I’m not a man prone to nostalgia but last night I was feeling nostalgic. I was nostalgic for the days when I could watch an Olympic Games and boldly claim that these were the greatest games ever. I remember thinking that after the Beijing Olympics. I remember thinking it after Sydney. I might even have thought it after Athens. I definitely thought it after London. The only satisfaction watching the Rio Olympics is that London still remains the high point in all my Olympic viewing. I’m also beginning to hope that it remains that way.
Over the past few days I’ve watched more Olympic sport than I probably should and it struck me whilst watching the women’s synchronised diving last night (proof that I am indeed watching too much) that the whole purpose of the Olympics is to laud nations with lousy human rights records. The Chinese won with a display that was synchronised to a degree that felt simply inhuman. The routine has become familiar. Pick a sport and watch the normal humans perform with human-like abilities. Then watch the Chinese, the Russians, or the North Koreans do something simply extraordinary. Looking at the medals table it feel like it’s a battle for possession of the human soul: America the staunch advocate of freedom against China, a nation that sees sporting achievement as a perfect advertisement for their perfect civilisation. I find myself cheering on America at every opportunity.
In the weight lifting, you can spend an hour watching various lumps of muscle strain and stress themselves under the bar. They’ll hit their limit and drop out of the competition before the Chinese even begin to think about their first lift. It’s happened again and again. World records broken by people who don’t look particularly happy that they’ve just become the best at their chosen discipline. On the first day, I watched a Chinese girl win the pistol shooting. She couldn’t have looked less happy if she’d just shot herself through the foot. Meanwhile, the poor Brazilians are left paying so China can prove that their form of totalitarianism works better than democracy.
The problem is that supposedly amateur sports are less amateur in some nations. I don’t know what they eat in North Korea but they are a particularly fit bunch if we are to judge by their athletes. Except, of course, we do know what they eat in North Korea and, specifically, we know what they don’t eat. Every time I see a North Korean athlete lose (two silvers so far) I wonder what that really means to them back home. It’s not something like I to dwell on. There was a time when Olympics were a great opportunity to defect from a country but the North Koreans have even managed to spoil that.
Which is why I’m not blaming Brazil for putting on such a third-rate games. I’m almost grateful that the water turned green in the diving pool and that the equestrian course looked like a brownfield site before its been redeveloped into an equestrian course. I almost celebrate the empty seats and approve that the opening ceremony was a budget affair, though lecturing the world about the environment seemed a bit of an odd one given that they are still the site of some of the world’s worst deforestation and pollution. This is what the Olympics has needed for a long time and I would hope future countries will do the same. Winning the ‘right’ to host the Olympics must rate alongside winning a contest to invade Russian in the winter. No county in its right mind would entertain the idea of doing either.
Which makes me wonder why Brazil ever thought it a good idea. Except, of course, Brazil didn’t think it a good idea. Brazilian politicians thought it a good idea back when Brazil’s economy was experiencing an ‘economic miracle’. Forbes earlier this year said of Brazil that ‘no country in the world has more cities plagued by violent crime than Brazil.’ The World Bank describe poverty in Brazil as being ‘well above the norm of a middle-income country’.
A failed Olympics has been a long time coming but somehow the hype machine always manages to make each one seem like a spectacular success. Athens had legacy problems and so had Barcelona and Sydney. Even London has had problems, with the stadium sold cheaply to West Ham whose supporters will now need binoculars to see the pitch. The Olympics have become synonymous with excess, waste, and utterly pointless stadiums that match nearly anything built for a World Cup. I say nearly because the £350 million Mane Garrincha stadium in Brasilia was built for the 2014 World Cup and is now, reportedly, being used as a bus depot. So maybe this is what we’ve needed. Rio might be a failing Olympics but it might also be a gold medal for common sense.