Tomorrow evening (Friday, 5 August 2016) will mark the opening ceremonies of the Olympics XXXI in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The decision was announced by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) in 2009 when Rio beat out Copenhagen, Madrid, Chicago and Tokyo for the bid to host the games. Seven years of preparation. And now … here we are … almost time for the torch to make its way through the city on the way to Maracana Stadium in time for the opening ceremony.
Make note that I am not a sports fan … sometimes I watch a bit of the World Series (baseball in the U.S.), but that’s about it. But the Olympics … the Olympic Games are something special, something above all other sporting events. I have never watched an opening ceremony that did not bring tears to my eyes. You see, it isn’t about who can run the fastest, hit a ball the farthest, swim the perfect relay or beat a record in the downhill slalom. It is about ‘international’. It is about brotherhood, shared humanity. It is about 206 nations putting aside their differences to come together for two weeks in the spirit of teamwork, sportsmanship, camaraderie and international cooperation. And, of course, it is also about money, but I won’t go down that path today, though I reserve the right to come back to it at a later date.
The 2016 Olympics in Rio have faced challenges that other Olympics have not had: Zika, terrorist threats, at least three attempts to ‘blow’ out the torch on its long relay, political unrest in Brazil, demonstrations, protests, a ‘doping scandal’, and more. The IOC takes great pains to keep the games non-political, but this year that was not possible, as Brazil has been embroiled in political turmoil and facing the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. But that is not to say that other Olympic games have been trouble-free. Look back to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, just as Hitler was coming to a rise in power.
The city of Berlin was selected as the venue for the XI Olympic games in 1931, two years before the Nazi’s came to power. But, of course, as we all know, by the time the games were held, Hitler had established a stronghold in Germany and saw the Games as an opportunity to promote his government and ideals of racial supremacy. Hitler initially intended to bar Jews and black people from participating, but when faced with a boycott by other nations, he relented and allowed all ethnicities to participate. This would be the last Olympic games to be held for twelve years, until 1948, after the end of World War II. A total of 49 nations attended the Berlin Olympics, up from 37 in 1932 … compared to 206 this year! U.S. athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the sprint and long jump events and became the most successful athlete to compete in Berlin while the host country was the most successful country overall with 89 medals total, with the United States coming in second with 56 medals.
And there were the XX Olympics held in Munich in 1972. The West German Government was eager to take the opportunity of the Munich Olympics to present a new, democratic and optimistic Germany to the world, as shown by the Games’ official motto, “Die Heiteren Spiele”, or “the cheerful Games”. Nobody could have known that by the end of the events, the Olympics would turn out to be anything but ‘cheerful’. On September 5, midway through the games, a group of eight members of the Black September Palestinian terrorist organization broke into the Olympic Village and took nine Israeli athletes, coaches and officials hostage in their apartments. Two of the hostages who resisted were killed in the first moments of the break-in; the subsequent standoff in the Olympic Village lasted for almost 18 hours. The remaining athletes were killed during a botched rescue attempt. All but three of the terrorists were also killed.
Will peace reign at the 2016 Olympics? It is anybody’s guess, but just over a week ago Brazilian authorities arrested 12 people suspected of planning terrorist acts during the games. Though claiming to have been inspired by Daesh (aka ISIL), the group was comprised of amateurs, Brazilian nationals who were loosely organized. Of greater concern are a host of threats, some of which have been dismissed, others are being investigated. Brazil has vowed it will be ready to handle any terror attempt and is working with French SWAT teams to simulate attack scenarios. While I know we all hope for a peaceful two weeks in Rio, I will not be surprised if there are attempts to disrupt the games. Though exact figures are elusive, it is estimated that some 900 million people watched at least some part of the 2012 Olympics in London, making it the most-watched event in television history. With the goal of terrorism being to get global attention, the Olympics must be considered most vulnerable.
Terrorism is not the only threat in this year’s Olympic games. The ongoing outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus has some 18 athletes opting out of the games. Then there is the Guanabara Bay, whose waters will be used for sailing and windsurfing competitions, and which is heavily polluted. Among the chief causes of the pollution are uncollected trash fed into the bay via polluted rivers and slums along the coast. As an aspect of their bid for the Games, Rio committed to making efforts towards cleaning the bay. However, due to budgetary issues, only 17% of the sewage is currently treated, as opposed to the 80% that was promised. The athlete’s village has been described as the largest in Olympic history, yet officials have deemed the athletes’ village as ‘unlivable’ and unsafe because of major plumbing and electrical hazards such as blocked toilets, leaking pipes, exposed wiring, and darkened stairwells where no lighting has been installed.
The Olympics are special, because it is a time, an event, that brings nations and people together in the spirit of international cooperation, the spirit of peace. It is a time where nations put aside their differences. If only that spirit could carry over into areas of such things as international trade treaties, nuclear disarmament and climate change accords! This year will be even more special because, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is a new kid on the block, a team comprised solely of refugee athletes from Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ethiopia. Let us hope that there will be peace at the Olympics, that the problems that have plagued Rio as it prepared for the games are resolved, and that the 2016 games do not join the 1936 and 1972 games in the annals of notoriety.