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Athletes, not infrastructure, make the Olympics great and Rio will be no different

Tommy Martin on how horror stories around the Olympic Games distract from why we really watch them.

Brazil fishermen protest the water around Rio.
Brazil fishermen protest the water around Rio.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

“I WILL ROW through shit for you, America.”

Sounds like a discarded Donald Trump campaign slogan, but they’re actually the words of US Olympic rower Megan Kalmoe, who blogged this week on how fed up she was with journalists asking her about how crappy — in her case, quite literally — the Olympics are going to be.

That she stumbled upon a pretty good metaphor for the lot of the modern Olympian is by the by – more of that in a moment.

Kalmoe’s gripe was over persistent questions about the fact that, like many of the open water sites in Rio, the rowing venue is polluted by raw sewage.

“I have worked for 10 years to get to this point and will continue to work as hard as I can over the next few weeks to make the most of this very special and unique opportunity,” Kalmoe wrote.

“But all you want to do is talk about shit in the water. My request to everyone who is fixated on shit in the water: stop. Stop trying to ruin the Olympics for us.”

Poo-fixated reporters weren’t the sole target of Kalmoe’s ire. She took aim at the whole atmosphere of media negativity which surrounds the build up to this (and every) Olympics, contrasting it with the heroic determination with which she and her fellow competitors do whatever it takes to win medals for the folks back home, even if that means steering a boat through turd-infested waters.

Of course, this is a pretty ridiculous argument.

For journalists to focus only on the sporting spectacular ahead, and not the IOC’s bungled handling of the Russian doping scandal, the Zika virus, the haphazard preparations, the use of precious public money to develop transport, infrastructure and housing that will mainly benefit Rio’s rich, the usual ridiculous white elephant stadium legacy – and, yes, the filthy water – would be to insult the wider public and athletes alike.

Indeed the waters of Guanabara Bay are positively crystalline when compared with the general sleaze, corruption and murky business of these Games. David Goldblatt, author of The Games – A Global History of the Olympics, has described Rio 2016 as “a tangible display of the destruction of whatever remains of the myths of Olympic urbanism, and the IOC’s political autonomy and moral probity.”

And yet, Megan Kalmoe has a point.

“When you are there, and you are a part of it,” she writes, “you cannot help but be changed by the palpable sense of unity and commitment to excellence that exists inside the Olympic bubble.” Somehow, despite everything we know, we all become a part of that bubble during those two weeks.

It’s why NBC have paid $4.38billion for Olympic TV rights up to 2020. It’s always a great show.

Source: Charlie Riedel

Somehow, when the athletes take over from the politicians and administrators, it all seems to work. Somehow, it’s always alright on the night.

It’s the trick that the Olympics pull every time. Whatever controversies have dogged the buildup to the Games, invariably the sight of supreme human endeavour on that scale will bail it out. The glorious successes, the heartbreaking failures. The dream of a gold medal under that eternal flame. Throw in the spectacle that the poor, unfortunate host city has almost bankrupted itself to provide and the whole Olympic bandwagon can roll on for another four years, when the cycle starts again.

And it’s the athletes make the Games great every time, despite having to row through all kinds of metaphorical you-know-what to get there.

Whether you are a boxer whose ruling body decides months before the Olympics to allow professionals enter, or a track and field athlete whose federation president was in cahoots with a state-sponsored doping scheme, you have to navigate through any amount of external crap just to make it to the Olympian starting line.

Never mind how hard it is to succeed in what, in most cases, are highly competitive and far-from-lucrative fields. Never mind that some of your rivals might be cheating and will probably never be caught and even if they do, you’ll be handed your rightful medal in a jiffy bag. Never mind that most of the media and public are only interested in you once every four years and even then, yes, they only want to know what you think about things like poo in the water!

You deal with all that, then you have the IOC, fresh from negotiating commercial income worth $8.7billion for these Games, tell you that your sponsor can’t tweet you a good luck message lest they breach copyright. You wonder if this is the same rather more easygoing IOC that washed their hands of the Russian doping affair; then you remember the chumminess between the two over the absurd Sochi Winter Olympics.

You deal with all that and then you get to the athletes’ village and, irony of ironies, the toilets don’t work.

Never mind Citius, Altius, Fortius; Rowing Through Shit – Megan Kalmoe, you’ve just come up with the new Olympic motto.

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About the author:

Tommy Martin

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