So that’s it. As the sun went down in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday 21 August, the games of the XXXI Olympiad drew to a close. The Games were the first to be held in South America and faced the onerous task of following the organisational precision of London 2012.
Whilst the Brazilians were always going to struggle with a budget only a tenth the size of London’s, I think these were a great Games. They were fun and enjoyable, with many people trying to embrace Rio’s famous party atmosphere.
The Games were mired in controversy before they began, and that made controversies during the competition almost inevitable. Brazil’s last two presidents, Lula and the incumbent Dilma Rousseff, face legal charges, whilst the country itself is currently in one of its worst economic crises for half a century. Oh, and there was the small matter of Russia’s Olympic Committee being part of a state-sponsored drug programme and its entire athletics squad getting banned from the competition
The first main issue of the Olympics was tickets. Even on the opening day, there were vast swathes of empty seats. The same was true at cycling, athletics, judo and basically everything else. That wasn’t a huge surprise given the dire economic state of Brazil and the fact that most venues were in some of Rio’s most impoverished areas. Similarly, Brazil’s best Olympics prior to this one was 2004, where they came home with 5 gold medals. That lack of Olympic pedigree meant that there was lower interest than seen in Beijing or London. Attendance did pick up as the games went on, which will have come as some consolation to competition organisers and the IOC.
The other major controversy surrounded US swimmer Ryan Lochte and teammates Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger. The athletes initially reported they were robbed at gunpoint, but there was a disconnect between their comments and seemingly happy behaviour –– within days, the situation somewhat resembled a Hollywood movie. There were people being thrown off planes and Brazilian police labelling the Americans liars. It was later revealed that the swimmers had lied in order to cover up their own dire conduct at a local petrol store. For someone like Lochte, who won his seventh gold at these games, it was a low point and tarnishes his legacy.
The controversy surrounding the Paralymics that blew up at the end of the Games is sure to develop throughout the remainder of the summer and be a lasting memory from Rio. Unpaid travel grants and an alarming lack of funding means the Games themselves are in jeopardy. That’s a major blow to those competing and the Paralympic movement which grew so much in Beijing and London.
Overall, I would label these Games a success. Yes, they probably won’t solve Brazil’s numerous socio-economic problems and have perhaps posed long-term questions about the viability of the Olympics, but the Games were fun and produced some iconic moments. Brazil had its best Olympics, finishing with 19 medals (seven gold, six silver and six bronze. The triple success of canoeist Isaquias Quieroz, pole vaulter Thiago Silva and the men’s football team created moments that will live long in the memory.
Rugby Sevens and golf successfully made their debuts in this competition, and both proved to be gripping, surprising and welcome additions to the Olympic programme. We can only hope that the five planned additions for Tokyo go down as well.
America inevitably topped the medal table, this time winning a staggering 121 awards, but the real stories were those involving Team GB and China. Whilst China had one of its worst games in recent memory, Team GB was phenomenal throughout. Team members won 67 medals, topping their tally from London and finishing second in the medal table. Thus, Great Britain truly affirmed its place as a real force in Olympic sport.
There are too many British athletes for me to praise individually, and to be perfectly honest there is only so much of my ramblings you wonderful people can take. I will look at the performances that caught the eye, even though every single athlete deserves credit for their performances.
The target set for Team GB was 48 medals, a haul that would have made Rio our most successful away games. That was accompanied by a series of targets in each sport, of which we met the target in all but one. Rowing had a target of six medals from the regatta and whilst we only won five, three were gold and we still topped the medal table. On the other hand, swimming vastly exceeded expectation, with us winning one gold and five silvers –– much better than the one silver and two bronzes from London. That renaissance was spearheaded by Adam Peaty, who broke the world record twice on his way to the first British swimming gold in 28 years. That was accompanied by a further four national records in other events.
There were a fair few of our medallists who came as a complete shock, not only to the British public but to the selectors that chose them. It began with Joe Clarke in the K-1 slalom, and he was later joined by Bryony Page in the women’s trampoline (she won silver). Jack Laugher and Chris Mears won our first ever diving gold in the 3m synchro, whilst Laugher himself won silver in the individual competition. Later shocks included former ballet dancer Sophie Hitchon smashing the national record to win bronze in the women’s hammer, 16-year-old Amy Tinkler securing bronze in the women’s floor final, and Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge belying their low seeding to win bronze in the men’s badminton.
There were also a lot of history makers who grabbed headlines and hearts with their performances in Rio. Jason Kenny’s hat-trick of cycling golds took him level with Sir Chris Hoy as our most successful Olympian, whilst his fiancé Laura Trott also dominated to add two golds to her two previous wins from London. They were joined by the phenomenal Mo Farah, whose double gold was the highlight of our athletics programme.
Bradley Wiggins and Katherine Grainger, meanwhile, were among the record breakers for Team GB in Rio. Wiggins’ victory in the team pursuit made him GB’s most decorated man, whilst Grainger’s silver in the double sculls made her our most successful woman. Wiggins’ medal was one of 11 earned in cycling, and every single member of the track team earned a medal. Britain have asserted themselves as dominant on the track once again and have perhaps even extended it, showing the rest of the world that they are here to dominate for some time to come.
Another team to really become a force at these Games was the men’s gymnastics squad. After Louis Smith’s medals at the last two Olympics began a wave of new talent, Max Whitlock’s stunning double gold is sure to ensure we are amongst the very best in gymnastics for a long time. His achievement was made all the more stunning given that he won his two gold medals within the space of two hours.
There was also a group of British athletes who proved that their displays in London were no fluke by repeating them in Rio. Charlotte Dujardin and her horse Valegro dazzled the judges to score over 93% in the dressage and ensure she retained the title she won in London. Likewise, Jade Jones had become world number one following her shock gold four years ago, and she came into Rio hot favourite. Jones proved why that was entirely justified by dominating the competition and winning gold with ease. The same ease was displayed by the exceptional female boxer Nicola Adams. In London, we won our first ever triathlon medals thanks to the Brownlee brothers, and in Rio they were in a class of their own. Alistair defended his title and Jonny added a silver to his London bronze.
The women’s hockey team securing gold in a dramatic penalty shootout was edge-of-the-seat stuff that embodied the power of teamwork. That was one of my favourite moments of the Games, which followed on from my favourite moment: Nick Skelton winning gold in showjumping. At 58 and in his seventh Olympics, he had no expectations and, after breaking his neck, retiring and later having a hip replacement, had no fear. He rode his star Big Star to perfection, and the raw emotion on his face after winning was beautiful to witness.
Aside from Team GB’s heroics, there were numerous special moments, including Usain Bolt bowing out in style after doing the treble-treble. His feat was phenomenal but somehow seemed inevitable, perhaps due to his demeanour and the sense of infallibility that surrounds him. Wayde Van Niekerk smashing Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old 400m record, one that many said would never be broken, was truly breathtaking, as was Almaz Ayana’s dominant victory in the women’s 10,000m.
Off the track, there were first Olympics golds for Kosovo, thanks to judoka Majlinda Kelmendi; Puerto Rico, thanks to tennis star Monica Puig’s shock win; and the IOC, after Fehaid Al-Deehani’s dominant display in the men’s double trap. Singapore also took home its first ever gold thanks to swimmer Joseph Schooling, whose stunning performance in the 100m butterfly prevented Michael Phelps from taking gold number 24 in his glittering career. His haul of five was the most of any American at these games, narrowly edging out the extraordinary gymnast Simone Biles.
The image of a South Korean and North Korean gymnast taking a selfie together was a wonderful image from Rio, showing the unifying power of sport. Another lasting memory for me was watching sports that get little to no television coverage outside of the Olympics, like weightlifting. It was in an afternoon watching that I saw Colombian Oscar Figueroa break down in tears after winning gold at the final attempt in his long career.
At a time when people were bemoaning the Olympics and some even sounding the death knell of the Olympic movement, I think these Games were excellent. They were as well organised as London but arguably more fun, and the sometimes chaotic scenes were very enjoyable. Despite obvious question marks about their future financial viability, the Games appear to be in rude health as we look towards Tokyo. Team GB can now move forward with Rio in the rear-view mirror as an Olympics that will go down as its finest hour.