|Cristo Redentor looks down from Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro|
Recently, U.S. Olympian Megan Kalmoe (whose work has been featured here on RR) wrote a post to her blog entitled, ‘Stop Trying To Ruin The Olympics For Us’, which has since been published by The Guardian in the U.K. In her own way, Kalmoe is lamenting the fact that the media has focused on the many issues facing the Rio Games, going so far as to base their questions to the athletes more on ecological concerns than training and preparation for the Olympics. We all have opinions about the Games—it’s a world event. But here’s why I take issue with Kalmoe’s portrayal of the media’s intentions.
First and foremost, why would the media have a vested interest in, in Kalmoe’s words, ‘smearing the host city?’
"What it seems like to me, is that the media is yet-again working really hard to smear the host city, the IOC, and the Olympics as an institution as part of the hype leading in to the Games. In Beijing, people were hyper-focused on air quality. In London, the criticism fell on budget and timeline issues. This year, it’s more of the same and people seem more motivated than ever to portray the impending Rio Games as the biggest-ever disaster that hasn’t happened yet. Why? Why do we insist on indulging this negativity when there is so much potential for a culture of optimism and positivity in and around the Games? As a culture we have a really simple choice when it comes to how we want to frame the conversation around Rio 2016, and at every turn it seems we are choosing to be jerks."
To say that framing the conversation around major ecological and economic issues, in part brought on by the Olympic Games themselves, is ‘choosing to be jerks,’ seems out of bounds. The reason for the media’s mistrust of the Games is that often, host cities are left worse (and sometimes much worse) off after the show is over. Also, the prominent media companies publishing these stories—The New York Times, The Associated Press, NPR, and yes, The Guardian—are hardly clickbait factories.
The issues that faced host cities in the excerpt above were legitimate, and rightly call into question why the IOC has insisted on selecting cities that are often not in a position—economically or ecologically, or both—to host the Games.
So yes, in that sense, there is a pattern. And yes, there is fear-mongering about Zika. And yes, there is sensationalism about crime, politics, and sewage. But raising these issues is a product of concern for people’s well being—and not just of those who are visiting for the Games, but also those who call Rio home.
Which leads me to the main problem with the piece: its point of view is unselfconsciously self-centered.
Nota bene, from the perspective of an Olympic athlete training for the Games, that’s kind of okay. You have to be self-centered, at least to some extent, to achieve great things in athletics, in the arts, any individual goal. It takes a tremendous amount of personal dedication to realize a dream like going to the Olympics, let alone three Olympics, like Kalmoe—it's an outstanding achievement, and worthy of praise. In fact, the U.S. needs more athletes like Kalmoe, who are willing to go the distance, making the Team USA stronger and more experienced.
It’s fine to take a self-centered point of view to get that done. But here’s the distinction:
You have to realize you’re doing it.
Rio appears to be the most challenged host city in the modern era (for numerous reasons, some of which are outside its control), and many of the city’s problems will be exacerbated by the Olympics. Infrastructure issues—yes, like the water quality—are hallmarks of a government that has failed to address the basic needs of many people, even while building golf courses for the Games.
These are issues that affect real people, whose experience of the conditions—from poor sanitation, to unemployment, to crime—in Rio de Janeiro will last much longer than the two weeks of the Olympic Games. That much is not theoretical—it’s a reality for a significant percentage of Rio’s population, and it has already been that way for a long time. It’s not about the athletes being shipped in to stay in luxury suites (yes, luxury, despite issues with their construction), and to compete in areas of town razed to make way for Olympic events. Yes, it’s unpleasant to talk about those conditions. No, you as an athlete are not an expert on them. But can members of the media be expected to not make reference to these crises in their interactions with athletes?
Despite all of this, the Olympics will probably be fine. The Games will more than likely not be a major disaster, and they will probably look stunning on TV. And that’s part of the problem.
The Olympic Movement will move in for two weeks, and move out. Movement, indeed. It is unlikely that anyone from the IOC will make a lasting effort to help the communities displaced by the Games, and the same can be said for most of the athletes. I hope to be proven wrong, but that’s why the media is taking advantage of this opportunity to try to force the hands of the powerful for the benefit of those less fortunate.
"Think of it this way: every time you sensationalize the poor water quality, or try to get athletes to react to Zika, or chastise the Brazilian people for allowing their government to collapse, you’re not just insulting the Brazilian people. You’re also insulting us, your American athletes."
But it’s not about you, the American athlete. And it’s not an insult to the host country—it’s an effort to help affect meaningful, lasting change for its people.
For two weeks, the world will be treated to the best that Rio has to offer. It will be beautiful and vibrant, just like the people who live there. Isn’t it only fair, then, that those people should experience the best that Rio can be, in the years to come? Without a doubt, the future of the city’s infrastructure will be in some ways wedded to the Olympics—after all, the signature of these Games was meant to be their lasting local legacy.
That very well may prove true, for better or for worse.