BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Olympic ideal laudable even if Rio reality laughable

The Rio Olympics: What is it good for?

The answer, just on the back of one quick Google search yesterday, would appear to be absolutely feck all. Not exactly the most scientific of experiments, to be fair, but the top 10 results when the words ‘Rio Olympics’ were punched into the search engine at about 11.30am summed up succinctly the global mood.

‘Russia holds its own Games for banned athletes’, was the first headline courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald. Three more results focused on the Russian doping scandal and one on athletes’ complaints about the Olympic village. Four sifted through the appalling sanitation situation in the host city, particularly the waters, and the other was simply a general treatise on the history of chaos and corruption that has always dogged the Olympic movement and its showpieces.

You could have conducted that little test at any stage this past week and come up with something similar. Take it from someone who has. The general reaction among those who even bother to tune in to the Olympic wavelength before the opening ceremony has been one of predictable disgust and a declaration of intent to let the whole circus pass off without them.

That’s a noble thought, but the reality will be different.

The fact is that you can despise the International Olympic Council (IOC) with its obnoxious sense of primacy and self-importance and still cheer for (some of) the athletes who have sacrificed so much to pursue their lifetime’s dream. This cognitive dissonance has long taken root with the public. And the media, too.

It’s why Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, could laud Vladimir Putin’s input and declare the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi to be a roaring success. This despite the furores overcost overruns and, more worryingly, the hateful new legislation on homosexuality introduced by the Russian government that overshadowed the event.

One athlete’s opinion who hit the headlines this week has been the American rower Megan Kalmoe, who wrote a blog chastising the western media for its insistence on highlighting the many issues facing these Games. She went as far as blaming the fourth estate for smearing the host city, the IOC, and the Games themselves.

I

t was scattergun, ill-advised, and myopic stuff, much of it plain wrong, but symbolic of the same Olympic bubble that Bach inhabits. Pointing out that Rio de Janeiro has problems with public finances and sanitation doesn’t equate to smearing the city, for example, but Kalmoe’s suggestion that everyone should just forget about the problems and ra-ra the US to victory was laughable.

Her exhortation that her fellow Americans just “get behind us and cheer your faces off” actually brought to mind a great scene in the movie Full Metal Jacket when an officer upbraided Private Joker for wearing a CND peace badge on his uniform as they stood beside a trench covered with the bodies of locals massacred by North Vietnamese forces.

Colonel: Whose side are you on, son?

Joker: Our side, sir.

Colonel: Don’t you love your country?

Joker: Yes, sir.

Colonel: Then how ’bout getting with the programme? Why don’t you jump on the team and come on in for the big win?

Joker: Yes, sir.

The thing about Kalmoe is that there is so much to admire. She was a walk-on to her college’s rowing team at the University of Washington — an unknown who simply turned up unannounced.

She went on to graduate as team captain and will be one of only three 30-somethings competing for America at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas regatta in the heart of Rio. She will compete at her third Games this summer having claimed a bronze in the quadruple sculls in London. She has three World Championship medals, a gold and a pair of silvers, and she has racked up a string of academic awards throughout her 14-year career on the water — and before it in high school where she excelled at other sports.

Stories like that are what make the Olympics special and it is stories like that which play such a part in persuading people they can live with all the chaos and corruption as they watch the archery, rowing and wrestling. “I will row through shit for you,” Kalmoe said. It’s an admirable stance. But it doesn’t mean we should just ignore all the other piles of crap that come with an Olympic Games.

  • Email: brendan.obrien @examiner.ie Twitter: @Rackob

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