Skip to main content

A win at the whistle: Against all odds, Rio de Janeiro pulls off the Olympic Games

The Rio Olympics, beset by financial and logistical problems, ended in success thanks in part to a brilliant performance by a homegrown hero.

This story appears in the August 29, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.

There you go. It’s what we’ve muttered nine times now, over three Olympics, after each race Usain Bolt ran. And it’s what Bolt told the world in Rio de Janeiro last week, Ali-like, after winning his third gold medal of the 2016 Games, in the 4x100 relay, to make nine in his Olympic career: “There you go, I am the greatest.” He said it as if making a gift of his performance and an offering of himself.

The Rio Olympics weren’t the greatest, not by most measures. But the city made its own offering to the world by hosting the Games under extraordinary duress. With so many real problems, Rio hardly deserved fabrications sprung from the imagination of swimmer Ryan Lochte.

IOC president Thomas Bach has a knack for putting even the most disconcerting development in a positive light, and he described Brazil’s challenges as a welcome intrusion of the real world. “This was very good for everybody, to be close to reality, not to be in a bubble for 16 days, isolated from a country, from a society” he said. Mario Andrada, the endearingly frank spokesman for the organizing committee, didn’t spin nearly as hard.

“We overpromised and underdelivered,” he confessed. With generous comments, he showed those U.S. swimmers more forgiveness than they probably deserved. Andrada modeled keep calm and carry on as well as any Londoner did four years ago.

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

A former editor of this magazine used to say, “There’s nothing more over than the Olympics when they’re over.” It was his way of both recognizing the Games’ valedictory quality and underscoring that kickoffs awaited in Tuscaloosa and Green Bay. But the comment gets at a larger problem. Even with the move during the ’90s to stagger Summer and Winter Games at two-year intervals, many Olympic sports and the athletes who practice them drop from view for long stretches. The IOC’s Olympic Channel, launched during Sunday’s closing ceremony, proposes to redress this with the motto Where the Games never end. It will be less TV network than digital platform, calculated to reach the generation that’s supposed to kindle to sports such as BMX and snowboarding. In fact, millennials aren’t just ignoring the Olympics (ratings for Rio in the 18-to-34 age range were down from London by 30%), they’re rejecting them. Through last weekend some 7,000 skateboarders and their supporters had signed an online petition demanding that their sport, just voted into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by the IOC, not be included in the Games.

Another item on the IOC’s agenda is more immediately problematic. In its efforts simply to stage the Olympics, Rio has so neglected the Paralympics that they threaten to be an underfunded shambles. As of last week only 12% of tickets had been sold, and a budget shortfall imperiled efforts to fly Paralympians in for the event, which begins on Sept. 7. To help close the gap, Rio mayor Eduardo Paes stepped in with $50 million in municipal funds, and several state-owned companies may yet sign on as sponsors.

“Never before in the 56-year history of the Paralympic Games have we faced circumstances like this,” International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven said. “Clearly Brazil is in a far different position now than it was in 2009 when it won the right to stage the Games.” All of which helps explain why 60% of Brazilians, polled two weeks before the Olympics began, believed the Games would do the country more harm than good.

Parting thoughts from 2016 Rio Olympics

And then, on the final weekend, something happened: Neymar (above), the soccer prodigy held out of the Copa América so he might stay fresh enough to lead Brazil to the Olympic gold it had never won, struck the penalty kick that did just that, beating Germany, which had humiliated Brazil 7–1 in the 2014 World Cup semifinals. Only a few people have so dramatically delivered gold in their national sport at a home Olympics. In London, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony gave the British permission to feel good about their Games; Brazilians got the green light at the end of theirs with Neymar’s act of exorcism. A post-Olympics poll—especially after two other second-week men’s golds for the home team, in volleyball and beach volleyball, both major sports in Brazil—will surely reverse those July disapproval numbers.

The journey of Neymar and the seleção is an allegory of Rio’s Olympic effort: high expectations, growing doubts, frustration, then success and release. The team failed to score in its first two games, touching off widespread criticism and a stampede of support to the women’s side and Neymar’s No. 10 counterpart, Marta. A gold medal on the sacred turf of Maracanã might have made the whole Olympic enterprise worth it.

California Gold Rush: Los Angeles makes its case for hosting the 2024 Olympics

Yet the closing ceremony devoted a segment to saudade, a particularly Brazilian kind of longing that can be tinged with regret. The word nails what it feels like to look back at the year Rio landed the Olympics and Paralympics, when staging them seemed so much easier. To overpromise and underdeliver will touch off a bout of saudade.

But even if the legacy of the Rio Olympics is mixed, what Cariocas did do over 2 1/2 weeks ticked every box laid out by the French nobleman who founded the modern Games. “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part,” Pierre de Coubertin wrote. “The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

Rio took part. Cariocas fought well. Under trying circumstances, they tried their best.