Vahe Gregorian

Ready or not, worried or not, the Rio Olympics start this week

Nine Kansas and Missouri-related athletes to watch out for in Rio

When the Rio Olympics get underway on August 5, all concerns about the host city's readiness will shift to the athletes themselves. The states of Missouri and Kansas will be represented with nearly 50 US and foreign athletes connected in various w
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When the Rio Olympics get underway on August 5, all concerns about the host city's readiness will shift to the athletes themselves. The states of Missouri and Kansas will be represented with nearly 50 US and foreign athletes connected in various w

Before the 2004 Athens Olympics, the first Summer Games since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the specter of terror was a dominant theme of the preamble.

So much so that before going to Greece I was equipped with a satellite phone and nudged to take a gas mask, flak jacket and chemical suit.

Call it laziness or call it faith, but I declined the protective gear.

As it happened, terrorism didn’t strike the Athens Games. Nor did the looming logistical nightmares and tardy venue completion become problematic.

Name virtually any Olympics and the games were delivered only after considerable anxieties and apprehensions and obstacles in the leadup.

From the postwar burdens for Antwerp 1920 and London 1948 to the fears of the heat pollution index in Los Angeles 1984 and the smog of Beijing 2008, from the unfinished work in Montreal 1976 to Sochi 2014.

All basically worked out — even if few avoided the financial mayhem that now must be understood to come with the ambitious territory.

“For a city and nation to decide to stage the Olympic Games is to decide to take on one of the most costly and financially most risky type of megaproject that exists, something that many cities and nations have learned to their peril,” stated an Oxford University study published in July.

So blame a bubbling fiasco on Rio if you wish, but the truth is that this year’s concerns are more about the folly of the International Olympic Committee seeking to expand its brand in an exotic locale not ideally suited for it and because the games simply have become too big.

It’s time to think about an entirely new approach, really, one that doesn’t ravage cities and often leave them worse off for having hosted.

A small core of rotating sites, anyone?

But that’s a question to be explored at another time.

Because ready or not, the Rio Olympics will formally begin with the opening ceremony on Friday.

For now, our choices are to mope about it — or hope it works out.

Perhaps these games can provide what so many Olympics have before: a welcome reprieve from the real world — particularly at a time when it seems engulfed in violent turmoil.

If your optimistic side prevails, you can find your way to thinking, “Well, this will all work out somehow too.”

Even if it might be disconcerting to, say, be greeted at the airport as many recently have by a banner proclaiming “WELCOME TO HELL” (with HELL printed in red, no less) and adding that anyone who comes to Rio will not be safe.

That welcome might seem less ominous if it weren’t being dangled by police and firefighters, who either haven’t been getting paid at all or are in arrears.

Such words also might have had less impact if the state government hadn’t declared a “public calamity” in June.

Even if that largely was a political gesture toward securing emergency funds, it is a fine way to sum up an astonishingly long list of lingering obstacles in Rio.

Most symbolically, that will be seen in the sewage-and-trash-inundated Guanabara Bay.

But if you seek to believe this will all at least be fine-ish, you can embrace the mindset of three-time Olympic rower Megan Kalmoe, who articulates points many athletes must be feeling.

“At this point, it is known that there are issues with the water quality. It is known that athletes are going to be at risk for illness. It is known that we are going to have to be smart, hygienic and take precautions. Great. Let’s move on,” she wrote in an impassioned blog post headlined “Stop Trying to Ruin the Olympics for Us.”

Then she got as much to the nitty-gritty as anyone could.

“I’ll say it, if it will allay your fears and put some of these issues to rest: I will row through (expletive) for you, America,” she wrote. “And I will do it gladly, and proudly, because rowing on this Team in Rio is not something I’m afraid of, or going to complain about. 

“I will do it, and I will try to discourage you from taking away even the tiniest bit of magic or excitement from a single one of my teammates who have earned this trip with their blood and sweat, and all of whom deserve to have a really positive experience in Rio.”

Indeed, whatever the glitches ahead, the athletes themselves almost certainly will emerge as the story of the games and a focus of the world in the weeks to come.

The compelling sagas will be everywhere, to be found as much in superstars Usain Bolt and gymnast Simone Biles as in the phenomenon of a team made up entirely of refugees.

All in a competition where the integrity is enhanced by the exclusion of at least 100 members of the Russian team snared as drug cheats, state-sponsored or otherwise.

The dramas will connect directly at home too, with nearly 50 athletes of varying degrees of ties to Missouri and Kansas.

It also might be remembered that Rio de Janeiro is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, amplified by the overlooking Christ the Redeemer statue, and that the culture that hosts the celebration of Carnival is accustomed to welcoming the world.

No matter how much you might want to remind yourself of these promising aspects, alas, there remain exponentially more troubling signs and potential issues than in Olympics past.

Enough so that the threat of the Zika virus, believed to have been significantly reduced in the last few weeks as winter comes to Brazil, now seems mere background noise.

President Dilma Rousseff is facing an impeachment trial, the country is in the throes of an economic meltdown and the general state of disarray makes Brazil seem vulnerable to terrorism (a plot reportedly was foiled in the last few days) — even with 85,000 soldiers and police expected to be on duty.

Desperate times have been part of a surge in crime, which according to USA Today meant nearly 10,000 thefts in Rio in May. In June, an Australian Paralympian was robbed at gunpoint.

Violent crime also has increased, perhaps most notably on display in a hospital gunbattle to liberate an injured drug dealer. The 500,000 visitors expected are advised to take such measures as carrying a fake wallet containing only a couple of dollars and an expired credit card.

Safety concerns remain about the sturdiness of some of the venues, in part because one of the firms performing the work was involved with building an elevated bike path that collapsed, leading to the deaths of two people.

A new subway line ballyhooed as a key connection in the games may or may not open on Aug. 1, and it’s still unclear to what extent the dedicated Olympic bus lanes that have served athletes in the recent past will be a reality in the final scheme.

Also fundamental to the success of the games and athlete experience will be the quality of life in the spartan athletes village.

As of early last week, fewer than half of the 31 apartment buildings had passed safety inspections.

Among other groups that were dismayed, the Australian delegation refused to stay there until issues with leaky plumbing, clogged toilets and exposed wiring were resolved.

That frustration escalated when Mayor Eduardo Paes seemed to dismiss the qualms by suggesting that adding a kangaroo to the village would make the Australians feel at home.

But upon many Australians moving into the village on Wednesday, the delegation presented Paes a toy boxing kangaroo.

Paes in turn presented delegation leader Kitty Chiller with a key to the city.

Minor as the episode might have seemed, it carried with it a lesson.

“These Olympic Games are a marathon, not a sprint,” Chiller said, according to The Guardian. “And I’m sure that there are going to be other hurdles and obstacles that crop up in other areas.

“And it’s just a matter of dealing with them as best we can in good humor.”

Because all we can do now is hope for the best and prepare for the worst. As ever at the modern Olympics.

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