Scandal, Reality, and the Beauty of the Games
My #RoadtoRio began during the fall months of 2015, when my little sister, Anita, was selected to represent the United States as the Synchronized Swimming Duet at the Rio Olympic Games. A few months later, her and her duet partner, Mariya, would secure their spot at the Olympic qualifier in Rio de Janeiro. Following this announcement, we booked our plane tickets, reserved an Airbnb, and I began my first Portuguese lesson on Duolingo.
My initial opinion of the Olympics felt a bit hypocritical. On one hand, my sister, who has dedicated her entire life to training for the games, would be competing for our country on the world’s largest stage. On the other hand, I fully recognized the severe socioeconomic situation in Brazil, as well as the huge cost of hosting the games. Every other day, new developments of scandal and controversy seemed to leak out. But at the same time, it didn’t seem right to belittle the accomplishments of thousands of athletes by focusing so heavily on the negatives.
In the months leading up to the Olympics, international cynicism questioning Brazil’s ability to host the event poured from global media outlets to the point of utter exhaustion. Normally, I would take such media hysteria with a grain of salt, but the volume of negative content became so overwhelming that I began to worry as my family and I prepared for our trip to Rio.
At the time of Brazil’s selection as host of the 2016 Olympic Games, the South American nation was seen as one of the most promising developing countries in the world, and it was believed that by holding the Olympics there, Brazil would rise as a new global power. However, what was once celebrated as South America’s first Olympics, would later be regretted and rejected by many – both within and outside of Brazil.
As the Olympics grew closer, Brazil experienced several blows to its image, following huge corruption scandals involving its highest ministers, officials, and President Dilma Rousseff. Political turmoil reached its peak in May when Rousseff, charged for mishandling the federal budget, was removed from power to undergo her impending impeachment trial. The former advocate for the games would no longer welcome the world as Brazil’s head of state.
There was also the hype surrounding the infamous Zika virus. Given that I had already contracted the disease earlier this summer, this was not much of a concern for me. Still, several high-profile athletes from around the world opted out of participating in the games, shedding more negative light onto the event. In addition to Zika, various other health concerns warranted further drawback, most notably the Guanabara Bay, home to open-water swimming and sailing events, which was reportedly filled with tons of garbage, chemical waste, and even dead bodies.
Perhaps the most frightening concern was the threat of terrorism. During prior months, the world was struck with numerous deadly attacks, culminating with ISIS’s call for its followers to lay siege upon the South American city. Simultaneously, the Brazilian state became unable to pay its police, sparking nationwide strikes and protests by its law enforcement. If attacks were occurring in highly secure regions of the world, like Europe and the U.S., it wasn’t hard to imagine the same happening in Rio. A few weeks before the games, I even came across a sadistic online BINGO game which was taking bets on when, not if, a terror attack would occur during the Olympics.
If it wasn’t political turmoil, Zika, or terror threats, it was racial violence, police brutality, poverty, inequality, government debt, and incomplete infrastructure. All the aforementioned issues left the media and international observers calling for the cancellation of the Rio Games, suggesting instead to relocate them again to London.
In the face of these issues, it became hard for me to remain optimistic about the Olympics, and I admittedly grew anxious. Regardless, my family and I put our worries aside and boarded our plane at the Buffalo International Airport.
Amid all the doubt and pessimism, media cynics failed to recognize the importance of the Olympics, for both Brazil and the world.
First and foremost, by insistently harping on the bad, they took away one of the fundamental components of the Olympics: celebrating human athletic achievement. By constantly trolling Brazil and questioning its ability to host the games, the media was unknowingly devaluing the great accomplishments and lifework of thousands of athletes.
Sure, maybe it would’ve been wiser to invest in education, poverty reduction, or infrastructure instead of building mega stadiums and athlete villages—but to say that Brazil has gained nothing from the Olympics is simply not true. Rather, in hosting one of the largest, most important global gatherings, Brazil daringly exposed itself—its history, culture, politics, and people—to the world.
For two weeks (four if you include the succeeding Paralympic Games), the world was invited to watch, travel to, and understand the true Brazilian experience. The Olympics enabled the world the see and experience Brazilian wonders like Christ the Redeemer, Copacabana Beach, and samba, juxtaposed with extreme poverty, inequality, and internal conflict.
Brazil is not perfect, nor is it trying to convince anyone that it is. However, by inviting the world to experience its raw self, Brazil demonstrated great courage for which it should be applauded, not criticized.
The Olympic Games are a truly unique phenomenon which wields the power to unite all of mankind solely around the celebration of athletics. In doing so, a pure human innocence is revealed, one that is free from greed, violence, and hate. The Olympics allow the world to come together, like we once did as children, around camaraderie and friendly competition.
Nowhere else will you see modern-day foes—North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, China and Japan, Russia and Ukraine, Palestine and Israel—united as one under the six Olympic rings. This is not to say that the games will rid the world of conflict. Rather, they offer the world a chance to celebrate sportsmanship, peace, and humanity—seen, for example, in the establishment of the first ever Olympic team for international refugees.
In a year filled with so much violence and hate, perhaps the media should’ve focused on the beauty of the Olympics, rather than its blemishes. This year’s Olympics were nowhere near perfect, and I look forward to sharing my many Rio mishaps; yet I believe that Brazil, and the world, are better off for having them.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my Olympic series.