The squalor and sleaze that have engulfed the Rio Games cannot be what Pierre de Coubertin had in mind.
Far from elevating the world through sport, the upcoming Games have instead illustrated everything that’s gone wrong with the Olympic movement. Russia’s track and field team is banned and other athletes in the delegation could soon follow as punishment for a widespread, state-sponsored doping program – the complete antithesis of the idea of fair play.
Rather than fostering peace and harmony, the gathering of hundreds of thousands of fans from all corners of the world might further the spread of Zika, a virus linked to birth defects in babies.
As for the host city itself, instead of being transformative, the Games will leave a trail of broken promises stretching from one end of Rio to the other. The foul water that might never be cleaned. The infrastructure that wasn’t built. The debt that now burdens an economy that can least afford it.
Years after the flame is extinguished, Rio will still be reeling.
Maybe the entire Olympic movement, too.
“The Olympics, for a long time, have been in a slow-motion crisis,” said Jules Boykoff, author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. “Don’t get me wrong, the Rio organizers have been incompetent. But to blame them for the wider crisis the Olympics is experiencing is a little unfair.”
Boykoff is right. Easy as it is focus on the considerable mess in Rio, it obscures the real problem: The Olympics have lost their way.
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well,” de Coubertin, the father of the modern Games, once said.
Nowhere in that statement is there anything about winning at any and all costs, or building the most grandiose stadiums. Yet Bigger, Richer, Craftier may as well have replaced Faster, Higher, Stronger as the Olympic motto.
And for what?
Local resident Sandra Souza overlooks mosquito-infested standing water in the Vila Autodromo favela next to Olympic Park. (Photo: Sandy Hooper, USA TODAY Sports)
Russia may have believed its ill-gotten Olympic success would be proof of its overall superiority as a nation. But with its drug regimens and James Bond-like subterfuge exposed, it’s become the subject of international condemnation and scorn. No matter if it’s a handful or several hundred Russian athletes who march into the Maracana Stadium on Aug. 5, all will be viewed with suspicion.
It’s easy to single out the Russians, but they’re not the only ones subverting de Coubertin’s high-minded ideals. Far from it. Every team in Rio will have athletes who are hoping they’ve read their doping calendars right, crossing their fingers that their urine and blood samples will come back clean long enough to feel that medal around their necks.
And if advances in testing reveal their fraud five or eight years down the road, so be it. At least they’ll have had their moment on the medals stand.
Then there is Rio, just the latest host city to bankrupt itself – morally and financially – for a 16-day party.