Given the panoply of portentous prognostications leading into Rio 2016, received wisdom ultimately deemed this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games as a success: The sport was thrilling; the events passed without much disruption; athletes weren’t ridden by the Zika virus; and Brazil doesn’t appear to be a real-life rendering of The Walking Dead. What were we all so worried about?
And if your took your cue from the bulk of the established press, it would be understandable for you to have reached the same conclusion. Despite the anxiety, the displacement, and the protests, it was quite clear after the first few days of competition that even if it was an unwise choice for the Games to be in Rio, they were here now, so we may as well try to enjoy it.
But our concerns should never really have been about what happened during the Games. It should be about what’s going to happen now that they are over.
Because how often are we going to think of Rio now? How often will we ruminate on the wage gap that works on a gradient of melanin, the police force with the itchiest of trigger fingers, the cabinet so white and male you would have thought it was chosen by Winston Churchill, or Michel Temer showing the Parliamentary Labour Party how to pull of a successful coup?
With the Premier League and the NFL back on our televisions, will we get back on the sports treadmill, not giving the Cariocas – and the rest of Brazil – a second thought?
It’s long been a bugbear of mine the way broadcasters cover global sporting events. For clarity’s sake, both the BBC and Channel 4 were very proficient in the breadth and access of their coverage. Whichever sport took your fancy, it was mostly available to the watching public.
However, what wasn’t available was a look beyond the Olympic Park. As medals were won, people’s homes were being bulldozed, favela residents were being killed at the rate of 4.8 people a day, while cleaners in the Olympic Village were working roughly 17-hour-days for only £1.40 an hour (which included the threat of being sexually assaulted), yet it seemed the only domestic story worth telling was Rafaela Silva’s gold in the judo.
Now the media weren’t responsible for the displacement or the killings, and Silva’s success was joy distilled. But they become complicit in the inequity when they elide the ripple effect of the Games. Regardless of whether it’s deliberate erasure, or simply being ill-equipped to tackle the subject, it does a disservice to the audience to filter proceedings through the prism of a one-dimensional carnival, where nothing but happiness dwells (often happiness being defined by how many medals your country won).
This was exemplified by the constant invocations of picturesque landmarks: Copacabana; Ipanema; Sugarloaf Mountain. By framing this as the only face of Brazil, the instruction was clear: “Look at the pretty locations. Look at the medal winners. And don’t look at anything else.” It was an object lesson in what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “the single story”. The only time the press complained was when they were directly affected. Not that any of this will be remembered, now that the news cycle has – like a cat – got a new ball of twine to chase.
It should be noted that not only did the International Committees (both Olympic and Paralympic) have a lot riding on Rio 2016 being successful, but so do the advertisers and broadcasters who have their own financial imperatives to make their respective investment worthwhile. They’re those guests who come to your house party, get drunk, vomit all over your carpet, and then leave without helping to clean up the mess.
The overriding problem with how these events are structured is that high-profile sport is increasingly replicating the way the dominant culture feels about the disenfranchised. Much of the sport in Rio was glorious, but the way it’s used as an air freshener to cover up the stench of continued mistreatment proves that you can polish a turd. And it works, as the watching audience has an outlook familiar to fans of Nirvana: “Here we are now, entertain us.”
It’s only fair to acknowledge that while Brazil deserves opprobrium for the piecemeal concentration of power in the hands of a few white men, how different is that to what occurs in other influential nations? Has Brazil looked at the planet’s superpowers, and pulled off their very own “Single White Female” act? Have they decided that if they want to hang around with the heavyweights, they’ll have to be just like them?
When they won the rights to host the Games, then-president Lula da Silva triumphantly declared, “The world has recognized that the time has come for Brazil.” But he didn’t specify what it was time for.
Rio’s poorest citizens are now left having to extricate themselves from the quicksand their government has plunged them in. The Olympics and Paralympics are over, but life in Brazil will continue. The question is, is this life that anyone actually cares about?
 – Of course, it’s perfectly possible to do both. I just question how many will exercise this option.
 – It would be unfair for me to pass judgment on broadcasters from other countries. Well, apart from NBC. They remain an absolute disgrace.
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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.