No Olympic Games in the last 20 years have arrived with fewer expectations than Rio de Janeiro’s. What with Zika, paranoia about security, the eternal spectre of performance-enhancing drugs, boycotts and naked lack of preparedness, it feels as though everyone – hosts, visitors, spectators and farflung viewers – will be relieved for Rio simply to have muddled through. Olympic fever is what you might catch in the open water swim. Perversely, this might be the Games’ redemption: lowered thresholds will be more readily achieved.
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Brazil is that sort of country. Though fifth largest in the world, by area and population, it is not the type to throw its weight around, except at soccer. Novelist Nelson Rodrigues wrote of the country’s “stray dog complex”. US president Ronald Reagan, when visiting Brazil in 1982, toasted “the people of Bolivia”. At a ceremony 100 days out from the Games, then president Dilma Roussef – since deposed – called preparations “perfectly adequate”, which is hardly from the “greatest games ever” school of Olympian rhetoric. Lawyer and blogger Regys Silva said: “We know it won’t be the best Games ever. But we hope it’ll be a nice Games and people will enjoy it.” So, Carnival, not Davos or General Assembly.
This self-effacement is endearing, but it is scarcely commensurate with staging the biggest show on earth, let alone two of them in a row. The IOC have come as FIFA did two years ago, ostensibly as a guest, in fact as an invader, trampling its way in, setting itself up in its own compounds and enforcing its own rules. Inevitably, the locals pay a price.
Jules Boykoff, author of Power Games and critic of the Olympic movement’s “gigantism”, describes a multiplier of between five and 10 times the price first quoted for all Olympic Games. At that, Rio’s will cost around $20 billion. That is less than for recent Games – the budget for Friday’s opening ceremony was estimated to be one-tenth of London’s and one-twentieth of Beijing’s – but it is still a hefty impost on a country already in political and economic crisis, with a credit rating of BB. All these matters weigh heavily, on Rio, on its Olympics, on all Olympics.
But as long as the Games are on they will be their own salve and salvation; the dishes can wait until the morning. This is always the way. There is such a thing as the Olympic spell. This was apparent on Thursday in the buzz on the balmy beachfronts at Copacabana and Ipanema.
As ever, it was a matter of how you looked at it. One way, where the soldiers clustered, it might have been Beirut. The other, it was Surfers’ Paradise (but with fewer surfers). Generalising, the pre-Games bulletins have been too alarmist. Here’s yet another way of looking at it, the way of Brazilian novelist and Rio resident Paulo Coelho: “A city where the real quality of life lies in the fact that it is difficult, tense, harsh, funny, crazy, unbearable, unforgettable.” But Coelho also wrote that Rio was a place “where men and women come in all colours and in all creeds, and never argue because of that – but are constantly killing each other for worthless things, like the best samba song or the best soccer team”.
Australia’s challenge in Rio is the opposite of the city’s: heightened, almost hyper expectations. Since the giddiness of Sydney 2000, Australia’s medals tally has gradually dwindled and in London was at a 20-year low. But the swimmers are back, and the cyclists, too. Chef de mission Kitty Chiller has regularly revised projections and they sit now at more than 40 medals, including perhaps 16 gold. On paper, a series of reforms to governance and funding since London appears to be working, and Chiller’s somewhat martial manner is having an effect, too.
“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short,” supposedly said Michelangelo, “but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” That may be so, but when the Matildas’ gold medal fantasy began to come apart 20 seconds into their first game and two days before the opening ceremony, was anyone thinking: “Sistine Chapel, here we come”? It is one thing to have a splash of paint on your face, another egg.
But on Saturday morning, at least, Rio and Australia both start with freshly stirred-up spirit and nearly clean slates. For a brief moment, all in Rio will be as described by Brazilian poet and translator Tatiana Salem Levy: “Few things are more beautiful than the instants that precede momentous things, the second before a passionate kiss, before a marathon runner crosses the finish line, before a rainstorm hits Rio de Janeiro.
“Before the water comes crashing down, Rio teems with activity, people make a frantic dash for it, birds disperse in a flurry, cockroaches scurry, monkeys leap from branch to branch, all seeking shelter, a roof of any kind. The city suddenly begins to palpitate when the humidity reaches an unsustainable level, when you know that the hot, heavy, sticky weather is about to come undone in a downpour.”
Or at the Olympics, a rush of gold.