Rio Olympics shine through clouds of controversy

For an Olympics that started under a cloud of Russian doping, threatened to get lost in a fog of organisational chaos a few times, was shook by some serious storms and finishes under an actual blanket of rain clouds, Rio 2016 has shone when it mattered most.

Rio 2016 is the hit production that did not have time for a dress rehearsal but was rescued by an all-star cast night after night after night.

And when every major sports event is meant to be ‘athlete-centred’ now, is that not what really matters?

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach has called Rio 2016 the “iconic Games” which might be a polite way of sidestepping the traditional requirement to say each Games has been the best but also happens to be true.

While the i-word has become a slightly pretentious way of saying something is good, one of its real meanings relates to the depiction of victorious athletes, and we have certainly had a selection of those in Rio.

Bach rattled off his own list on Saturday – Simone Biles, Usain Bolt, Japan’s Kaori Icho, Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps and so on – and they would figure in most discussions about the key players in Rio, but those discussions could last a while.

Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin helping each other to finish the 5,000 metres after falls, Lutalo Muhammad apologising to the British public for only getting a silver in the taekwondo, Wayde Van Niekerk upstaging Bolt on 100m final night by obliterating Michael Johnson’s 400m record, Neymar winning Brazil’s most cherished gold in a shoot-out against the team that humiliated them at their World Cup two years ago, Fiji’s first Olympic medal in the first ever rugby sevens event. It is quite a list.

There have been more than a few times over the last few weeks when you sensed the whole operation was about to fall apart. Whether it was bullets flying through media tents (and perhaps even media buses), the diving pool turning green or the latest discovery on the shore of the sailing venue, Rio has been a rickety rollercoaster ride. But it has also been fun.

It was a shame more people did not come to watch the actual sport but it was good that the mosquitoes stayed away, too, and you have to acknowledge that when the Cariocas came they made quite a racket.

Whether these Games will deliver even half of the legacy benefits that the city’s biggest Olympic cheerleader Mayor Eduardo Paes has promised – and Bach has been happy to parrot – is debatable.

The best-case scenario for Rio is probably that it is back on the international tourism map, has a much better transport system than it did last year and has answered some major questions about its ability to roll with the punches.

Because this was not easy. When Rio won the bid seven years ago, Brazil was rocketing up the global economic medal table and Rio was determined to become South America’s cultural champion. The worst recession in 80 years and the resulting political turmoil lowered expectations but the organisers deserve credit for never throwing in the towel.

They now need to steel themselves for one last push, though, as a poor Paralympics next month would take the shine off what they achieved with the Olympics.

Which brings us to what the Olympics could and should take from its first attempt to stage a Games somewhere this complicated.

While the Olympics remain the best sports show in town, they do not need to be this big, this demanding, this all-encompassing.

Tokyo takes the baton from Rio and should not have the same cash flow and crime problems but even a G7 nation has to take a deep breath before it picks up the bill for one of these parties and the IOC has just added five more sports to the schedule.

So well done Rio, you pulled it off.

But the IOC has some thinking to do about how it looks after these incredible athletes a little better and becomes a less demanding house guest.

Matt Slater

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