Let the games begin

Dan Rosenheck previews the real contests in Rio

Fri Nov 06 2015


Judging from headlines in 2015, the biggest question surrounding the 2016 Olympics is whether Rio de Janeiro will succeed in hosting them. Stories abound about construction delays, filthy water that has made foreign athletes ill and the protests against Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president. But concerns about insufficient preparation have preceded every recent Olympics, and invariably everything winds up ready. The safest prediction is that the minute the torch arrives at the opening ceremony, the public will stop caring about the stadiums and start caring about what happens inside them.

Most spectators are motivated by a mixture of curiosity—few know the rules of, say, the modern pentathlon—and nationalism. This means that the closer the games come to achieving their goal of promoting harmony among nations, the less interested casual observers will be. Fortunately for broadcasters, who have collectively paid $2.8 billion to air the games, the return of geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West will provide a cold-war-style edge that makes for must-see TV.

Russia will not enter 2016 with the swagger it had in 2014, when it hosted the Winter Olympics and led the medal table. With a declining currency and shrinking sport budget, its teams have cut training time abroad, crucial for adapting to Rio’s tropical conditions. Moreover, its athletics team may be banned from competing if the country cannot convince international authorities that it has cleaned up its anti-doping safeguards. Nonetheless, Russia has never finished lower than fourth in the medal count. The best chance for a head-to-head contest with the United States may come in gymnastics, where Aliya Mustafina, who won four medals in 2012, will take on the defending all-round champion Gabby Douglas and a rising star, Simone Biles.

The country with the most to gain from a big medal haul is the host. Facing a threat of impeachment, Ms Rousseff must be hoping for a halo effect. Expectations are modest: because it tends to channel athletes into football, Brazil has been a middling contender in most Olympic sports. The hosts have high hopes for volleyball—no surprise, especially in the beach version—and could do well in aquatic events like swimming and sailing, as well as athletics, martial arts and gymnastics. Infostrada Sports, a Dutch analytics company, forecasts a respectable 21 medals for Brazil, which would be its best performance ever.

The country most likely to deliver a positive surprise at the games is New Zealand. Infostrada expects the Kiwis to sneak into the top ten in 2016 with nine golds—a remarkable feat, given that their economy is one-seventh the size of the smallest country ahead of them. The debut of rugby sevens is sure to benefit New Zealand, the world’s rugby powerhouse. (It may also enable tiny Fiji to take home its first-ever medal.)

Vladimir Putin would love to see the end of America’s streak of winning the most medals in every summer games since 1992. But the smart money is on the bonanza continuing. The return of golf after 112 years should bolster America’s total, since its four best male golfers are all ranked in the world’s top eight. America could also recapture the gold in the men’s 100-metre race: although Usain Bolt, the record-setting Jamaican, did defend his title at the World Championships in 2015, he edged out America’s Justin Gatlin by just a hundredth of a second.

Citius, altius, fooling us?

The Rio games will have to clear two hurdles to be seen as a success. One is doping. In August 2015 a dataset of 12,000 blood tests on track athletes was leaked, revealing that one in seven competitors’ samples showed results “highly suggestive of doping”. Mr Gatlin himself has already been suspended twice, though he insists he is innocent. Nothing makes the creed of “solidarity and fair play” sound more hollow than superhuman-looking performances turning out to be, in fact, superhuman.

The second test will be the event’s impact on Rio. The games have historically provided an abysmal return on investment. The Tokyo 2020 organising committee has come under fierce criticism for overspending, and just two cities—Beijing and Almaty—wound up bidding for the 2022 winter games. If the Rio Olympics are a triumph, the vote for the 2024 summer games, which will be held in 2017, will be fiercely contested. On the other hand, if they follow the pattern of previous Olympics and leave the “marvellous city” billions poorer and littered with white elephants, enough potential hosts may vote with their feet to force the International Olympic Committee to reform.

* This article was updated following the report by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which accused Russia of operating a state-sponsored doping programme, that was released after The World in 2016 went to press but before the digital edition was published.

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