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DW2I’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.


9 Comments on "Why we should celebrate these Olympics"

  1. I watched the fencing the other night not a sport I know anything about or ever watch but I got engrossed and I guess that is part of the beauty of the Olympics. The Billions spent on these games always sits a bit uncomfortably in countries where poverty is on such a large scale. There have been demonstrations but I guess largely the police have kept them away. It is a wonderful 16 day jamboree but I imagine most of the population will see no benefit to their lives post Olympics and all their problems will still be there. You mention the whole point of the Olympics is too laud Nations with lousy human rights records and sport sadly does sometimes get used as a political tool. We saw it in Munich in 1936 with Hitler and no doubt in 2018 Russia holding the World Cup will be seen by many as a chance for Russia to use it for promotion and propaganda. But I do love the Olympics and the characters like Usain Bolt and even though it’s over in less than 10 seconds the 100 Metre sprint remains for me a highlight.

    • But despite agreeing with all of what you say and admitting that I also love the Olympics, I still can’t get over the feeling that my enjoyment is coming at a terrible price for the people of Brazil. Sport is political (and propagandist) but it’s also increasingly a matter of economics and even morals. I find it hard seeing this extravagant two week ‘celebration’ of sport thrust on a country that simply can’t afford it. It’s a ridiculous notion that’s perpetuated that somehow the Olympics (and the World Cup)help nations build their infrastructure. Nations should prove they have the infrastructure in their bidding process. Two weeks just don’t justify the years of expense and the legacy of often useless stadiums.

  2. You obviously don’t have much experience of Chinese people David. Your comments about their reaction to winning are quite unfair and highlight a huge cultural divide. The Chinese are as a rule very shy, self conscious and modest, much more so than the British and the total opposite to the Americans. I find the lack of “a whooping and a hollering” quite refreshing. As a country whose population consisted almost entirely of undernourished peasants only 60 years ago I think it is great that they are having the success they are, against countries who they are still playing catch up to in terms of physical stature. Through western eyes their human rights record may seem poor but you only need to line up an elderly Chinese person next to a young one to see just how living standards in China have improved, the height difference is enormous. Contrast the fortunes of the Chinese people with those in the worlds biggest democracy India and you can’t help but see the upside of a one party state when you are attemting to transform a country from third world status to a developed industrial economy. As well as visiting China I have met many Chinese students in this country, very few of them preferred the UK to China and none of them were remotely considering not returning home. They tend to find our values just as odd as we find theirs.
    The USA and Britain no less obsessed than China in seeking to gain prestige from the Olympics, UK sport spent £275 million on preparing athletes for Rio so it’s a big deal for everyone. As for America being the staunch advocate of freedom, if only that were true.

    • The only point I’ll concede is the one about humility but, in truth, I do think some of them take it too far. And I also wonder if it’s not something to do with the way they hot house their sports stars. Few of them seem to genuinely enjoy what they do. I accept, however, it might just be an appearance but all this is to miss the point which is that China (and other nations) use the Olympics to make political and cultural points and the poor in the host country are left footing the bill. Of course, all nations invest in sport and some of that has to do with national pride. China take that to a whole different level.

      As for the broader point about China: do you really want me to list the horrific things that happen inside the country, often at the bequest of the state? Yes, in truth, I would prefer America with all its sins. For me, it comes down to the inherent nature of freedom. The China you describe sounds idyllic but at what price? I’d rather America which struggles with freedom and all its inherent contradictions.

      • China. Population (est) 1,376,000,000. Gold medals 26

        UK. Population (est) 65,000,000 Gold medals 27

        One of these countries did indeed take it to a whole different level 😉

  3. No one who has ever been to China would describe it as idyllic. It seems to be though a country where the vast majority of its people are content with its development and general direction of travel.It is a country which in 1960 you could expect to live to the grand old age of 45, that has gone up to 76. Wages have risen exponentialy as have living standards, the retirement age is 50 for women and 60 for men. If peoples living conditions are continually improving you find most of them couldn’t care less about concepts like freedom of speech or others falling foul of torture and murder for criticising the people making it happen. It is very doubtful that this level of economic improvement could have been achieved outside of a one party state, the single child policy for instance could never have been implemented.

    On the point of the poor footing the bill for the Olympics it would be naïve to think that somehow the money spent on the Olympics would have otherwise been spent on the poor or that the poor particularly contribute to the tax revenues of any nation. No Olympics would probably have filtered down as a tax cut to the Brazilian middle class instead.

  4. I got to thinking, should the Olympic Games be held every year in Greece? Wasn’t that the original idea? They could do with a bit of inward investment, at the moment. All the other countries could spend mush more money on improving things back home.

    For me the London games were a cut above the rest. They were so exciting, and we did a pretty good job.

    Not sure if things are still the way they used to be, but some countries didn’t dare come home without medals, as there was a risk of execution if they didn’t. (incredible and horrific).

    Human endeavor is something to behold as long as it is not involved in doping.
    I am looking forward to the athletics (my favorite together with Rugby). Good luck GB!

  5. Please add me to the group in favour of holding the Olympics in Greece every four years, which might, possibly, bring the games closer to the traditional Olympic ideal.

    So far I have not watched much of the 2016 Olympics, mainly due to the time difference and a workday alarm clock that is set to 0545. I used to watch them avidly and remember as far back as the Tokyo games. Now the advertising and the hassle from the various commercial sponsors is starting to put me off, this being a prime example:

    I prefer Pepsi to Coca cola anyway and as I’m trying to lose weight I haven’t been in a McDonalds for years.

  6. Fiji win their first ever Olympic medal in the Rugby Sevens and how do they celebrate? The team heads for McDonalds 🙂 Three cheers for the little guys!

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