Before Rio 2016 began, we published a piece on what we were looking forward to watching the most. The athlete I singled out was Alan Oliveira, who went into the Paralympics as arguably Brazil’s biggest hope for home success. While the host nation has other accomplished athletes such as Daniel Dias and Terezinha Guilhermina, Oliveira was the marquee name, not just because of his gold medal performance at London 2012, but because it came at the expense of Oscar Pistorius.
My interest in Oliveira was due to the fascination I have with every Olympics and – these days – Paralympics needing an ambassador in the build-up; a “Face of the Games”.
There’s no doubt one of sport’s most appealing aspects is its ready made ability to deliver compelling stories, and local glory is a tale as easy to tell as it is to engage with. However, an additional factor at play, and one laden with more power, is the manner that elite sport connects to nationalism.
Many media outlets have taken Brazil to task for their preparation as Rio 2016 approached (we’ve been no different), yet in the interests of a panoramic viewpoint, it should be stated that this is a consequence of these events becoming too big to fail. And as such, not only does every host nation’s reach exceed their grasp in the assembling of the Games, but they then have to find any and all spurious justifications for doing so.
The recent actions of No Boston Olympics – ensuring the city dodged the neoliberal bullet of hosting the 2024 Games – are proof positive of how vital the consent of the public is; especially those who aren’t sports fans. One trusted way to win hearts and minds is dangling the carrot of watching a domestic sporting icon succeed in the flesh, on the most gilded platform there is, all in a reciprocal fervour whipped up by your fellow countrypeople.
It’s a potent totem, and often works in converting the sports atheist, but positioning an athlete to be the talisman of the Games in this way is a pretty rotten thing to do to a person. It’s not surprising that in the aftermath of their golds at London 2012, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Ellie Simmonds were emotionally overwhelmed, due in part to the intense pressure they had to endure, while no-one ever had to endure more than what Cathy Freeman experienced in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
And these were the ones that actually triumphed. The agony of failure is especially acute when it happens in front of your home audience. Consider the Chinese sprint hurdler, Liu Xiang. He was never the same after injuring himself at Beijing 2008. The ludicrous relevance of the Olympics was shown by his withdrawal leaving some of his country in tears, while Liu made a subsequent public apology. Think about that; all over a race.
Oliveira is now the latest who knows what it feels like when the other shoe drops. His inability to make the T44 100 metres final was a surprise, but what occurred in the T44 200 metres (his strongest event) was a genuine shock. The final took place last night, and Oliveira was expected to retain the title he won in London. However, he didn’t even make the final, finishing 4th in the heats after a woeful display.
It remains to be seen what the Brazilian reaction towards Oliveira will be, although the travails Rafaela Silva faced after elimination from London 2012 doesn’t augur well for him. The significance of this result, and the attendant disappointment, should be reserved for the athlete in question, their coaching team, and loved ones. However, the potential lionisation from your nation that comes with success has an opposite effect in its absence.
All of a sudden, millions who contributed nothing to your efforts have a vested interests in the final outcome. Like being a child who takes care not to show up your parents when they have guests round, being the face of the Games largely entails not being seen to embarrass your country.
One wonders if Oliveira was negatively affected by the external scrutiny, especially in a Games that negatively affected so many of its citizens. Placing him under such an intense spotlight meant he had to become a figurative firefighter, putting out numerous blazes all at once to help justify the Games to the Brazilian people, and through raucous home celebration, justify it to a worldwide audience.
While international sporting competition is a notionally enjoyable conceit, it has an acrid tang when athletes are stripped of their individuality, and are mandated to be a photocopier for established cultural values.
Because the best values to come from sport are universal, not regional. When the Olympics and Paralympics are turned into a proxy site of geopolitics, it takes us further away from sport at its best, which should always be carried out as if it’s the most important thing in the world, yet done so in the knowledge that it’s anything but.
I have great respect for every athlete in Rio, but I confess to sighing wearily when they speak of “doing it for my country”. Alan Oliveira owes Brazil nothing, just as Simmonds owed Britain nothing in 2012. Oliveira’s failure in Rio may have been his own, but so was his success in London. He’s not a national disgrace, nor is he an embarrassment.
The story of Alan Oliveira at the Rio Paralympics was far from ideal, but shabby treatment towards him from his nation would be a tale even less appealing, and would say a lot more about Brazil than it does about him.
 – I’m very much of the Ivan Drago mindset where this is concerned
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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing “Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year 2015
There’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.