us with more spectacular competition and memories. They have a lot to live up to considering what Rio endured to provide the Olympics to the world.
As they say in Portuguese, Obrigado (Thank you), Rio. Job Well Done.