Well, with all the predictability of something that happens every four years, the Olympics is upon us once again and, as usual, everyone has become doom-prophets and naysayers and will carry on until either; a) the opening ceremony blows everyone away, or b) the beauty of sport in its purest form wipes all thoughts of drugs, corruption and terrorism from our collective minds.
Seven years ago, Rio was awarded these games at a glitzy ceremony in Copenhagen. Barack Obamo was there supporting Chicago, but was upstaged by Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Both he and Pelé were seen weeping and Rio 2016 was to be something special, representing shifting global tides, honesty and integrity.
Well that was the idea.
Unfortunately, the reality has caused a backlash in advance of the Games, a backlash concentrated on three key premises.
The first is that Brazil is actually not a very good place to hold the Olympics, because it is at the heart of the corrupt sporting world; it is also the epicentre of street-crime, car-jackings and kidnappings and above all it teems with the Zika virus, which is deadly for anyone of child-bearing age (ie. all Olympic athletes) but which has at least forced lots of golfers to cower at home.
Second, the Olympics itself is no longer a fit place for stern, white-shorted men to potter about collapsing at the end of the marathon but is instead, like pretty much everything else in the world, a matrix of unceasing corporate greed.
Then of course, there’s drugs again; which quite simply means we can’t possibly believe what we see anymore, because everyone’s on drugs and we could probably beat them if only we could be bothered to train a bit and get a decent dealer.
So, the Games are a failure, they’re bound to be, but that’s what we say every four years, without fail.
At this stage, it may require a leap of faith, but reports of the death of Rio 2016 tend to overlook a couple of things. First, that even the wretched furore over doping sanctions cannot detract from the thrillingly high level of competition in store. And second, that rather than ruined, spoilt, unwatchable and all the rest, these Games already look utterly fascinating, utterly epic and entirely human.
It isn’t hard to see how Brazil can seem a frightening or infuriating host. It can be a disturbing country. At the last World Cup the police issued a security pamphlet advising tourists “not to scream” when being mugged, as this will only aggravate the criminals. Rather than mend the roads, the rich buy helicopters, while the middle-classes drive bullet-proof cars.
Plus of course Brazil is the perfect Big Sport host nation, spiritual home of these vast sporting Death Stars that orbit the globe training their destructor beams, hoovering up the wheat fields, scattering the outhouses. Not only did Brazil help introduce its own very Brazilian “jeitinho-culture” corruption to Fifa, before producing the most wasteful World Cup ever conceived. It is also a natural home of the overclass, a nation that never recovered from having the entire Portuguese royal court plonked down in Rio 200 years ago to cleanse the Rio slums and bankrupt the nation building grandiose white elephants, divvying up the country between a cast of dimwit heirs and earls.
You get the hosts you deserve. You also get the Games. The hand-wringing over the corruption of the Olympic ideal ignores the fact that sport has never existed in a vacuum. When has this ancient, narcissistic Zeus-worshipping fiesta, part military display, part sensual debauch, ever been cloudless, sealed, pristine or whatever it is we want it to be?
Instead the post-war Olympics have been defined by the Cold War era, when the Games entwined itself around the East v West end-of-days dynamic, and by the rampant greed and opportunism of its commercial model, a by-product of which, sustained chemical cheating, is threatening to corrode its cogs and wheels and bring the whole thing screeching to a halt. Hubris, greed, vaulting ambition, a mad hatter’s tea party of competing interests: meet Brazil, land of corruption and entrenched elites.
And yet sport always offers some glimmer of redemption. Beyond all this murk and human weakness there will be the usual moments of beauty. The Olympics may be a mess, a heist, a circus of insincerity. But there is still something gloriously pure in here. The best parts will still happen. From the para-athletes – and by the way: don’t check the doping stats here – pushing themselves to extraordinary limits, to the elite track and field talent out there floating high above the earth producing strange and unprecedented feats of human ultimacy.
To whinge and whine about the frazzled edges, the evil that men do, seems utterly pointless. The game is rigged wherever you look. All human civilisation comes muddled and fuzzed and played at a slant, a jungle of interests and hoarded power from which, if we’re lucky, a few moments of grace can still emerge.