In many ways the Olympics are always a reflection of the country and the city in which they are held but this year the parallels felt remarkable. Youthful and vibrant yet with deep problems that trouble its very core is a description that suits both the Olympics and its host nation. Though the similarities go deeper than broad brushstrokes about Brazil and the XXXI Olympiad. It felt increasingly as if the Games took the shape of Rio, its hectic scheduling resembling the favelas, its beaches, synonymous with beauty, representing the elegance of sport and its mountains the ups and downs that began before the Games, and continued throughout.
Above the sea mist of a Rio morning, however, some moments stood out. The first of these, and a persistence throughout was the animosity towards the Russian athletes. Booed in the opening ceremony and mistrusted throughout, particular controversy came in the swimming pool as scenes reminiscent of the cold war unfolded, with American athletes Lily King and Katie Meili refusing to congratulate the Russian Yulia Efimova on her silver medal. Efimova had only just been cleared to compete in Rio, having won
her appeal in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and formed part of the diminished team of Russian athletes. 111 competitors from the country decried as conducting a “state-dictated” doping scheme did not take part in the Olympics, adding to the tensions between Russia and the Western world that have been building over the last few years. The thorny issue of state-sponsored doping provided political instability to the Games, something not unfamiliar to Brazilians, as their nation wrestles with the recent impeachment of its President and seeks to forge a new way forward.
But if the Russians played an enemy during the Games then there is no doubt as to the hero. Usain Bolt, like the messianic figure of Rio’s most famous landmark, provided great hope during these Olympics. At times he felt like the patron saint of a Games that, whilst not needing a saviour, wanted to be taken into the open arms of the statue on Corcovado mountain. He did not disappoint. Coming from behind in the 100 metres he took gold once again, even managing to flash a cheeky smile on the way to victory. In the 200m he replicated the win, albeit the bared teeth this time forming more of a grimace. And with a final hurrah in the men’s 4 x 100m Bolt had delivered what was promised. Rio had its redeemer. After the 100m final Steve Cram proclaimed the Jamaican to be ‘almost God-like.’ Coincidence? I think not.
Those who also put in sublime performances, the likes of Phelps and Fraser-Pryce and Farah, will embed themselves into Rio’s history, like the colourful tiles that cover the Selaron Steps. But these are athletes that may not make it to the next Games in four years time. Michael Phelps has said he’ll retire, there was word that Mo Farah would hang up his running shoes and, as exuberant as she is, a 29-year old Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce may join her compatriot Bolt and bow out of frenetic world of sprinting.
Thus, as much as the established names performed, the Games felt like it ushered in the start of a new era of Olympians. Laura Trott at 24 already has four gold medals from the velodromes in London and Rio, an 100% record at Olympics, and at least two more Games in which she can compete. Katie Ledecky, 19, won gold in the women’s 200, 400 and 800 metre freestyles, putting whatever I did with my summer to shame. I could continue, listing the amazing performances by young athletes in Brazil, but one moment will remain with me for some time. In the swimming pool on 11 August two gold medals were handed out in the women’s 100m freestyle. The recipients, Simone Manuel and Penny Oleksiak had both swum two lengths in of the pool in an Olympic Record and both had made history. Oleksiak, at just 16, was the first gold medallist to be born in the 21st century, while Simone Manuel was the first African-American to win an individual Olympic gold in swimming. This event demonstrated, more than any other during the Games, that the world is changing, and that young people of all creeds and colours can and will achieve great things. The third of Brazilians who have not yet reached their 20th birthday should take inspiration from the achievements of youth in Rio and seeks success for their nation, which has so much potential.
The Games felt like it ushered in the start of a new era of olympians
City and sport aligned in Rio, action in the stadiums reflecting actions across Brazil, both positive and negative alike. But an arguably shambolic buildup to the Games was largely swept aside as all who tuned in became enthralled by the twists and turns of Biles, the dancing weightlifter or simply by an archer who looked like Leonardo DiCaprio. Those who watched and wondered undoubtedly felt the remedial effects of an event that comes just over half-way through what’s generally agreed to be a pretty rubbish year. It’ll be another four years until the vast majority of the general public cast their eyes towards the achievements of so many hard-working sportspeople from so many different nations.
Though maybe the most poignant point came from the ten athletes without a nation, the members of the Refugee team. Met with rapturous applause in the opening ceremony and admiration through, they represent the best of the Olympics. People faced with difficult circumstances competing on a world stage because of their determination and because of their love for sport. Paradoxically, it’s when the Games forgets its participating nations, which have caused so much controversy, that it remembers how inspiring sport can be.