After Rio risk, Olympic officials can learn lessons
RIO DE JANEIRO >> Taking the Olympics to Rio de Janeiro was always considered a bit of a risk. Now that South America's first games are drawing to a close, the question is: Did the gamble pay off?
The answer, according to experienced Olympic officials and experts, is a mixed bag.
Yes, Brazil managed to pull it off under difficult economic and political conditions, with the sports competitions, venues, athletes, friendly hosts, television images and Rio's scenic backdrops all rising to the occasion.
Yet, behind the scenes, these were also troubled Olympics that fell short in other areas — empty seats, ticket fiascos, organizational mishaps, spread-out venues, green water, street crime, traffic chaos and lack of a clear Olympic feel in the parks.
The Olympics on TV are never the same as the Olympics on site. That's been the case more than ever this time, reminiscent of the 1996 Games in Atlanta, where great sporting moments contrasted with lost buses, failures in the technology system and other off-the-field problems.
"This has been probably a little below the expectations of the experts, but will have televised well for the 99.9 percent of the population of the world that experiences the Olympics," senior Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said.
International Olympic Committee vice president John Coates of Australia acknowledged the games have not run as smoothly as desired.
"It's been difficult," he said. "To be fair, some of that was because of the economic and political background on which the games are being held."
For Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, attending his 17th games, the shortage of volunteers, lack of Olympic signage and other logistical glitches have outweighed the well-run competitions and welcoming Brazilian people.
"I think these games will be seen in the continuum of Atlanta, Athens, Rio — the ones that didn't work out," he said. "One just hopes the lessons are learned."
But the games must also be judged from a local perspective. Many Brazilians and Rio residents — known as Cariocas — will feel pride over how they've put on the world's biggest sports event and will cherish their moments on the global stage.
And, for the host country, the games are ending on a delirious high— with a gold medal in men's soccer. Brazilian fans wanted more than anything to finally win the top Olympic prize that has eluded them in their national sport.
Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said the Olympics have been a catalyst for building new public transport lines and renovating the port area, insisting that no white elephants will be left behind. Comparing Rio to the richer cities that lost out for the 2016 Games would be misguided, he said.
"We come from a tropical experience, the Latin ways of Brazil, which sometimes made the IOC members a little bit crazy," Paes said. "If you want to be fair to Rio, you cannot compare us to Tokyo, to Chicago, to Madrid. These are cities that have much better infrastructure. They come from developed countries. You have to compare Rio to Rio."
When Rio was chosen as host city seven years ago, IOC members were convinced the time had come to take the games to South America. Brazil was a rising economic force at the time. But local organizers quickly fell behind in preparations and were forced into an Athens-like mad dash to catch up.
Then, over the last two years, the economy plummeted into its worst recession in 80 years, the country was engulfed by a massive corruption scandal centering on the state-run oil company Petrobras, and the president was suspended and sent for impeachment.
"It's also a games in the middle of reality, not organized in a bubble," IOC President Thomas Bach said Saturday. "They were games in a city where there are social problems and social divisions. ... The IOC has shown that it is possible to organize games also in countries which are not at the top of the GDP rankings."
The athletes produced the goods — Bolt with three more gold medals to take his career tally to nine, Michael Phelps with five more golds for a total of 23, and gymnast Simone Biles with four golds. But the games also were marred by the bad behavior — and concocted stories — of Ryan Lochte and his U.S. swimming teammates.
For all the drumbeat of bad news in the months ahead of the Olympics, two of the biggest issues caused barely a ripple. The Zika virus, which had led some scientists to call for the games to be postponed or moved, was hardly mentioned. Worries over Rio's sewage-filled waters did not hamper the competitions, with only a handful of athletes falling ill.
Elsewhere, there were embarrassing setbacks, mostly during the first week: the green water that marred the diving and water polo events; the windows of a media bus shattered in an attack; foreign team officials and government ministers mugged in the street; volunteers who never showed up or just quit.
"It's just not acceptable with seven years in advance not to signs ready, not to have volunteers who know anything, as friendly as they may be," Wallechinsky said.
Arguably the most damaging drawback was the lingering issue of empty seats. Some venues, such as tennis, basketball, swimming and gymnastics, drew good crowds and produced a lively atmosphere. But others suffered from lesser turnouts and lack of buzz. The track and field stadium was a quarter- or half-full for some sessions; the stands were not even completely packed for Usain Bolt's gold medal races.
The long distances and travel times between the three main venue clusters meant there was no single area where large, colorful crowds could congregate and produce a Carnival atmosphere.
For the future, Olympic officials believe greater oversight and concrete benchmarks are needed to make sure organizers are on time and delivering as promised. Pound said the IOC and international federations should carry out a "forensic analysis" after Rio on what worked, what didn't and why.
"Going forward, the IOC has to learn from the experience in Rio if it wants to take the games to places other than settled, affluent cosmopolitan cities," IOC vice president Craig Reedie said. "We should train the city well in advance. We have to work out how better to prepare them and help them."
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