A Farewell to the 2016 Rio Olympics
With the closing ceremony on Sunday night, the Olympic torch was extinguished, literally and figuratively ending the 2016 Rio Olympics, as the host city took its curtain call on the global stage.
What was supposed to serve as a celebration was actually indicative of the games as a whole, as a stadium with plenty of empty seats watched as dancers and actors took part in a haphazardly put together performance that somehow felt both rushed and too long. The closing ceremony was a perfect reflection of the Rio Olympics as an event of contradictions, a celebration of achievement and performance, at times marred by disappointment, mishaps, and serious allegations.
The Rio Olympics served as a perfect platform for new, young athletes to introduce themselves to the world, and a stage for veteran athletes to take their final bows. U.S. gymnast Simone Biles burst onto the scene, winning five total medals, among them America’s first vault gold medal in Olympic history. The Rio Olympics somehow managed to remain full of firsts, despite being an event with a long and storied history that dates back to ancient Greece.
Gwen Jorgensen won the first female triathlon gold medal for the U.S., while Ashton Eaton won a gold medal in the decathlon, becoming just the third man ever to repeat in that event. U.S. runner Matthew Centrowitz Jr. was the first American to win gold in the 1500m since 1908.
But at times it seemed like the Olympics were unable to celebrate the highs for long, before experiencing the inverse lows. For all the firsts, there were even more farewells, as viewers watched the final performances of legends like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and possibly Mo Farah and Kerri Walsh Jennings. The world may never see athletes like these again, and the Rio Olympics were a fitting final run.
The Olympics offered female athletes a chance to compete on an even playing field with their male counterparts, allowing dominant female athletes to shine on the world’s biggest stage. In Rio, more women competed in primetime TV than throughout the rest of the year, but female athletes still had to deal with rampant sexism that was most apparent in the coverage of the games. That didn’t stop women like Katie Ledecky, Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, and Allyson Felix from racking up the medals.
There were undoubtedly people who tuned in to the Rio Olympics hoping to see some sort of disaster, and those people were surely disappointed. While there were quite a few things that went wrong, luckily for both the officials that put on the Rio Olympics and the fans watching, the athletic achievements and storylines overshadowed the negatives. The farewells and the medals acted as a distraction from the crime, drama, small crowds, and lack of preparation that boiled under the surface.
These Olympic Games were carried out under the shadow of the Christ the Redeemer statue, in a Brazil that, at times, seemed watered-down for the consumption of foreign viewers. The poor and their favelas were hidden behind literal walls, while the images of Brazil were reduced to miles of beaches and mindless tourists.
The Olympics are a microcosm that represents the real world ideals of international cooperation, competition, and peace. But like the real world, there are also more sinister elements of the Olympics, with serious allegations of human rights violations, and questions regarding the true costs of the games.
Despite the serious issues that plagued these Games, and will most likely plague any future Olympics without the proper reforms, Rio lived up to the true Olympic ideals. It curated the best possible competition carried out by the athletes who sacrifice and sweat their way to victory. Hopefully, one day soon, this will be the focus, not the fake Olympic ideals carried out by wealthy bureaucrats looking to line their pockets with profits obtained by taxing the middle class and displacing the poor.
Goodbyes are never easy, but Rio took its final bow with a palpable sense of relief. A sense of relief from Brazilians that they were able to prove to the world they belonged on its biggest stage, that they’re a global player that will recover from whatever ills currently plague the nation. But also relief that the world is leaving, that they are no longer under a microscope. It is a sense of relief that the IOC and whatever corruption trails in its wake are getting out of town. For Rio, a different sort of healing process has now begun.
Rio survived its turn in the spotlight, and maybe that success will help usher in some major Olympic reform. Without it, we will have to continue taking the good with the bad, just like we must do so much in life. It will take time to figure out where Rio’s legacy belongs in the history of the Olympics, but for now, we owe the city a thank you. As NBC host Mike Tirico said, “The Rio Olympics were imperfect, but so is the world.”
Michael Sapenoff is a writer and artist in Kansas City. Follow him @MikeSapenoff