After a Closing Ceremony that most would have slept through and few watched, the 2016 Olympic Games are over. There were times in the preceding years when some even doubted whether the Games would procced for the first time ever in South America; unfinished stadiums, dubiously coloured diving pools, gun violence and local resentment are not an ideal backdrop for the greatest sporting event on the planet.
Sitting in our armchairs on this side of the Atlantic, we can safely say that the Games have been a resounding success. Despite the cost of £4 million per medal, no one is arguing whether it has been worth it. The list of those worthy is too long to spell out in full; however, Sir Jason, Sir Mo and Dame Laura all provided moments of sheer ecstasy that will go down in British sporting history alongside, or even above, the heroics of the summer of 1966.
Yet, for the rest of the world and for Rio especially, the answer of worth is far harder to quantify. Those who live in the Favelas and on a daily basis will come face to face with empty, unused stadiums will be right to question why government money was spent on a global, two-week spectacle as opposed to their own well-being. It won’t be long until the images of those struggling in the Favelas dissipate from our memories. The good and the bad will merge into a solitary memory, with incredible images of sporting prowess displacing the BBC feel-bad montage backed by the emotion-stirring piano score.
The question of drug cheaters being allowed to compete is one that will forever taint these games. Everyone knows about the Russians, and the sight of Yuliya Efimova standing on the podium with a silver medal leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Don’t kid yourself that it is only Russia, though; Justin Gatlin has been caught doping not once, but twice. That both of these athletes were allowed to compete should bring unheralded shame onto the International Olympic Committee. The word spineless isn’t strong enough.
In spite of the relevance and significance of these mounting problems, we shouldn’t let our view of the Olympics be clouded. They are the greatest show on earth, and not because Sky paid billions (see English football) for the rights to show the Games on TV. The Olympics are, quite frankly, the best example of showing what the human body and mind are capable of. They are a celebration of not just endurance and strength, skill and speed but also commitment and competition. They are a demonstration of what is possible.
Seeing new world records set by stars such as Adam Peaty in the pool and Wayde Van Niekerk in the 400 metres is not just spectacular because of the gold medal won. Fundamentally, these records show that humans have not yet reached the limit of what is physically possible. Yes, Michael Johnson’s 400-metre record stood for 17 years, but to see that it can be beaten is to reaffirm your faith in the enduring development of humankind.
People sometimes scoff at the presence of horses in an event meant to be a celebration of human performance. Yet the sight of Nick Skelton atop the podium after a replacement hip and the news he’d never be able to ride again stands testament to the power of human character. That picture should be scattered in hospitals worldwide as the best embodiment of the strength of sheer bloody-mindedness. Never let anyone tell you something isn’t possible. If you want to achieve something, go and make it happen. Isn’t a picture far more powerful than endless motivational videos?
Of course, it is not just extreme competitiveness and a desire to win that has been on show during the past two weeks. The most heartwarming images of respect have graced our screens. Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand stopping to help the American Abbey D’Agostino and thus sacrificing her chances of reaching the final in the 5000 metres was the ultimate demonstration of the importance of sport. Sport is all about winning, but fundamentally it is an extra-curricular activity. The lessons it teaches us about respect, awareness and compassion are vital, as these virtues will stand anyone in very good stead during their everyday lives.
Tennis is another of those derided Olympic sports, yet was the embrace between Murray and Del Potro after their epic final not an image to last a lifetime? They had tested each other to the maximum in terms of mental toughness, stamina, endurance and skill. Murray’s victory did not immediately spark jubilant celebrations from the Scot, but simply an appreciation of what both sportsmen had gone through. The commentator describing a bond that those two will forever share is not hyperbolic. Merely watching it was mentally tiring. To play in such a match? Unimaginable.
There are countless examples of awe-inspiring stories, but you don’t need any more recounting. Watching the Olympics, you will all have taken away one or two of your own golden memories, and you don’t need someone else shoving theirs down your throat. However, if you want an answer to the aforementioned question, let me leave you with this. Was it worth it to hear the Prime Minister of a tiny island nation in the Pacific call a national holiday for a first gold medal? Was it worth it to watch Britain’s most successful Olympian take his Bag for Life and cycle back to the hotel after winning his sixth gold? Was it worth it to see Phelps come out of retirement and blow the field away in the 4×100 metre relay? Was it worth it to see what the human body can achieve?