Rio showing off its Third Worldness was not what organizers had in mind when the land of Pelé was selected to play host to the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.
But let’s face it, Rio will need the intervention of the spirit of its iconic Christ the Redeemer to pull this off without incident.
Rich in culture and custom, Brazil, nonetheless, is one big social problem after another. Violent crime, lingering economic depression, health crises and a government unable to adequately address any of these because of political instability and dysfunction has caused some to call for the cancellation of the whole thing.
Therein lies the top story in Rio.
Rio is a mess.
Athletes are so concerned about the bacteria in the water at venues for the open swim and rowing that the U.S. rowing team is planning on wearing antimicrobial suits. More recently, human body parts reportedly washed ashore the beach at the Copacabana, yards from the site of beach volleyball.
Here are 10 other top storylines to watch in Rio.
The chief health crisis facing the Rio Games is the Zika virus outbreak and the corresponding fear of the known (birth defects) and the unknown, all of which has caused a virtual panic in Central and South America, not to mention among Olympic athletes. It’s a familiar story: If the Zika virus doesn’t get them, the cure might do them in. Earlier this month, government officials announced that they were escalating the War on Zika with an air campaign of insecticides and larvicides spread by plane designed to kill the mosquitoes that spread the virus. The government swears up and down it’s not using DDT.
The U.S. rowing team might appear to be agents in impermeable, whole-body hazmat suits ready to take on nuclear or biological refuse rather than the Belgians, but at least they’re showing up. Other, more high-profile athletes, are taking a pass on Olympic glory simply because of the safety issues plaguing Rio. NBA stars Steph Curry, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are staying out. So is America’s golf darling, Jordan Spieth — as is Australian Jason Day. It’s an easier decision for them: The apex of their pursuits is not Olympic gold … and there’s always 2020. Others have to do what they have to do: “You can’t help but cringe when you see news reports,” U.S. middle distance runner Jenny Simpson said to Footwear News. “But for most Olympic sports, this is the pinnacle and comes once every four years. Backing out is a far more grave decision for your career and legacy. There are risks that make me nervous, but I can’t put my career on the line.”
Russian funny business
If Rasputin had some of the superhuman syringes the Russian state has allegedly provided its Olympic athletes, the Bolsheviks couldn’t have possibly run down the czar. Only by the grace of the well-intentioned is Russia competing at all. Instead, Russian athletes will have to be cleared by their sports federations to prove they’re clean before they can compete. “All Russian athletes seeking entry to the Olympic Games Rio 2016 are considered to be affected by a system subverting and manipulating the anti-doping system,” the IOC said in a statement. The Russian track and field team had already been banned after the IAAF found legitimate allegations of state-sponsored doping and cover-ups in the wake of the McLaren Report that found evidence of widespread doping of Russian athletes at Sochi in 2014.
Back for one last swim
Michael Phelps retired as the most decorated U.S. Olympian — a staggering 18 gold medals — and he returns with the same status. But it’s clear he decided to unretire and come back to secure his legacy, which was tainted by a DUI arrest in 2014. That led to a suspension by USA Swimming and a voluntary check-in to a substance-abuse treatment center to get “the help I need to better understand myself,” he said on Twitter. He has vowed to retire for good after 2016, and this time on his terms. “I want to retire how I want to retire — and I have a great opportunity to do that,” he said to NBC.
After 112 years, George Lyon will finally have a successor. The Canadian Lyon has been the reigning gold medalist in Olympic golf since the St. Louis Games in 1904, the last year it was an Olympic sport. In 2016, golf returns as an individual stroke-play competition, but the sport is making a bungling return to this stage. Many of the world’s top men’s golfers, including Day, Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott, will not compete, citing concerns about the Zika virus, security, scheduling conflicts and the Olympic course, which will have a Texas flair. Zeon Zoysia, a warm-weather grass that requires less water, fertilizer, nitrogen and pesticide than most other golf turfs, was cultivated in Poteet, near San Antonio.
Coach K leaves his mark
Mike Krzyzewski takes the reins of his last Olympic team having already left a legacy. The U.S. is on a Harlem Globetrotters-type run, having not lost an international game in 10 years. Krzyzewski is the only men’s coach to have won gold at the Olympics and the FIBA World Cup while also possessing an NCAA Championship. In 2012, he became only the second coach to lead teams to back-to-back Olympic gold medals (Hank Iba won the Olympics in 1964 and 1968) and is tied with Iba for most U.S. Olympic coaching assignments. In 14 international competitions, Krzyzewski has been involved as a U.S. coach since 1979, those teams have captured 10 gold medals, two silver medals and two bronze medals. This year will be a little different with most of the country’s top players, including James and Curry, staying home. Krzyzewski still should have more than enough for another gold, but ... we’ve said that before only to be left with a scrunched brow.
Still a Bolt of lightning
“I know the sport needs me to win,” said Usain Bolt, recognizing the need for a good story out of these Olympic Games. His story would certainly be a good one. The 29-year-old Bolt, likely in his final Olympic appearance, is bidding to become the first athlete to win gold in the the 100- and 200-meter as well as the 400-meter relay in three consecutive Olympics. Simply put, there has never been anyone like him. His primary opposition in the 100 is American Justin Gatlin, who was talking a little trash leading up to Rio. Bolt received an exemption onto the Jamaican team after a hamstring injury forced him out of that country’s qualifying. To Gatlin, the world’s fastest man needed preferential treatment. “He’s injured, gets a medical pass, that’s what his country does. Our country doesn’t do that.”
A soccer double?
The U.S. women’s soccer team, tops in the FIFA rankings, is seeking its fifth gold medal in six Olympic games, and thereby becoming the first to win a gold medal and the World Cup in consecutive years. To do it, they’ll have to work harder than at the World Cup, requiring up to six matches in 17 days with a roster of 18 players (that’s five fewer than at the World Cup). The women will see all of Brazil, playing their first two matches in Belo Horizonte before traveling to Manaus for the group final, a trip of 1,600 miles.
It’s a ruckus … no, it’s rugby
Like golf, rugby returns to the Olympics for its first scrum in 92 years. At Rio, they’ll play Rugby Sevens, a shorter and faster version. Team USA’s task is a barefooted walk uphill with traditional powers Australia, New Zealand and South Africa at the forefront. The Americans’ hopes and dreams might rest with the contributions of New England Patriots defensive back Nate Ebner, who, before turning to football, was an All-America rugby player at Ohio State. While the Patriots head for training camp, Ebner will be in Rio. “I really think that not only Bill (Belichick), but the entire Patriots organization understands that I was a rugby player when they drafted me in 2012 and they understand this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Ebner told Sports Illustrated.
The homeless Olympians
One appeal to viewers of the Games is the ideal of the Olympic spirit, but there’s often no escaping the often dark side of international politics that accompanies the competition. For the first time in history a team of 10 athletes will compete under the Olympic flag as the Refugee Olympic Team. It includes two swimmers from Syria, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an Ethiopian marathon runner and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan. The 10 are among the more than 59 million who have been forced to flee their homes to escape war or political persecution, according to the United Nations, Syrian swimmer Rami Anis, 25, a competitor in the 100-meter butterfly, escaped his homeland’s civil war with one bag. “The bag I took had two jackets, two T-shirts, two trousers — it was a small bag,” he said.