Rio 2016: Wrestling with the big bad Summer Olympics

Representatives of scores of nations gather to jostle for recognition, an upper hand, maybe even dominance: no, it’s not the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, and not the usual swirl of commuters in Grand Central Terminal either. It’s another Olympics summer — sing that to the tune of “Tequila Sunrise” if you’d like — which means another quadrennial parade of marvels, oddities, and controversies, some of it in the realm of sports, some not. An oddity that occurred to me just now: it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere, yet the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, a.k.a. the 2016 Summer Olympics, a.k.a. Rio 2016, officially began in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, yesterday evening.

The days are warm in Rio, though, and there’s no shortage of warm, even heated, feelings either. Brazil’s acting president, Michel Temer, who’s not much better liked than the elected president he’s standing in for, Dilma Rousseff, was subjected to boos during his opening speech last night, and the whole affair has been criticized, to put it simply, for bad timing, since Brazil, enshrined in 2001 among the BRIC group of developing countries to watch, is now awash in political and economic turmoil. Yesterday morning’s Economist Espresso tallied the score as the Games begin:

The economy has been in recession since mid-2014. Though industrial production edged up for the fourth straight month in June, it remains 18% below the peak three years ago. Incomes keep falling and unemployment creeping up. Dilma Rousseff, the suspended president, looks poised to be impeached days after the athletes depart.

The New York Times Evening Briefing yesterday sidestepped the background and still found a sizable list of other hurdles: “There have been doping problems, housing problems, sewage problems, torch failures, one arrest of an athlete and a scary virus to contend with, but despite it all, the 2016 Rio Olympics have prevailed.” As if to reassure fans that attention will be paid to the stuff that really matters, the briefing added that 24 percent of the entire Times sports desk is on the scene.

Meanwhile, a recently published book by David Goldblatt surveys the entire history of the modern Olympic Games and finds little to savor. As an Economist review reports, Baron de Coubertin, creator of the modern event, hoped that the games “would promote peace and also help achieve his decidedly conservative political aims.” The review reminds us that, in 1968, two African-American athletes who had just won medals gave a Black Power salute and were soon expelled from the U.S. team, that homeless people in Atlanta were locked up before the 1996 games, and that “construction before the Beijing games in 2008 forced more than 1m people out of their homes.” A longer review and commentary in The Guardian calls the book “a bracingly debunking history” and says Goldblatt shows that, along with “bad politics” and “bad science,” “the Games have invariably been bad propaganda too.”

The economics have often been bad as well. The Economist review mentions, as has been previously reported, that “of the 17 Olympic tournaments held between the second world war and 2012, only the one in Los Angeles, in 1984, actually made a profit.” The Guardian goes further: “The city of Montreal was nearly bankrupted by the games of 1976 (the final debts were only paid off in 2006). Athens 2004 did its bit to wreck the Greek economy, which in turn nearly brought down the world economy a few years later.” The knotty question of what to expect from the past leaves me unsure what one could’ve hoped for in terms of the acceptance of women, but it’s clear that for years they were treated no better in the arena than outside it. The Economist review sums it up: “from 1928 until 1968, there were no women’s races of more than 200 metres because it made them look too tired.”

This unpretty picture may be enough to make you wonder about the games of the distant past. In July, The New York Times published a travel piece by Bill Hayes recounting a present-day visit to the sites of ancient Greece’s four great athletic contests: Isthmia, Nemea, Delphi, and Olympia. It’s a little discursive for my taste, but it’s nicely dotted with historical notes, such as this: “I knew that a young Plato had competed as a wrestler at the Isthmian Games in the late fifth century B.C. Think about that, I told myself: Plato’s sweat had mixed with this dirt, here on these very grounds. I took a handful and sprinkled it through my fingers.”

For a brief survey of the ancient games themselves, check “At the Olympics: Then and Now,” which I wrote in 2012 for the blog to which I used to contribute. Rereading it reminds me that the dream of time travel, if it’s ever realized, is likely to attract only hardy adventurers: “conditions for spectators at Olympia…were so unpleasant that a disobedient slave might be threatened with the punishment of being sent there to watch.” A married woman who had attended in disguise and was discovered would’ve been put to death, but she was found to be the daughter and sister of Olympic champions. Even the spectacle of unclothed athletes — for that’s how they competed — could be off-putting; who wants to see a nude Plato wrestling?

The modern Olympics are what we’ve got. Reforms are possible, but in Goldblatt’s view unlikely. As with the ancient games, we may shudder at aspects of Rio 2016, and yet we can be pretty sure there will be marvels.

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Originally published at on August 6, 2016.