Worrying about whether an Olympics host city will be ready has become as regular as the lighting of the Olympic flame, but each time, the city somehow comes through.
Likely, that will be the case when the 2016 Summer Olympics open in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, but this time the drama leading in is especially strong. Should an Olympics ever actually descend into the feared fiasco, Rio is a strong contender to be the site.
The city and Brazil have abandoned a pledge to clean the filthy waters of Rio’s Guanabara Bay, site of Olympic sailing, triathlon and some swimming events. Transportation systems are not fully in place. There are problems with the athletes’ housing. Some media members are reporting street muggings and burglaries. Russia’s entire track and field team has been banned for doping. And, of course, there is the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has athletes and visitors on edge.
As environmental, construction, transportation and security problems mount, some International Olympic Committee members say they’ll be wary of staging another Olympics in the developing world. But that sentiment – like so much of what the IOC does – is exactly the opposite of Olympic spirit. The Olympics are supposed to bring the world together, not expose the distance between rich nations and poorer ones.
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The reason Rio and Brazil are struggling isn’t because of economic or organizational weakness. It’s because the Olympics have become such an overblown, crassly commercial and wasteful event that they are almost impossible to prepare for. London struggled a bit in 2012. Athens in 2004 spent $11 billion on the most expensive Olympics to that point and then tumbled toward national insolvency. Indeed, the only nations that can easily absorb the costs and disruptions of hosting the Olympics are totalitarian countries like China that can clear away the poor and redirect the nation’s resources with a wave from its leaders.
If the Olympics are to survive, the event must get smaller and truer and less costly. The IOC can start by culling the number of sports and eliminating sports in which the highest honor is something other than an Olympic gold medal. That means no more NBA players and professional tennis players, golfers and perhaps soccer players. Let the games be about wrestling, running, lifting, throwing, swimming and other sports in which participants reach the pinnacle of their sport when they stand highest on an Olympic medal platform.
Meanwhile, the world should root for Rio as it copes with the strain it has undertaken to host the world. On Friday, the opening ceremony will show off the history and culture of the first South American nation to host the Olympics. In the spirit of the suspension of war that marked the ancient Olympics, let the carping end and the games begin.