Pulled together in less than two years, the first modern Olympics was an understandably fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants endeavour.
The organizers of Athens 1896 didn’t want to spend the money on a purpose-built water sports arena. Instead, all swimming events were held in the open water of the Bay of Zea. This might’ve worked in summer. They held the Games in the chill of April.
According to one retelling (almost certainly embellished), the only American in the 100-metre freestyle came up sputtering after leaping into the frigid sea.
“Jesus Christ, it’s freezing!” Gardiner Williams shrieked, according to one of his teammates. He then gave up and climbed out.
The race was narrowly won by a Hungarian, Alfred Hajos, who’d taken up swimming after his father had drowned in the Danube. All the other competitors were so far behind, no bronze medal was awarded.
The event ended in a row over anthems, with Hungarians shouting their own over a band playing the national song of Austria.
If nothing else, this proves how much less interesting we are than our forebears.
They’ve had considerably more time to think about Rio de Janeiro 2016. It doesn’t look a whole lot better.
Just more than a month ago, I stood on the main hub of the upcoming Games, in Barra. It was a mild, dry day. The stench of the fetid lagoon that runs along one edge of the long strip of arenas (many still theoretical) was only mildly off-putting. The site is surprisingly small – perhaps 200 m in width – bounded by a choked four-lane highway and a favela warring with local government for the right to remain.
Nonetheless, the construction undertaken thus far didn’t look half-finished so much as half-demolished. A lot of it is still a hole in the ground. Though it was midday during the week, no one was working. They’d all kicked off early to watch Brazil play Mexico in the World Cup.
If history is our guide, this will all get done in time. It will be rushed and slipshod and a whole bunch of first arrivals will tweet pictures of panicked workers painting the dirt green an hour before the opening ceremonies, but it’ll get done.
That’s the same ethic that allowed Brazil to rush out the World Cup. They waited until long past the last minute to get started. Once the right palms had been greased as maximum levels of graft, workers went full out for a couple of years. They didn’t get anywhere near finished (the Sao Paulo stadium was missing half a roof, which seems like a lot).
Instead, they sealed off any part of anything that wasn’t completed, and then covered it with a sturdy, blue tarp. You can solve any reno shortfall with the judicious application of tarps.
One thing you’d think they’d have figured out early was the sailing venue. I’m no engineer, but I understand that it takes very little planning to build a body of water.
That’s already shaping up as a problematic venture.
On Sunday, they will begin the first test regatta across the vast Guanabara Bay, which lies picturesquely at the foot of Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain. Those are the proper vantages from which to admire it, because all the way up there, it’s harder to smell.
The bay has long been used as a sewer. It is awash in all varieties of human waste. During the first three months of this year, trawlers dredged 33 tonnes of garbage from it – most of it large household items such as couches. Those present the most imminent dangers to men and women moving quickly in fibreglass boats. They’re not the problem everyone’s talking about.
“It smells like a toilet,” Austrian sailor Nikolaus Resch told The Associated Press’s Stephen Wade. “You see people going for a swim. I would never – under free will – go in the water here.”
“When you feel this water on your face, you feel uncomfortable. You have no idea what’s in it,” Austrian team coach Ivan Bulaja said. “I think no sailor is comfortable sailing here. I guess you can get seriously ill.”
I’m also no doctor, but the first thing I’d advise is to avoid putting it on your face, whether or not it feels comfortable. That’s a good rule at all times.
During the bidding process, Rio officials promised to reduce the amount of waste in the bay by four-fifths. Since a quarter of Rio’s six million residents live in favelas without adequate access to running water, that sounded like a fib when they said it, and sounds like a fairly brazen lie now. Two months ago, Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes admitted as much with the none-too-reassuring reassurance that “It’s going to be fine.”
The really galling thing? He’s right.
As of this morning, we are 737 days from the start of the Games. That’s the standard starting point for the ersatz panic that attends every major event these days. It’s an awfully long time to spend Chicken Littling our way through life, but it does tend to fill the lonely hours.
Like this year’s World Cup and Winter Olympics, Rio 2016 will be fine. Not comfortable. Not majestic. Certainly not anything you’d want touching your face.
But it will be as it was always intended – looking just good enough on TV that nobody cares what it smells like on the ground.