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The moral beauty of the Olympics

BY KARL ANGELL Executive editor operations angellk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 28, 2016




One can always be cynical of the Olympics, especially the last Games held in Brazil, a country in the throes of political and economic turmoil.


Rio de Janeiro, where most of the action was centred, is festooned by suffering, the muck and the grime of the well-advertised and well-known crime-infested favelas, the Brazilian version of what we know as ghettoes, dare I say garrisons.


As if all this turbulence and upheaval were not enough to derail the efforts of a nation, Brazil, a proud country south of the equator, along with the entire world, had to grapple with the crippling reality of illegal drugs use by athletes in the many sporting disciplines.


Russian athletes were tainted before the Games and their participation in Rio was severely limited. Some of these participating Russian athletes were jeered, mocked and were never given a moment by fellow competitors and spectators to forget their ill-advised drugs machinations.


The cynics stood atop their pedestals in town crier mode, dangling the sword of Damocles from early in the Games; there was discomfort in the Olympic Village – no light, no water– and other maladies.


If this was not enough when the actual competition started, the naysayers were served with early fodder to fuel the fire of their burgeoning doubts. Boxing judges were replaced for some very questionable decisions; the coach from Mongolia took off his pants when a wrestling medal decision went against his student; a Kirgiz weightlifter was sent home early after testing positive; two athletes were sent home for molesting women; a Kenyan official was sent home for tampering with urine samples; and a bus transporting journalists was allegedly shot up. The Brazilian authorities later said the bus was stoned.


Then came what turned out to be a worldwide spectacle, when the water in the diving pool suddenly changed colour from the usual sky blue to green. The organisers scrambled to explain, nobody listened, thereby adding to Brazilian woes.


More was to come. The ticket scandal involving Mr Hickey from Ireland and his subsequent incarceration was likened to the travails of the recent FIFA scandals, not surprisingly mainly in the British newspapers.


Not done yet, as there was still Mr Ryan Lochte, the American swimmer who, after damaging property in a store in Rio, started a diplomatic furore when he reported that he was held up at gunpoint, robbed and assaulted. Thankfully, security cameras in the store were able to prove otherwise, prompting the now customary all-embracing apology and shame-face while making the rounds of the talk shows at home.


That Mr Lochte lost his sponsorship entitlements with two of the largest companies involved in swimming was a fitting conclusion to this nasty, vile and mendacious act of cover-up. Total arrogance.


Brazil was not bereft of its aches and pain before and during its hosting of the Games of the 31st Olympiad. Yet, in a city where Christ the Redeemer watches over one and all, even visitors, the Rio Olympics was transformed with some astounding performances spread across all sports, plus there were the never-to-forget moments which always remind us that we are humans.


As Jamaicans we were transfixed with track and field, yet there were some compelling stories in the other disciplines. Surely, it must have been a feeling of complete and utter joy when a British gentleman competing in his seventh Olympics finally won a medal – and a gold to boot – in the dressage, and this after breaking his shoulder.


Another British equestrian after winning gold could not hold back the tears. Her eyes then started to search the stands for her fianc̩e. When she made eye contact he was wearing a T-shirt with the words Р"Now, can we get married? Truly a Kodak, oops, sorry, a Nikon moment.


China, whose people are often seen as being automated, sometimes lacking in emotion, performed way below expectations in Rio. One moment, one precious moment of endearment involving two of its divers literally changed that perception.


Qin Kai went on his knee, at the aquatics stadium, in front of almost the entire world and proposed to He Zi. For the scribes, Kai’s proposal was accepted.


Brazil is a soccer-mad country, gifting the world with ‘the beautiful’ approach to football, yet even after winning five World Cups, the Olympic gold still eluded them.


Enter Neymar, with the collective weight, anxiety, hopes and aspirations of a nation on his shoulders, as he prepared to take the last of the five regulatory penalties in the final match against Germany. If he scored, victory and the gold would belong to Brazil, if he failed, quite frankly, he would probably have to seek asylum in some country very far away from Brazil.


Neymar, some Jamaicans claim, used not only his foot but divine intervention as well, to score, setting off wild celebrations as Brazilians finally found an outlet to shake off the ghosts of that 1-7 defeat to Germany just two years before in the World Cup in Brazil. It is instructive to pay notice to the words on the headband used by Neymar – 100% Jesus.


Brazilian judoka Rafaela Silva fought off her demons to awaken and propel the social consciousness of her fellow Brazilians. Silva, a product of one of the fiercest Rio favelas, was the subject of racist abuse, face to face and on the social media platforms. Using the strength and gumption acquired from the bowels of her favela, Silva conquered, earning the first gold medal for Brazil at the Rio Olympics. She brought the Games back to home base.


From the Jamaican perspective, Usain Bolt was imperious and Elaine Thompson provided further evidence of our worldwide sprint dominance.


The two Jamaican moments which ignited my sinews and sporting nerves came when Omar McLeod won the country’s first ever Olympic gold medal in the 110m hurdles and when youngster Javaughn Minzie ran the first leg of the heats of the 4x100m relay.


McLeod had gone where no other Jamaican had gone before, and with the sweat of victory flowing down his face, the young man shouted out several times, "Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus!"


Minzie was champing at the bit, he had been in Rio from the time the Jamaica team set up its camp, and was now going to run almost two weeks after, in his first Olympic race. The joy, excitement and maybe amazement on the young man’s face were something special to behold.


He had come to Rio to run, he was getting his opportunity to do so and he was ecstatic. If Minzie was a politician, I would be tempted to say youthful exuberance.


The obliteration of the 400m world record by South African Wayde van Niekerk was a moment of great elation for this writer. I had met the young man when he visited the Jamaica Observer earlier this year to participate in the newspaper’s Monday Exchange just prior to the first staging of the Racers Grand Prix. He came early for his Observer appointment which gave me and others the opportunity to talk with him before the exclusive interview started. Wayde was calm, yet determined with only one objective in mind – gold in the 400m.


Now, I can say, I have personally met three holders of world records – Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and Wayde van Neikerk. Thanks for coming to the Observer and being with us, Mr van Neikerk.


The Rio Olympics are done, but certainly not dusted. The Olympics move on to Tokyo, Japan in 2020 and if you ever doubted the power, allure and prestige of this four-yearly assembly of the world’s best, doubt no more as the closing ceremony in Rio gave a massive indication of the unique supremacy of the Olympic movement.


Just imagine the prime minister of one of the top five countries in the world, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, appearing on stage in Rio dressed as Super Mario.


My problem now is having to deal with Olympic withdrawal. I miss watching the Games, and despite having to deal with my Olympic withdrawal for which there is no cure until four years’ time, I am now thoroughly convinced that there is still meaning in the Olympics, that there is still much to celebrate and honour in clean and strong competition.


Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger – and as said by the man credited with creating the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin – "these three words represent a programme of moral beauty."