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Let Rio be Rio: Don't be so quick to judge the Olympics' big step into developing world

It's easy to take shots at Rio and its many problems, and while it may not be London or New York, the city delivered a meaningful Olympic Games that embodied the 2020 reform agenda.

RIO DE JANEIRO – It was hard to tell if the body on the median was dead. If not, it wouldn’t be a body anymore; it would not be an “it,” but revert back to being a “he,” with a name and a family who still had hope: Maybe a wife. Maybe some kids. But at this moment, sometime after 3:30 a.m. last Friday morning, on the well lit and quiet grass between lanes on Avenida Embaixador Abelardo Bueno, it lay heavy on its left side, as if one man’s struggle for comfort was abruptly done.

At first, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. That is the power of the personal Olympic event, which is not to be confused with the tightly scheduled and framed “Olympic event” that you see nightly on TV. This kind is on you before you know it. Anyone who has worked a Games knows what I describe: A random happening/vision/scent that crystalizes the experience and lodges in the mind forever. The frenzied kids in a Barcelona bar, the phone ringing about the bomb in Atlanta, the trains whistling in Salt Lake, that late-night trek to the Parthenon. The Olympics no one sees but you.

By its very nature, then, such an event is almost always a tourist’s event, seen with an outsider’s perspective. It is not fair, not nuanced, perhaps not even real—Rio police, EMTs and hospitals recorded no death or medical emergency near Abelardo Bueno at that date and time—and thus not reflective of an entire Olympics or city or national state of mind. Perhaps he soon revived, and staggered somehow home.

Still, in my nine previous games—not to mention travels through dicey precincts in Miami, New York, Colombia, Washington D.C., Pakistan, Liberia and Jamaica—I had never seen a body like that and can’t forget it. And for the 2016 Rio Olympics, the accretion of such impressions, large and small, has piled up so conspicuously, and so high, that its reputation may never be redeemed.

Start with Day One. Felipe Seixas, the security coordinator for the Opening Ceremony, was attacked by four men with knives when leaving Maracana Stadium that night; his security team killed one and the rest fled. Meanwhile, $20,000 of camera equipment—including a camera owned by Sports Illustrated—was stolen from atop Maracana, and the global corps of photographers here has since been so besieged by theft that one media center support desk displayed closed-circuit footage (“Watch your gear, watch this video”) as a welcoming message. By Wednesday, the flat-screen had gone dark. Its power cord had gone missing.

Along the way, there have also been reports of a bullet fired into the equestrian center, a spray of rocks or bullets fired at a press bus, British and Australian athletes robbed at gunpoint. These are the kinds of experience, of course, that overwhelm memories of that endlessly helpful driver or the grinning patience of Brazilian police amid a tsunami of clueless foreigners; fear fills far more space in the mind than gratitude. Then there is the Ryan Lochte affair, which seemed to be one kind of Olympic event and then another, entirely, making it the best reason yet for not taking anything, Olympic or otherwise, at face value. 

At this point, most of the condemnation rightfully falls on the American swimmer’s dopey bid to cover-up the booze-fueled vandalizing of a gas station Rio bathroom last Sunday with a tale about being pulled over by thieves posing as cops, and having a gun pressed to his forehead. “I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend—for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning,” Lochte said in a wondrously vague message posted on his Twitter feed Friday morning. “Regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night, I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself and for that I am sorry...”

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With Lochte and his teammates Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger now safely back home, the back-and-forth on the details of that morning figure to ratchet into high gear. But both sides agree on some large strokes: That the Americans had been drinking; that someone in the American party (Brazilian police claim that his mates fingered Lochte Thursday) trashed the bathroom area; that the swimmers were then prevented from leaving by armed security guards; that at least one gun was unholstered and pointed at the swimmers; that the Americans then handed over about $50 and were allowed to go.    

We can—and, believe me, will—argue for a few more days over whether the swimmers were extorted or simply paid for property damage that they’ve now admitted. But for many Americans, especially, Lochte’s original tale will meld with the admittedly tense truth – and become a lasting illustration of these games. All the other instances of thievery ensure it. That wasn’t the plan when booming Brazil won hosting rights seven years ago, but, then, many plans for Rio ’16 have since been shredded and forgotten.

“On the intangible side, which is worth a lot, it’s a lost opportunity,” said one federal official. “You didn’t ask to come here. We asked to host you and we fought hard to have you here—so we’d better put on a decent show. And as far as image is concerned we could’ve done much, much better—even during this crisis. Because we have a story, many different to tell. And we haven’t been able to do that.”

In the best of Olympics—London ’12, Sydney ’00, Barcelona ’92—there eventually comes a sense that the athletes, the administrators and the host population have melded almost mystically into sync. Yet, it was impossible to ignore the increasingly trifurcated nature of Rio’s Olympics. Great drama and achievement could be found on every pool and track and court, but kept getting undermined by one spectacularly unveiled problem after another. And crime was just one of them.

Many venues were plagued by alarmingly low numbers of volunteers and some, particularly the track-and-field events at Olympic Stadium, were marred by large swaths of empty seats. Rio ’16 organizers list many theories for the enthusiasm gap: high prices, lack of interest by most Brazilians in classic Olympic sport, lax distribution of tickets by ticket-hoarding sponsors, poor communication about transportation options.  Last Tuesday, they trotted out poll numbers supposedly proving that, “there is a love relationship between the Brazilian public and the Olympic Games,” said Rio 2016 communications director Mario Andrada. “It’s fair to assess that prior to the games there was some skepticism, some doubts, but from the Opening Ceremony on it has changed."

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But that night, despite reporting ticket sales of 53,828 at Olympic Stadium, the place was barely a third full. “We understand that this is a worry, especially for athletes who need more public to help them perform at their best,” Andrada said Wednesday morning. He then spoke of ticket-scalping arrests and efforts to find out why people weren’t coming.

“We went into deep research to know why we are having no-shows and how many, because the difference between ‘sold-out’ on the website and the images of empty seats—it’s definitely no-shows,” he said. “We are concerned, and doing our best to make sure that these problems don’t affect the games more than they already did.”

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But with just four days left, it seemed too little, too late. Luckily, Andrada had a scapegoat step forward. Wednesday morning, International Olympic Committee member Patrick Hickey of Ireland, the head of the European Olympic Committees, was arrested at his hotel room by Brazilian police on charges of involvement in a $4 million ticket-scalping scheme during the games. Police said that Hickey tried to hide in the room next door when they first came to his hotel room, and footage of him—nude and splay-haired—answering that door was posted on ESPN Brasil just before the IOC’s daily briefing in Rio.

“Is the IOC concerned,” one Australian reporter asked, “that one of the enduring images from these games may well be one of its senior members opening the door naked to a police raid?”

“Thanks for that,” responded IOC spokesman Mark Adams.

It wasn’t clear whether Adams was grateful for the question, the mental image, or the confirmation that yet another IOC-related entity had been revealed as somewhat different than what he seemed. An Olympics that began with the worst state-sponsored doping scandal in history—and the IOC’s limp response—now faced the disgrace of one of its most venerable members in prime time; by Friday Hickey was locked up in a maximum security prison pending trial. The underlying message: Take an eye off the sports for even a moment, and you risked disillusion or dismay. You call that an Olympics?

Actually, yes, and perhaps just the kind we need. Take away the Refugee Team that won over the world during the Opening Ceremony, and these have been an Olympics shorn of idealism and steeped in the type of stark reality that “reality TV” avoids. Much of the world remains in a strangling recession, or worse, and the global gap between haves and have-nots is only widening. Forever, the IOC demanded expensive bubbles in which to encase its competitions, and sold a false tableau of harmony. Beijing in 2008 and Sochi in 2014 were triumphs of control, authoritarian bliss. Money was no object. Everyone felt very safe.

Rio? It came nearly as advertised: Exhausted, ragged, a city and its nation in crisis. What else should we have expected? Brazil is not the world’s sole victim of financial crisis or political paralysis, just one of the worst. That it still managed to revitalize its decrepit port and build a $3 billion, 10-mile subway extension, the first line of an urban light-rail system, and an efficient rapid bus network used on Aug. 12 by a record 855,000 passengers, not to mention host the world amid its suffering, verges on the heroic.

And beneath the rough surface, life in the city is slowly getting better. Since it was awarded the Olympics in 2009, says a recent study conducted by the Social Policy Center of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, 36 of 38 social indicators like education, labor, public utilities and housing have improved. That gauge, say Rio ’16 loyalists, should be the only one that matters.    

“Don’t come here expecting Chicago, New York or London,” Rio mayor Eduardo Paes said a month before the games. “Compare Rio with Rio.”

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This was the Olympics’ first step into the developing world, a premature realization of its “2020” reform agenda, and so these Games had no chance to feel like Paris or Rome or L.A. They had no choice but to feel, yes, developing. They forced a first-world organization—and its attendant first-world media and sponsors—to walk in the other half’s flip-flops.

And Rio, meanwhile, bore all the first-world’s just and petty critiques, all the frustrations leveled upon it the past few months, with a maturity and restraint borne of great pain. The country’s depression and political upheaval make these Olympics an easy example of failed leadership, and it’s going to be very tempting, in the coming days, for native and outsiders alike to fire some easy shots. 

 “If you're a developing nation, you will be looked at in a different way. Any problems that you have, people will be harsher on you than if they happened anywhere else,” said Joel Sampaio, Brazil’s head of public diplomacy issues related to the ’16 Games. “They played the Copa America two months ago in the US and there was that massive killing in Orlando—and they had teams staying there—but nobody would question the ability of the U.S. to host the Olympics. But for us, it's the first time. We're a newcomer. We have more to prove: This is a fact. 

"On the other hand, if you're able to deliver a Games that is meaningful to the local community and makes sense in terms of cost and doesn't have budget overshoots like we had in the past, hey, as I understand it, this is something the Olympic Movement was looking for. Maybe not. But at least that's the rhetoric, because things were getting out of control and they were getting less and less cities to host this event because it was an unbearable burden to the taxpayers. There was a lot of private money involved, maybe comparing only with Atlanta in 1996 and Los Angeles in ’84, but you haven't seen this model in previous events in terms of private funding and legacy. If the 2020 Agenda is to be taken seriously, I think Rio has a lot to show."

Not least as a reflection of life as it is for most, at ground level, when not recorded by a lens hovering a few thousand feet above Sugarloaf. I almost missed that staring at my iPhone in a taxi early last Friday morning, along the 2.3-mile stretch between Olympic Park and my hotel. Then a stoplight made me look up. There was the body, 40ish, Caucasian perhaps, on the grass. My driver glanced over, then away. Now another man was hurrying towards us, towards it, along the median, and he slowed and bent down and his lips moved as if calling, ‘Hey! You okay?’ The body didn’t move. The man reached out a hesitating hand, shook a shoulder softly, hard, harder. Nothing. 

Was it a heart attack, a stabbing? Had the body been hit crossing Avenida Abelardo Bueno? Was the helpful man a good Samaritan? The guilty party? He placed a questioning finger on the throat and held it there, the streetlight making his skin glow. My driver stepped on the gas and I pivoted, watching through the rear window like a TV screen. The helpful man pulled back his finger, stood, began to run. And the tourist in the taxi watched them both get smaller and smaller, certain only of all he didn’t know.