Rio 2016 Olympics – a postscript

23 August, 2016

Quite a long post today. I’ve been back in the UK for five days, but I’m still dreaming about Rio every night. Odd new sports. Athletes in desperate need of quotes. It’s left an impression on me. I hope it did the same for you.

OK. Firstly, the Olympic channel has finally got busy and started putting up videos from the finals on YouTube – although their attention to detail (& logic) leaves something to be desired. You can watch everything currently available on this playlist here. Some of the highlights:

Women’s individual final with (I think) BBC commentary here (you may have to click for an external link)

Men’s individual gold medal match here:

Just a bit of the women’s team bronze and gold medal matches here (spoiler alert):

Hardly any of the sublime men’s team final here:

…but most of the men’s team bronze match here. Well done Alec and the boys:

Then there’s a really quite funny quiz with Brady Ellison:

Want baffling, dialogue-and-narrative-free ‘highlights’ of Mauro Nespoli’s big dance?  Knock yourself out. And there’s plenty more on the full playlist – although right now, frankly, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Keep an eye on it, perhaps it will in the future. (in contrast, you can watch full replays of London 2012 sessions).


So after the match between Chang Hyejin and the North Korean archer Kang Un Ju, the latter sprinted through the press mixed zone like Usain Bolt with two dozen screaming Korean journos reaching after her and gunning the Nikons. Shortly afterwards, I was informed that there was a weird incident involving a dodgy Korean (presumably South) camera crew out the back of the venue trying to interview Un Ju and getting some cables ripped out the back of their camera by her ‘coaches’ (read: minders).

Suffice it to say, both archers were very much expected to win that match, the only direct one-on-one North v South matchup of the entire Games (if I checked correctly).  Hyejin suggested cooly afterwards: ‘It gathered a lot of attention in our country. I had a lot of pressure and I knew that I needed to win it.” which I suspect is a grand understatement. It’s a bit of a shame, especially as elsewhere there was a rather sweet story involving North and South Korean gymnasts getting a selfie together.


Photo: Reuters


There’s a bit of fallout from the teams which didn’t perform as hoped; looks like Malaysian coach Lee Jae Hyung might be paying the price for not taking any of his team quite deep enough.

Despite the clean sweep of gold medals in the Sambodromo, the Republic of Korea came up a little short of expectations in Rio, with fencing falling short and their most famous athlete, swimmer Park Tae-hwan not even making his big final.

Taiwan, more commonly known around these parts as Chinese Taipei (the very short version: it’s complicated) took a well-deserved bronze in the women’s team event. Apparently Taiwan, despite taking just a handful of medals in an eventful Games for the country, is the strongest Olympic performer of all time if you adjust for GDP, as this interesting article points out.

Off the Games, there’s this thing about a corner of the archery world I knew nothing about: Ancient Indonesian archery finds mark in the modern world


Bow - arch

“I think this is a really iconic Games. It is also a Games in the middle of reality. They were not organised in a bubble. They were organised in a city where there are social problems, social divides, where real life continued and I think it was very good for everybody.

“To be close to reality and not to have it in a bubble for 16 days, the Games somehow being isolated. To be in the middle of it, to see reality and by seeing this to put sport into perspective.” – Thomas Bach, president of the IOC

I’m going to discuss a few things now. I suspect the Rio Games will be remembered for a long, long time, as a major pivotal point in Olympic history. The ‘old model’ is gone.

In the end, despite terrible doomsaying and a handful of dark mishaps, it went off mostly without a hitch – but against an unignoreable backdrop of a city struggling to put on the event financially and a population that seemed to largely, but certainly not completely, turn its back. They did it very much their way. The best bits shone bright, but the empty seats across the board, whether due to disinterest or overpricing or sheer distance from anything else, told a tale which was impossible for a global TV audience to ignore.

Few cities on Earth could have lived up to 2012.  London sold out almost every ticket across the Games, which no Olympics has ever got close to before , and may never again. The London Paralympics was almost sold out before it started. The British people – belatedly – got fully behind it, seeing sports they’d never heard of, plus London has hundreds of large immigrant communities from all over the world which helped to fill seats everywhere. For example, there are over 15,000 Koreans resident in London, who bought a lot of tickets for archery, taekwondo and much else besides. And London is a densely populated, obscenely wealthy city with a lot more potential for an extended legacy for the infrastructure.

So it was always going to be difficult to follow London (let alone Beijing and/or Sochi), but as many people at home and away have said to me, there seemed to be something missing – a genuine sense of festival, or a sense of the transformative power of sport. For spectators, there was nagging feeling that it might not quite have been worth it. The full competition had many highlights across the board, but without that collective atmosphere, that powerful sense of identity.

In Rio, the threat of Zika and crime scared off more casual tourists, whatever the milder reality might have been. The tickets were far too expensive, just as they were for working people in London, but Brazil is in a horrible recession with rampant unemployment – and there were many other issues over the buildup that I’m sure you’ve already read about over and again. And I’m not sure if anyone realises quite how long-term toxic the wider issues with doping in athletics, the flagship of the fleet, have been to the Olympics overall.

A less-mentioned problem is a general lack of Olympic cultural identity. Britain (for example) has a long legacy and cultural memory of Olympic participation and success, from Coe and Ovett and Thompson in the 80s, Redgrave & Backley in the 90s etc. It’s a part of the culture, and there are collective memories of it and being part of it.

cristo 4

yeah, I went up it. like everyone else (it was brilliant)

It’s a shame, but many Brazilians just don’t have that sense of the Olympics as being something the country is involved in, where Brazil plays a part in the narrative. (They love some sports –  football, of course, and volleyball; the only two sports that really shifted a lot of tickets). But a lot of the rest of it just didn’t register as something you could play a part in, and the average person in Rio had more pressing things on their mind.

When even the athletics session for Usain Bolt running the 100m, an event watched by two billion people in 2012, isn’t sold out, you know something is very wrong.  (It didn’t help that, due to TV demands, the athletics ran very late and finished close to midnight, in a part of town that isn’t the best and is ill-served by public transport).

Ultimately the people spoke, and they said: There are more important things than a canoe slalom course. And of course, they are absolutely right. I still believe in the Olympics as a powerful force for good in the world, as the single time every four years when the world comes together to celebrate what humans can achieve. But it has become, in the 21st century, something that is too simply large, too expensive, and too difficult to impose upon people in its present form.

Believe it or not, when Rio was awarded the Games in 2009, on a grand-scale it seemed like a genuinely brilliant idea. The economy was going through the roof. Oil was at record highs. It fit past Olympic narratives of a national power thrusting fully into the world after a long period in the wilderness. Memories of Tokyo ’64, with a modern industrial nation emerging from losing a war, and similar tales at Seoul in 1988. There’s a strong sense that everybody wanted it to work like that; Brazil, with all its extraordinary natural advantages and increasing financial clout, finally taking a place at the forefront of the modern world with a Rio Olympics as a catalyst. Everyone was hopeful.

But there’s a grim proverb popular over there: “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be.” It didn’t quite happen as intended, for reasons recounted ad nauseam already, and because of that, a lot of rather bright light has been shone on the Olympic movement, the IOC, its legacies and its future.

I count myself very lucky indeed to have been able to visit such a great country with some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met – and Rio itself is a extraordinary place, rugged and difficult, but often exquisitely beautiful, with a manic, creative energy unlike anywhere else on earth. It would be a terrible shame if the legacy is as grim as many are predicting. And when I think about some of the brilliant, brilliant Olympians I met, the athletes who had worked so incredibly hard, and the wonderful staff and volunteers at the Sambodromo, all working to make something amazing, I start welling up once again.


There’s a gazillion articles out there this week about the wider Olympics. (If you want to keep it frivolous, I recommend this one.)

Some more interesting longread postscript articles you might enjoy:

After the party: Rio wakes up to an Olympic hangover, by Luis Eduardo Sores, which explains much of the background to the Rio Games and where the city goes after this.

Rio 2016 was not an easy Olympics but has been saved by the brilliance of the sport, by Nick Butler at insidethegames, which talks a lot about the IOC’s role in Rio.

Rio Notebook: Reconciling The Olympics Bubble by Caley Fretz on Velonews.

OK, thanks for reading. Let’s get ready for the Paras. Cheers, John.






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