Nick Butler

An “athlete-centred Games” is one of those infuriating clichés always trotted out in Olympic circles, nestling somewhere in between “zero tolerance on doping” and “open and transparent governance”.

Recent events have proved these latter two adages to be nonsense, but, while a professed love of athletes is usually a gesture justifying some political move, the world’s best sportsmen and women have come to the fore brilliantly to save and dominate the show over the last 16 days.

The toughest Games in generations from an organisational standpoint has been masked by moment after moment of sporting magic.

We had old heroes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt returning for one last golden hurrah. We had new stars crowned like diminutive gymnast Simone Biles, who bounced, vaulted and flipped her way to four gold medals, and did so with a smile on her face.

We had major professional sportsmen like Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, golfer Justin Rose and the United States basketball team all winning while taking the Olympics seriously. We had new countries claiming gold medals for the first time: Jordanian and Ivorian taekwondo players, a Kosovan judoka, a Tajikistan hammer thrower, a Singaporean swimmer, a Bahraini steeplechaser, a Vietnamese shooter and, of course, Fiji's rugby sevens team.

My country, Great Britain, did brilliantly, showcasing the benefits of a centrally funded sporting system by winning over and over again before holding off China is a last ditch sprint for second spot on the medals table. And Brazil, our much-maligned host nation, also performed well after a slow start. Their finest moment came on the penultimate night where they consigned a 7-1 footballing humiliation to history by beating the Germans in a penalty shootout; surely one of the hardest achievements in sport?

There were salutary moments involving athletes - cough, Ryan Lochte, cough - and the odd failed doping test to keep us journalists busy, but nothing major enough to push the sport off the front and back pages of many of the world newspapers.

Football success for Brazil was one of the great moments of celebration for the local population ©Getty Images
Football success for Brazil was one of the great moments of celebration for the local population ©Getty Images

All of this action was beamed around the world alongside iconic images of Christ the Redeemer and Copacabana. The "Samba Games", trumpeted organisers, pointing out how the Olympics had somehow managed to pull together all of Brazilian society and change Rio de Janeiro once and for all.

Of course, the reality on the ground was somewhat different. Olympic and Rio 2016 officials are today breathing a huge sigh of relief after negating a Games with issues, but - with the notable exception of one of the most important members of the International Olympic Committee ending his Games in a notorious Rio jail - no disasters.

Brazil was meant to be a safe-choice and one of the world’s flourishing financial powers when the first South American Olympics were awarded to them in 2009. Since then, the economy has stuttered and fallen in a mire of corruption and mismanagement. Combine this with Brazil’s trademark poor planning and tendency to leave everything to the last minute, and you had complete panic in Olympic circles by 2014.

They went for the "constructive criticism"approach, spearheaded by IOC vice-president John Coates who said preparations were the "worst he had experienced" in his long association with the Olympics. 

This was partly the kick up the backside organisers needed. But it was also taken personally, and tensions have never been far from the surface since. This led to a strategy of "keeping concerns private", with week-longs airing of fears in inspection visits ending with language of gushing hyperbole in closing press conferences. IOC Executive Director for the Olympic Games Christophe Dubi was dispatched here permanently for six months to sort things out, while International Federations were ordered to show "solidarity" and accept things would not be quite as good as normal.

IOC Coordination Commission meetings are usually only held in the opening few days of an Olympics while teething problems are ironed out. Here, they became a "battleground" taking place every morning between organisers and the IOC. "The trouble here was that Brazilians could not take criticism," one official told me. "If we said something bad about catering, the manager responsible would stand up and walk out of the room…" 

IOC and Rio 2016 officials worked furiously behind the scenes to ensure the Olympics passed with no disasters ©Getty Images
IOC and Rio 2016 officials worked furiously behind the scenes to ensure the Olympics passed with no disasters ©Getty Images

Weird and wonderful problems mounted-up. Green water at the diving pool, a lack of catering inside venues, thousands of empty seats in stadiums despite "88 per cent" sale numbers, and volunteers opting not to turn-up amid terrible working conditions. You name them, Rio 2016 seemingly had them, and the list could go on…

Many of these issues were quite petty, but still important. Poor food, chaotic organisation and a lack of trained manpower. British cyclist Mark Cavendish told a good story about being barred from using one entrance at the velodrome as it was for cars only, only to be pedal his bike around to the other way in and be told it was just for pedestrians. "It took us a week until we made friends with security guards and were okay…"

"We had two serious issues," a leading International Federation official told me. "One, the power went out during a competition, and two, no referees were able to travel from their hotel to a weigh-in because no cars arrived to pick them up. They took taxis instead, but I had to run around finding other officials..."

Most IFs claim that Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes was the hero of the hour, answering his mobile phone personally to deal with problems at venues. Organising Committee President Carlos Nuzman received far less praise, and, Opening and Closing Ceremonies aside, has barely spoken publicly all Games.

One of my enduring memories of Rio 2016 will be the daily press briefings with chief spokesperson Mario Andrada. He was left batted and bruised by a barrage of negative questions but somehow managed to remain upbeat as he played down issue after issue with admirable tenacity.

A boat on rocky water losing an oar when the waves are fiercest but still managing to stay afloat.

But will these Olympics really create a new Rio de Janeiro, as IOC President Thomas Bach somewhat farcically claimed in his closing press conference?

Transport has improved as a direct result of Rio 2016. New road and subway extension were only completed because of the Olympic deadline and are now set to speed up the daily commute for thousands of people. Others have highlighted new sporting facilities and training centres, the new anti-doping laboratory and nightclubs and hotels supposedly rejuvenated by these Games. Maybe this will change Rio for the better, but we are opting to wait and see what has happened in four years time before passing judgement now.

It is simply preposterous to claim the city has been changed by Rio 2016 to any significant extent, however. In 2009, organisers vowed to eradicate water pollution and rid Rio of favelas by the time of the Opening Ceremony. Both of these aspects appear worse than ever, with open sewers down many streets and the poorest people completely isolated from what was going on. Safety was bad enough for us privileged "gringos" and it is clear that locals have little protection from crime, poverty, and in some cases, the corruption of those designed to protect them.

Around 80,000 security operatives have patrolled the streets of Rio during the Olympics ©Getty Images
Around 80,000 security operatives have patrolled the streets of Rio during the Olympics ©Getty Images

Brazilians, as the Games went on, did seem to get more excited and interested. But it still never really felt like an Olympics; the Park was soulless in comparison with London 2012 and for every great atmosphere - like at beach volleyball, football and whenever Brazil won a medal - there was a bleaker venue cluttered with empty seats.

The Games may have provided a distraction, but was still seen as inappropriate at a time of such economic and political upheaval. Rio 2016 can also only be considered a true success, remember, if next month’s Paralympics progress smoothly as well…

Rio 2016 also negatively affected the Olympic brand; both in Brazil and elsewhere. Clearly there was resentment from locals when the V-VIP IOC poured in with their special traffic lanes and chauffeur-driven cars. And this eventually manifested itself in the arrest of European Olympic Committee President and IOC bigwig Patrick Hickey in a dawn raid by a motley crew of police and journalists intending to lay down a marker.

Hickey, whatever he turns out to have done, is certainly a pawn in a wider game. The police needed to signal that they meant business and get back at the circus who had so embarrassed them by the antics of four drunken swimmers. Yet there has been a wider legacy of his arrest already. 

There has been little public sympathy for Hickey and, for many, it reinforces a view that those who organise the Olympic Games are little different to the mandarins of FIFA and other maligned sporting bodies. "Are you worried that the enduring memory of these Games will be an IOC member arrested naked in his hotel room?" one journalist asked.

Bach's decision and approach towards not banning Russia from Rio 2016 may have been supported by an all-but-one majority of the members during an IOC Session which left many of us drawing comparisons with a North Korean politburo. Many sports administrators are less supportive in private, however, and the German’s refusal to accept the public zeitgeist on Russia and clamp-down on those who think differently to himself means it is he, rather than Sebastian Coe or Sepp Blatter or anyone else, who is now seen by many as the big baddy in the sports world.

Rio 2016, therefore, has passed, and passed in a non-catastrophic enough a way to leave the IOC purring at a "marvellous" and "iconic" Olympics. But the brilliant performances of the world’s athletes has disguised a myriad of other problems both in Rio and with the wider Olympic brand.

They cannot, though, afford to now get complacent and think that sporting success has covered up some serious problems with the Olympic brand that, if they are not fixed, could have serious repercussions.