VANCOUVER — Fifteen Olympic Games into the career, people ask: what was your favourite?
“Summer Games? Sydney,” comes the answer. “But London was great, and Barcelona, and Athens …”
Yes, Athens, which was so late finishing facilities that the paint was still wet, and which planted trees that were never watered and died about the same time the fireworks ended.
And Barcelona, where the sailing venue on the Mediterranean Sea was so polluted, said Australian sailor Lars Klepich. “It’s like sailing around your toilet bowl.”
It is useful, at times like this — 500 days out from the opening of what often reads like the certain-to-be-scandal-ridden Rio de Janeiro Olympics — to take a couple of steps back and recall the horrors that were predicted for just about every Olympic Games since Sarajevo, where the air was brown gunk, not unlike the usual SoCal murk that hung over Los Angeles a few months later, and then Seoul in 1988, unenlightened on that air quality thing, and Barcelona’s buoyant sewage, and grey Turin and greyer Beijing …
This is not to minimize the angst that some people are feeling in Brazil over the Rio organizers’ trampling of the environment to build a luxury golf course, or the amount of water it takes to irrigate the course while the country is experiencing a coastal drought, or the evidently stomach-turning stench of the sewage dump that is the Olympic sailing venue at Guanabara Bay, with little chance of cleanup before the Games open.
But for every complaint, however justified, there is a parallel to a previous Olympics. In Athens, it wasn’t poor people torn from their homes to build a transportation corridor, it was ruins of the ancient Greek civilization.
It was human rights being trampled in China. It was unconscionable cost overruns in every host city since L.A. It was pure Putin egomania, and damn the price tag, in Russia.
If there is a pattern here, it is in the places the International Olympic Committee lately chooses to stage its ever-costlier Circus Maximus. Reaching further and further afield to riskier and riskier environments. Spreading the evidence of its excessive self-regard to all corners of the world, so that no continent should be deprived of the crippling economic fallout from the seven-year buildup to a 17-day festival, after the midway packs up and leaves town.
Too cynical? Probably.
There have been only a couple of Olympics that left me cold: Atlanta and Turin. The others were all wondrous places to visit, in their own way, though you might not have wanted to live there. Or pay the taxes.
Of all the pre-Olympic worries, the ones that stick in the memory were the threats of terrorism in Salt Lake City (post-9/11) and Sochi, and the alarming lack of readiness in Turin and Athens. Nothing bad happened, give or take invading Ukraine
And, of course, the water in Barcelona, where sailors and windsurfers had reported coming across the carcasses of sheep, dogs, a donkey, thousands of rats, floating refrigerators, condoms, sanitary napkins — a veritable obstacle course of flotsam and jetsam and raw sewage.
“It was actually worse last year,” Australia’s Fiona Taylor told an American newspaper, as the 1992 Games approached. “I saw a double bed float by. You avoid that really fast.”
Could Rio’s waters be worse? Apparently, they could. Cleanup efforts, first with floating barriers and then with a flotilla of garbage-gathering boats (of which there aren’t enough), have barely put a dent in Guanabara’s human-waste depository, and anyone venturing out on a boat, let alone a surfboard, would be well-advised to be vaccinated for tetanus, hepatitis and whatever else comes of swallowing a mouthful of sewage.
Did Rio really need an Olympics, hard on the heels of a FIFA World Cup, to move from Third World to first?
Did it really need a millionaires’ condo development disguised as a golf club, even if protesters’ claims about the damage to the local flora and fauna are exaggerated?
Well, Rio did need a golf venue, now that the sport has been added to the Olympic programme. Finding a place to build one, within the city’s sprawling geography, was never going to be easy.
“I don’t know a single Brazilian who plays golf,” said protester Flavia Resende.
Well, I don’t know many biathlon competitors, either, and you could swing a mighty long-tailed cat in just about any room in Canada and never hit a ski jumper, but Vancouver had to build venues for their sports.
And sure, golf still suffers from its elitist image, but there’s not a lot of ordinary folks in equestrian.
They’re all Olympic sports, though, and even if Rio seems to be cutting it a little fine on the deadlines, all of the necessary arenas will get built, because they always do.
Even the golf course is finally scheduled to host its test event from Nov. 26-29 this year, possibly with grass and everything. The opening round falls on the same day as Thanksgiving in Brazil … for which very few will give thanks.
‘Twas ever thus, with the Olympics.