Luke DeCock

It’s the athletes we’ll remember, not Rio’s issues – DeCock

Simone Manuel of the United States celebrates after winning gold in the women’s 100m freestyle.
Simone Manuel of the United States celebrates after winning gold in the women’s 100m freestyle. Getty Images

Say this for Brazil and the Olympics: They never ran out of beer. It flowed constantly at every venue, in the Olympic Park, in souvenir Skol cups, each with a different sport on it, avidly collected and impressively stacked by the thirsty Brazilians who actually made it into an event or two.

There was a lot of talk before the budget-slashed but vibrant Opening Ceremony about gambiarra, the Brazilian aptitude for slapping things together. Just like that ceremony, the Olympics were missing some of the things you’d usually expect but made up for it in other areas. Most notably, and fittingly, the athletes: Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Usain Bolt, so many others.

“Chemistry is not an exact science,” the spokesman for the organizing committee said after the diving pool turned an opaque green, which pretty much summed up Rio’s approach to the games.

As feared, there were muggings – the Brits and Australians ended up banned from the beaches after dark – and a media bus got shot up (or hit by rocks, per the IOC’s inexact science) and a German canoe coach died in a taxi accident, but the worst-case scenarios (terrorist attack, bus crash, pandemic) never materialized.

The people of Rio handled it all cheerfully, at least until the despicably vapid and narcissistic Ryan Lochte micturated all over himself, literally and figuratively. Lochte became the prototypical Ugly American embarrassing United States and Brazil alike, playing to the worst stereotypes while leaving his friends to fend for themselves. He may not have been entirely wrong, but he couldn’t have handled it more poorly.

But he’s not the athlete we’ll remember. We’ll remember Biles doing it better than anyone ever has, Ledecky and Phelps swimming into history, Bolt being Bolt, Ibtihaj Muhammad and Simone Manuel destroying both stereotypes and the competition.

We’ll remember Helen Maroulis leaping into her coach’s arms after one of the great upsets in Olympic history over a 13-time world champion and three-time gold medalist, Abbey D’Agostino helping Nikki Hamblin to the finish line after they collided, the utter dominance of decathlete Ashton Eaton and the U.S. women’s basketball team and gymnasts.

And in the Triangle we’ll remember Ronnie Ash’s grace and poise after tripping over the final hurdle within reach of a medal, Ryan Held’s tears of joy, Mike Krzyzewski returning home with a third gold.

These weren’t the greatest Olympics ever. Thomas Bach, the IOC president, called them “iconic,” which is certainly one way to say it. They were disorganized, underfunded, spread out too far over a traffic-clogged city where it takes hours to get from one neighborhood to the next. The intent of bringing the games to Brazil, to South America, was as noble as it was misguided. Whatever Brazil and Rio de Janeiro spent on these Olympics would have been better spent on their own people. Any visitor could see that, the poverty and despair always around the next corner.

If Sochi was always a bad idea for the Olympic “movement” – conjured out of thin air with the plundered loot of a dictator and his oligarchs for no other purpose than the greed of the IOC and Vladimir Putin’s ego – Rio was a well-intentioned misstep, predicated on a Brazilian economic surge that long ago crested.

The legacy of these games will be that not everyone is equipped to host, no matter how good the intentions. The modern Olympics has become too large to build from scratch every four years. There are cities that can do this well, unfortunately all first-world cities, with the infrastructure already in place. The Summer Games need to go there in the future, and stay there: Tokyo, Beijing, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, London, Paris, Madrid, Sydney, Melbourne, Toronto, Moscow (unavoidably, given the IOC’s willingness to take Putin’s handouts) and so on. Maybe Johannesburg, if there’s a desire to bring the Olympics to Africa. One of the Persian Gulf states could do it, but who wants to be outdoors in Dubai in August?

Rio may finally have put an end to the obsolete idea that the Olympics is a movable feast.

Still, the athletes overcame all of it. They delivered. All you can ask is they give it their best, and they did, unforgettably. So, for that matter, did Rio. Sometimes, your best just isn’t enough for a medal.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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