By Owei Lakemfa
There have been controversies over the hosting of the Olympic Games. In fact, there have been mass boycotts. For instance, most African countries boycotted the 1976 Games due to the non-expulsion of New Zealand which maintained close sporting links with Apartheid South Africa. Four years later, 62 countries, led by America, boycotted the Moscow Olympic Games on the excuse that the then Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan. The latter retaliated in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games by leading a 22-country boycott using security concerns as excuse.
There were no mass boycotts at the Rio Olympic Games which ran From August 5-21, 2016. But this was not due to lack of controversy about Brazil, the host country. The controversy was mainly contrived by some developed countries and their citizens who do not expect a Third World country to be able to hold successful games. In any case, to them, Brazil is a bad example: a Third World country rising in industrialisation and wanting to use its newly acquired strength to reshape the world. Worst still, it is a major convener of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, BRICS, Club which is trying to counter-balance Western-colonised institutions like the IMF and World Bank.
The primary campaign against the Rio Olympics was over the mosquito-borne Zika virus. A lot of noise was made about the expected 500,000 spectators and athletes from abroad contacting the Zika virus. In fact, some threatened to sue the organisers over the disease. A second strand of the anti-Rio campaign was that Brazil is too polluted to be allowed to host the games. There were unsubstantiated claims that the Guanabara Bay in Rio, venue of the sailing events, was so contaminated that athletes will be seriously affected by diarrhea and vomiting. A third campaign was that Brazilian cities were so congested that disease could spread, affecting the visitors. Another political argument was thrown in: that the country was too politically volatile, more so with mass protests by opposing forces which led to the May 18 suspension, or what is actually a slow coup against President Dilma Roussef. Of course the issue of crime rates was also employed. When the latter card was played up, I giggle and told myself that at least in Brazil, unlike in Europe, bombs are not going off and terrorists are not running around. That unlike America, you do not have deranged minds carrying out unchecked massacre of people, including children. There was also the attempt to hang on Brazil, a moral blackmail: that the games will cost 16 times the country’s annual budget which is indefensible for a country with a large number of poor people. British Sports Historian, David Goldbalt, magisterially declared preparations for the Rio Games a disaster.
Based on these campaigns, 150 European health experts actually issued a joint petition against the games venue. A few athletes, especially golfers, went ahead to boycott the Rio Games, but these campaigns were of no effect: they were like a spider spinning a yarn to prevent the elephant from moving forward. Brazil obviously would have learnt from a similar campaign against it when it hosted the June 2014 World Cup. There were complaints that the stadia would not be ready, accommodation will be a problem and that the cities were overcrowded and expensive. To worsen matters, there were protests against the costs of hosting the Cup. At the end, an harassed Brazil – a football super power – was thrashed 7-1 in the semi-finals by Germany.
This time, Brazil concentrated better beating Germany on penalties to clinch the football gold medal and netting six other gold medals. It pulled off beautiful Opening and Closing ceremonies and a generally successful Olympic Games.
To me, a major highlight of the Games was the victory of 25-year -old South African, Caster Semenya in the 800 metres. But for her indomitable spirit, she would have been crowded out of sports long ago after years of humiliating tests to prove that she is female and not male. As in the case of Serena Williams, when powerful forces in sports feel constantly beaten by an athlete they do not favour, they try to cast doubts in the minds of the public. Her countryman, Wayde van Niekerk, set the tracks ablaze with a 43.03 Second in 400 metres which earned him the gold medal and a new world record.
But by far, the event that showed the Olympic spirit was the 100 metres Butterfly Swimming in which 21-year-old Singaporean, Joseph Isaac Schooling, defeated his childhood idol and swimming legend, Michael Phelps in a record 50.39 Seconds. The race showed courage, determination, sportsmanship. In defeat, Phelps showed grace. He won five additional Olympic gold medals, bringing his total Olympic medal haul to 28: 23 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze. This may qualify the “Flying Fish” as the greatest Olympian athlete of all time. Although he would have to contend with Usain Bolt the best Olympian sprinter of all time who has a lot of charisma and is champion in the very popular track events, particularly the 100 metres.
There were other major developments, particularly the participation of the Refugee Olympic Team, and the maiden appearance of tiny Kosovo and South Sudan, whose civil war is illogical.
The United States won 46 of the 306 gold medals up for grabs followed by Britain and China. Africa’s 10 gold and 19 silver is a sad reminder that our continent continues to be a backwater in almost all indices of human development. We have Kenya to thank for covering Africa’s shame with its six gold, six silver and one bronze; South Africa for giving us two gold and six silver medals. Cote D’Ivoire’s Cheick Sallah Cisse gave our continent a surprise gold in the 89kg Taekwondo, another Ivorian, Ruth Gbagbi gave a bronze while Niger which had its last Olympic medal 44 years ago, gave us a silver in Taekwondo. Nigeria, Africa’s giant, the most populous Black country and the continent’s leading light got a bronze medal to be able to register a medal presence at an event where 918 medals were won. But for the bronze won by the Samson Siasia-tutored football team, Nigeria at the Rio Olympics would have been like a snake passing over a rock; leaving no footprints. It is instructive that while Siaisia and his boys were sweating it out in Rio to secure what I call a ‘golden’ bronze medal, there were characters at home castigating and running down the team for allegedly travelling on a non-funded pre-tournament tour of America and forcing the country to pay for extra tickets for the team. The football team was the rejected stone that made Nigeria proud.