To begin, I have to acknowledge that my account of the Rio Olympic Games is filtered through tinted glasses belonging to a hardened events professional.
But even with past experience to draw upon, it is impossible to pin-point exactly where these Games fall in the spectrum of success. What I would hazard, however, is that Rio surpassed the expectations of most who’d followed the preparations for the 31st Olympiad with interest.
Public perception is, largely, a numbers game. So, it was understandable that organisers prioritised presentation where most people would be watching: television. Undoubtedly, the pictures broadcast around the world from Rio’s various sporting locations portrayed a highly successful games.
A green, algae-stained diving pool aside, the sports presentation was nothing short of excellent and it made for compelling TV. The canvas for sport provided across the main stadia (including Olympic Park, The Maracanã, Sambadrome Deodora, Lagoa and Olympic Golf Course) interspersed with tantalising imagery of this exotic destination, created a broadcast spectacle to rival London 2012.
Neither did it hurt Brazil’s cause in pulling off a seemingly beleaguered Games that a global audience of billions witnessed almost 100 new world and Olympic records, and the home nation’s best-ever medal haul. Performances were indeed equal to the presentation.
It will also go down as a distinctly ‘Brazilian’ Games. It’s true the playful cultural identity of samba does lend itself favourably to a sporting context. Nevertheless, a contagious carnival atmosphere was established from the opening ceremony; even though a significantly lower budget than Danny Boyle’s extravaganza, athletes, officials and onlookers were swept up from the outset.
But while great pains had been taken to bring the rest of the world to Rio via broadcast media, there was a quite obvious crevice into which efforts to bring the people of Rio to the £3.5 billion games had fallen.
It showed in spectator turnout. There is no better indicator of local engagement than bums on seats; we had over 1.2 million during the XX Commonwealth Games. For a city of over six million, unoccupied stands needn’t have been an issue for Rio.
And while camera positioning did at times negate the lack of spectators for the benefit of broadcast, there’s no denying that few sessions sold out and, in some cases, Olympic gold was contested before limited crowds.
Where London 2012 and Glasgow 2014 fostered community engagement to ensure even obscure disciplines enjoyed huge numbers, Rio fell short. Often being sold for upwards of £200, ticket prices alienated locals, who were unable to cough up sums equal to the monthly minimum wage to view sports with little history and a minimal fan base in the country.
It’s worth noting that a lack of paying spectators doesn’t always equate with a lack of interest. The fan zones, though hardly abundant, were well used. Their relative scarcity was a likely consequence of dwindling budgets as the project neared completion.
Likewise, financial restraint was probably the culprit for a perceptible inconsistency in look and feel across the city. Where sports presentation excelled, city dressing and off-screen branding appeared to be an after-thought.
For officials, connectivity was perhaps most troublesome. The sheer distance between venues made transfers a challenge, with round-the-clock-traffic only compounding the issue. Despite the best efforts of largely efficient metro and bus services, transport between Olympic Park, Deodora and Copacabana took hours. With the goal of meeting at various venues International Federations with an interest in bringing their event properties to Scotland, getting from A to B was, personally, the biggest frustration.
For overseas travellers, these difficulties were exacerbated by the fact that very few staff and volunteers spoke English and the fear of petty crime spread amid daily reports of theft and assault.
Safety in Rio was a concern. For some, knowing 85,000 armed military were on the ground may have served as a comforting thought. Although simply a sign of the times, the regular sight of firearms was, for me at least, a little unsettling.
Despite the language barrier, the army of volunteers were always a welcome sight. Polite and courteous, they did all they possibly could when asked to help. This was experienced upon touching down: as an international hub, Rio de Janeiro International Airport offered as smooth a welcome and departure as I have experienced during a major event.
The conduct of the British athletes was another shining light of this games and I confess to feeling inspired by their professionalism and focus. There was no question that Team GB arrived with a mission to complete, and no question they left mission accomplished, once again surpassing expectations and cementing, if any doubt remained, Great Britain as a world sporting power.
Ever reluctant to sit on the fence, I think the sum of the above – and principally because organisers managed to avoid a debacle as had been predicted – leads me to reckon the 16 days of Rio will be regarded as a job well done.
As for the legacy of the Games and the immense opportunity that now exists to set in motion social change, to engage the disenfranchised and to generate economic benefit, I have my concerns. In many ways, these are illustrated in the unprecedented significance of Olympic football at Rio 2016.
Although customarily little more than a youth tournament, the final with Germany was the only point at which it was apparent the whole nation was sitting up to take notice. Successfully exorcising the demons of the 2014 World Cup was the climax of 2016 for the hosts and the country came to a standstill to witness it.
For a nation so obsessed, is it ambitious to think the real power of sport as a driver of change will be realised? Will the facilities created for Rio and the galvanising impact of the Games extend opportunities for local communities in the same way as we have seen since the Commonwealth Games when one sport remains so dominant? Only time will tell.
For now, we have to be satisfied with a Games that, on the whole, entertained and transpired without making history for the wrong reasons. The rest, we can only wait and see.