Twenty-two years ago I fulfilled one of my journalistic goals when I covered my first Olympics. That experience in Norway proved both exhilarating and exhausting. Even though I didn’t know a lutz from a klutz, figure skating was my primary assignment. As it turned out, I wound up writing more about what happened off the ice than on it while chronicling from start to finish the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan soap opera that became the most bizarre sports story of the 20th century. Talk about a five-ring circus.
That first taste of the Olympics in the quaint villages of Lillehammer and Hamar hooked me. I yearned to cover more. I was so gung-ho that I decided to give it a go two years later at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta despite having fractured my leg and ankle in seven places just two weeks before the opening ceremonies. Not a bright move on my part. After 13 sleepless nights and painful days in Hotlanta, I couldn’t take it anymore. I headed to the same emergency room where gymnast Kerri Strug had been taken after landing her gold-medal-clinching dismount on a fractured ankle. There was so much swelling in my left leg that the orthopedist had to cut my cast off. He said had I waited another day I would have risked amputation.
Fortunately, my leg healed and there would be more Olympics to cover. Along the way, I would write about the exploits of supremely gifted Rochester athletes such as Diann Roffe, Cathy Turner, Abby Wambach, Felicia and Iris Zimmermann, Kim Batten, Ryan Lochte and AJ Kitt. Their stories were every bit as compelling to me as the ones I wrote about megastars Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and LeBron James.
I will never forget the surprise cauldron lighting by Muhammad Ali in Atlanta or the thunderous drum roll that kicked off the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. The thing I loved most about the Olympics wasn’t the pomp and circumstance or even the riveting human-interest stories, but rather the way it introduced me and readers to disparate cultures. From my personal dealings with people in Norway, Australia, Greece and China, I discovered that everyday folks of all nations are more similar than different; that we all have basically the same hopes and needs; that we are members of the same race—the human race. For three weeks, anyway, we found a way not only to get along, but to celebrate our similarities and our differences together. If only we could somehow bottle that and extrapolate it over a much longer stretch of time.
I wax nostalgic because another Olympic cauldron is scheduled to be ignited on Aug. 5, this time in Rio de Janeiro. I plan on tuning in, but I don’t feel the same anticipatory buzz I did in the past. This marks the first time the Games will be staged in South America. And the lead-up has been nothing short of disastrous. In recent months, police officers have greeted people arriving at Rio’s international airport with a banner reading: “Welcome to Hell,” as the cops fight for overtime pay from a cash-strapped government. This is hardly the message foreign visitors want to see as they prepare for an event that’s always a prime target for terrorists.
That sign is disconcerting enough, but the hellishness doesn’t end there. Body parts recently washed up on Copacabana Beach, near the volleyball venue. Sailboats on Guanabara Bay have been forced to cut through oil slicks during practice runs. Two skydivers plunged to their deaths while trying to form, with 26 others, the Olympic rings as a way of publicizing the Games. The mosquito-borne Zika virus, for which Brazil is a primary breeding ground, has scared away a number of prominent athletes and would-be spectators. Ticket sales have been tepid, with a recent poll showing that 84 percent of Brazilians have little or no interest in the Games.
In addition to Zika, there are concerns about alarming levels of other viruses and bacteria in the polluted waters at the boating and swimming venues. The country is beset with political unrest. A bribery scandal implicating companies responsible for the Olympic infrastructure helped lead to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Rio has seen a 15 percent increase in murders and a 30 percent increase in robberies in the past year, prompting the mayor to rip Brazil’s leaders. Like other host cities in the past few decades, Rio has had to deal with construction delays. Officials are praying a major metro track extension will be finished in time.
As Brighton High School grad and veteran Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff points out, “the Brazil that hosts the 2016 Olympics won’t be remotely the same country that was awarded them in 2009, when its economy was surfing the swell tide of high oil prices and then-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could cite his own rags-to-riches story as a parable for his nation.”
When all is said and done, the expenses for these Olympics will exceed the record $51 billion the Russians spent on Sochi in 2014, which was nearly $10 billion more than Beijing’s price tag in 2008. (Given the news of the systemic doping scandal involving the Russians, you wonder how much of Vladimir Putin’s budget was secretly devoted to performance-enhancing drugs.)
There always are issues heading into the Olympics, but the list of problems plaguing this one is longer than a marathon. Little wonder many surmise this is the beginning of the end of these biennial sports festivals. We’ve already seen cities and nations come to their senses and tell the avaricious and corrupt International Olympic Committee that the price of hosting is too high. I long for a Games that’s less bloated and more focused on the athletes, especially in the lesser-known, more revenue-challenged sports.
Here’s hoping Brazil can somehow pull this off, despite odds more daunting than defeating Bolt in the 100-meter dash. I’ve witnessed first-hand the positive aspects of the Olympics—its ability to unite disparate people and provide us with inspiring tales of athletes realizing their lifelong dreams. That’s something worth saving and celebrating—but not at any cost.
Best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.
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