Friday 17 January 2020

Vincent Hogan: Remember when we thought doping wasn't our problem?

Drugs shadow cast over the Games and this scandal is close to home, writes Vincent Hogan from Rio

A general view of the Olympic Rings are seen ahead of the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
A general view of the Olympic Rings are seen ahead of the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The lowering sun gave way to a frenzied, pyrotechnic sky over Rio last night, all the right, trite messages ringing out from the Maracana.

There is no noise louder than a drum-roll for Olympia, but only the most militant propagandist could market the Games that begin today as being likely to engender any great renewal of faith in the concept that was revived with good intention by Baron de Coubertin. Maybe just think of Rio today as a beautiful postcard, mildewed at the corners.

That rot has accumulated from many places, but few could have anticipated that the freshest of it would bear Irish fingerprints.

We arrived here consumed with a single story, one of Russian rapacity for gold morphing into perhaps the most brazen case of state-sponsored doping ever seen and - under the weight of Vladimir Putin's glare - the custodians of sport responding with craven timidity. Yet, our piety did not outlast our jetlag.

For a man in quicksand, Michael O'Reilly seemed implausibly sanguine on Thursday night, tweeting about a fight on August 12 that, barring some quite miraculous findings in a WADA laboratory these next few hours, will never happen.

The tweet in question was subsequently removed, but it had a kind of emblematic status on a truly shambolic day for our Olympic story.

O'Reilly's positive result represented the fourth time in the last six Olympiads that Ireland has been implicated in a drugs story and, given how much scandal these gatherings routinely cultivate, it seemed quite some distinction for us to arrive first in the line of Rio's sinners.

But then there is no moral to the story of a modern Olympics.

History tells us that people have always cheated and that there is no nationality miraculously weather-protected against the impulse to do so. Yet for a time, we could comfort ourselves in the caricatures of stubbled East German women, Chinese automatons, splinter-thin distance runners from the hills of Africa, sprinters with frames broader than outside lavatories, men with yellow eyes and girls with gravelled voices.

All changed with the collapsed credibility of Michelle Smith two years after Atlanta 96, which taught us a lesson, one that has reverberated rather loudly ever since.

It is traditional for the World Anti-Doping Agency to hold a press conference the day before an Olympic opening ceremony, but it cancelled that plan this week.

Why? Probably because it did not have the confidence to face a grilling that would almost certainly have become uncomfortable.

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Its own handling of the Russian scandal was hopelessly contaminated and, when the IOC began tossing criticisms its way this week, WADA knew it could not return fire against a body that essentially funds it.

So 271 Russian athletes are now clear to compete in this Olympiad whilst the whistleblower who risked her life by breaking the story isn't.

That's a rather putrid subtext to the first Olympics ever held in South America, but then the cross-pollination of so many bad news stories in recent days might make you wonder about the morality of depositing such a circus of giganticiam and excess upon a city that is so palpably on the breadline.

In recent days, rioters pelted the Olympic torch relay with rocks and it is said that nearly two-thirds of Brazilians think that these next two weeks will, ultimately, hurt the country.

The water that defines Rio is heavily stocked with human waste and, in some cases, worse.

A female US sailor flying in from JFK on Wednesday was asked if she worried about what the competition might do to her digestive system. "Well I just hope it's better than it was a year ago," she sighed sternly of the pollution in Guanabara Bay.

"You mean that the dead bodies will have been removed?" cackled a US colleague. Still, the beauty hasn't been diminished.

Rio will still make love to the TV lens, those working the cameras perhaps seeing themselves as essayists dazzling us with the pictures they paint. The favelas? They will be whatever part of the narrative the city fathers choose them to be.

Maybe most authentic works of art keep something hidden and, either side of the Red Line bringing visitors to Copacabana from the airport, shanty camps have - effectively - been papered over.

Life goes on in there behind giant Olympic posters running for a 7km stretch. Rio has paid a fortune (reputedly €56m) making sure Complexo da Mare does not desecrate the great show.

Good luck to them. Historically those running the books for a host city prove themselves about as business-savvy as your average poet and that history generates palpable anxiety here. The Los Angeles Games of '84 was a notable exception, running an unheard-of surplus of $225m. But otherwise, the modern Olympic host city story is one of pockets running tumultuously dry.

The trend is to set a budget, then ignore it. Athens, of course, was pitched into economic meltdown by spending $15bn for 2004. Eight years later, that was the scale of the London over-run. The vulgar Russian vanity project of Sochi's Winter Games came with a bill of $41bn.

Most host cities end up a perpetual study in post-traumatic stress, left with venues they have no use for and bills they cannot pay.

But all of that is for another day as the eyes of the world descend upon Rio. Most athletes here are not medal contenders, yet few will ever know a more precious or tumultuous two weeks. In that, maybe the old Baron's vision prevails.

But the sun coming up over Copacabana this morning won't be quite what it looks like on TV.

Irish Independent

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