Why a state of blissful childlike ignorance about the world is the key to properly enjoying the Olympic Games
One used to be able to just enjoy the Olympics for what it was at its core: the ultimate showdown between the finest athletes on the planet
Ah, to be a 10-year-old boy again. Back when the only hint we had of corruption in sport was the suspicious frequency of certain “shinies” in the Panini football sticker packs compared to rarer-than-hen’s-teeth others. When the closest we got to doping was the crazed endorphin rush of necking far too much sugar then watching a video copy of Predator or similar 18-rated Arnie action masterclass someone’s older brother had got a hold of.
My friend’s boy is that age and I admit being jealous of his ability to fully savour the Olympics, blissfully unaware of the behind-the-scenes boondoggles and shenanigans. I’m collecting the special edition commemorative 1-real coins in circulation here in Rio. At least he’ll appreciate them – I’m reluctant to read up on them in case the metal was mined by one-legged orphans flown in specially by the IOC.
If only one could return to that mental state, when all we knew of the Olympics was that it was the place where the fittest, strongest and fastest met every few years to see who was the bestest, on telly all day long.
There’s far too much time to focus on grim reality on the lengthy ride from the sprawling Olympic Park to our accommodation at the Media Village. There, workmen whir away with drills putting the finishing touches on what will become expensive apartments once the smell of journalists has been eradicated.
The Games has done what it does best to the area of Barra de Tijuca, where most venues and “villages” are located: handed the mayor’s property developer sponsors the ideal opportunity to throw up flats at knockdown prices and bulldoze some favelas and their residents.
The two major beneficiaries are billionaire Carlos Carvalho, known as the “Don of Barra” as he acquired up to 108 million square feet of land in the area, and Italian Pasquale Mauro. In an interview with The Guardian last year, Carvalho caused some minor outrage after speaking frankly of his hopes that Barra becomes “a city of the elite, of good taste … it needed to be noble housing, not housing for the poor”.
Rio mayor Eduardo Paes told Carvalho to shut up after that, which must have required bravery given the millions Carvalho has donated to Paes’ election campaigns.
Mauro is the official owner of the new golf course built in Barra for the sport’s return to the Games, despite the fact the city already had courses that surely would have worked perfectly fine (the IOC said otherwise, in another possible case of greasy-palm syndrome).
Naturally, the course has luxury condominiums attached, built in partnership with Brazil’s largest property developer Cyrela.
Which brings us back to the Media Village. Cyrela supposedly built those apartments on a mass grave of “quilombos” – descendants of runaway slaves – while the builders toiled in what almost amounted to forced labour conditions, some reports say.
The provenance of one’s billet does not seem of great concern to most residents, judging by the laughter booming up from the poolside bar as some of NBC’s massive assembly of staff enjoy some down time while the rest of us hammer away at the keyboard after a 30-hour journey. The Rio government has done its best to hide the city’s vast inequalities from visiting press and tourists, erecting colourful barriers along the main highway from the airport to protect our delicate eyes from seeing poor people (these barriers are comically labelled noise protection for the favela residents).
— James Porteous (@JamesPorteous) August 3, 2016
But as the media bus speeds gleefully past the traffic on the Olympics-only lane, the contrast between rich and poor is unavoidable.
As the action begins, our inner 10-year-old awakes again, in awe of the running, jumping, swimming, biking and fighting. I don’t think I’ll explain to my friend’s boy about billionaire property developers and vested interests in local governments and sports politics’ corridors of power just yet. Let him enjoy another untainted Games. Come Tokyo 2020, though …