Column: Olympic ‘disaster’ awaits in Rio de Janeiro

In three weeks the world’s greatest athletes will take center stage at the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, a grand spectacle that will seize our nation’s attention and captivate us with unforgettable moments. From the swimming pool to gymnastics mats, a new group of American athletes will become heroes. We’ll choke up with emotion at the montages aired on NBC detailing the various obstacles athletes have overcome to reach the pinnacle of their sport. We’ll cheer when records fall. We’ll stand with pride as the national anthem plays for a gold-medal winning American.

By the time the opening ceremonies begin Aug. 5 (on a one-hour tape delay, thanks NBC), we’ll begin to forget the dizzying bombardment of negative news that has engulfed these Olympics in the weeks, months and year leading up to it.

A quick recap: Zika virus, a corrupt government, international doping scandal, polluted bays, athletes backing out, unfinished venues and an unpaid police force that may not be capable or willing to protect tourists.

Am I missing anything?

Type “Rio Olympics” into Google and the suggested words that follow are schedule, dates and disaster. It seems people mostly want to know when exactly the disaster will take place.

A New York Times story last week was headlined “Brazil’s Olympic Catastrophe.” Another story on was titled, “One Month Before The Olympic Games in Rio, Everything Is A Disaster.”

Sounds comforting.

Naturally, the run-up to an Olympics is filled with stories of the host city struggling to reach the finish line. Eventually the Games begin and everything works itself out somehow.

But this feels different. This feels like we might have hit a turning point in the modern Olympics. That maybe it’s time to rethink how we view the biggest athletic event in the world.

I’ve always been a huge fan of the Olympics. I love watching curling in the winter. The bobsled. You name it. The Summer Games have the thrill of track and field, where seeing the fastest men and women in the world is always a sight to marvel. In 2008 I covered, albeit from home, Julia Smit of Mount Sinai’s Olympic swimming in Beijing.

I’ve become such a fan of the Olympics, that since the 2010 Vancouver Games, my friends and I have competed in fantasy Olympics, where we hold a draft to pick athletes in a variety of sports and see which team can score the most points based on the number of medals our athletes win. I vowed at one point to schedule vacation time around every Olympics to allow myself as much viewing time as possible.

And yet here we are now, three weeks away from Rio and my mood toward these upcoming games borders indifference and dismay.

The New York Times earlier this month quoted the acting state governor in Rio as saying the crisis is so severe, it could bring “a total collapse in public security, health, education, mobility and environmental management.”

Now that’s something to think about when sitting at home watching Olympic archery.

When Rio was elected as the host city in 2009, beating out Chicago to become the first South American city to host the Olympics, it led to a grand celebration. Officials declared a holiday for city and state employees.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge was quoted in The New York Times as saying: “There was absolutely no flaw in the bid.”

Seven years later, it appears that bid had more than a few flaws.

Last year, when Boston was in the running as a host for the 2024 Games, residents there seemed overwhelmingly excited to see their bid fall apart. The city and the United States Olympic Committee agreed to cancel the bid last July as support waned.

It makes sense. The amount of money required to put on these games is astronomical and hardly worth it in the end. The infrastructure required, even for a modern city the size of Boston, puts a major burden on finances.

Maybe it’s time to accept that not every city deserves or needs a chance at hosting the Olympics. A solution could be to rotate a small number of cities. Ten cities could rotate between the Summer and Winter Games, allowing the festivities to be spread out over multiple continents. When a city like London, for example, finished in 2012, it would know that it had 20 years to prepare for the next Games. Infrastructure could be updated rather than built from scratch. Costs could be better spread out among all countries to contribute toward the host city.

I doubt it’s a solution that will ever happen. But if the Rio Games taught us anything, a city that hosts the Olympics should be capable of providing basic services like water and sanitation to its citizens before worrying about athletics and tourists.

WerkmeisterThe author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].

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