Nick Butler

Sport at the moment is in a battle for its very identity. I was privy to two great pieces of drama yesterday which showed all that is good about victory and competition, only for they to be tempered today by more salutary moments.

One of these highlights came in judo, where under 52 kilograms fighter Majilinda Kelmendi carried the weight of expectation from an entire nation as she won Kosovo’s first ever Olympic medal, a gold, on the landlocked Republic’s debut appearance at the Games. 

Her final may not have been too pretty on the eye, she scored a point early and then used streetwise guile and nous to keep her opponent at bay. It seemed to represent sport at its symbolic best. Tears flowed down the face of the 25-year-old as Kosovan fans and officials leapt to their feet in the stands and VIP benches. 

It was a moment of genuine hope and encouragement to one of Europe’s most impoverished corners and a sign that sport and the Olympics can inspire and give confidence to a whole population.

A few hours later I found myself at the swimming as Michael Phelps won the 19th Olympic gold medal of his brilliant career after inspiring his United States team to a 4x100 metres freestyle relay victory over French and Australian favourites. 

This was sport at its most gladiatorial, and Phelps - one of the most ferocious competitors in history - produced the fastest 100m leg of his career, of 47.12sec, to propel his team into what proved a winning lead. A great race, a great competitor and a man who thrives on the pressure and expectation of the biggest stage.

In short, it was exactly what Rio 2016 needed. A break from doom, gloom and controversy and a reminder of why we watch sport. 

The home judo gold medal for Rio-favela born Rafaela Silva was another example of this.

Tonight, however, there has been less positive news, (or perhaps more positive, if you take the word in its literal sense…) Kelmendi, it transpires, missed an out-of-competition drugs test in France in June. Details remain hazy at this stage and both Kosovan officials and the International Judo Federation are downplaying the incident.

They are claiming it was not an officially sanctioned test. But a cloud now hangs over her success.

And then in the swimming tonight we had Russia’s Yuliya Efimova and China’s Sun Yang winning respective silver and gold medals despite each being implicated in doping controversies. On two occasions in Efimova’s case.

Stars like Michael Phelps have already produced moments of magic at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Stars like Michael Phelps have already produced moments of magic at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

Rio 2016 really needs to catch fire if the doom and gloom is to begin to evaporate. 

The build-up period before an Olympic Games is always a time for criticism, particularly because thousands of us journalists have copy to file and time to tenaciously research stories. But it can rarely have been as extreme as it was this time. 

Russia’s doping ban, or not ban as it turned out, was the biggest one. 

And while this did not directly besmirch Rio, plenty of other issues did. Zika, pollution and transport problems, and then, in recent days: poor ticket sales, general disorganisation, local apathy and security concerns.

“I just can’t wait for sport to begin,” pretty much everyone was saying as we approached the end of last week. “All we need is a few gold medals to be won and then everyone will forget these problems…”

The Opening Ceremony was, for me, good but by no means magnificent. Yes, the small budget had hampered things, but it was fragmented and lacked a truly memorable moment. Like the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron in Beijing, or the arrival of the Queen alongside James Bond in London.

Then, on the first day of sporting action, we had barely digested news of a loud bang on the television coverage of the cycling road race, which turned out to be a controlled explosion of a suspicious bag, before reports surfaced of a bullet being fired within two metres of an official in the media centre in the equestrian centre.

On day two, we had news of the Paralympic Russian ban and everyone was distracted again. Today, with the Brazilian gold medal, things are beginning to improve, but they could still go either way.

Of course, being in the media bubble does not always put you in the most objective position, particularly because bad news is often more exciting for us. Lots of the problems are minor, like slow transport, poor signage, long queues and a lack of coffee supplies in the press centre. Quite rightly, no-one cares about this when we are lucky enough to be at an Olympics.

The organisation of Rio 2016 has provided several disappointments ©Getty Images
The organisation of Rio 2016 has provided several disappointments ©Getty Images

But outside our bubble? Empty seats at venues are a more serious problem, especially in sports like beach volleyball which is so popular in Brazil. Another issue is the Olympic Park, which, while full of excited fans heading to events when I wandered around it earlier, has certainly not reached the heights of London 2012.

Having never attended a Summer Olympics as a journalist before, it is hard for me to draw comparisons, although several other journalists have already described it as the "worst Games" since Atlanta 1996.

We must wait longer to say that, however. The Barra area may be slightly cocooned away from the city but I am told there is a true Olympic atmosphere developing in Copacabana. Crowd noise in stadiums has also been good, with Brazilians vibrant, vocal and, in some cases, hostile to those opposing their own team. At the judo earlier, it felt like a boxing world title fight as the athletes came out, and like a football derby as Silva’s opponents were relentlessly booed.

And, of course, those watching at home on TV don’t see a lot of the negative sides. They see only the beautiful scenery on Guanabara Bay and the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas...

The main challenge for Rio and the issue which will almost certainly prevent these Games ever being seen as great is the ongoing problems in Brazil, which it is proving impossible to hide. In a taxi this morning, we passed an open sewer down the middle of the road. Muggings and shootings are common-place and the problem seems to be getting worse, not better. 

Gold medal winner Silva may hail from a favela but it doesn’t look like many supporters do. The Olympics seems an event primarily restricted to the elite of Brazil, arguably at the expense of spending on services vital for everyone else.

Some events, like the rugby sevens today, have taken place in front of vibrant crowds which have made up in noise what they lack in numbers ©Getty Images
Some events, like the rugby sevens today, have taken place in front of vibrant crowds which have made up in noise what they lack in numbers ©Getty Images

Brazil, remember, bid in 2009 by making the most of their status as one of the world’s rising and biggest economies. They were supposed to be the fifth biggest economy in the world by now. How times have changed.

There has been a legacy. To our surprise, the subway line extension westwards to Barra has worked well, so far, although it is still not open to the public. There have been new roads, venues and jobs provided. Generally, however, I think it is fair to say the legacy has not been as good as hoped seven years ago.

That sums up Rio so far. Things have gone okay but a lot more must be done if these are to be a great Olympics.