Understanding Team GB's Olympic Success Alongside The Disaster In Brazil

While British coverage of the Olympics was overwhelmingly positive, we often ignored the darker side of the Games. When we look back on Rio's legacy, it will be with both pride and discomfort.

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Sep 1 2016, 4:40pm

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This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

And just like that, it was over. Sixteen wonderful days celebrating the extremes of human physicality – from horse dancing to sword fighting, from hurling objects into the sky to punching people in the face – ended with an awkward doffing of Super Mario's cap amidst a blaze of fireworks. Then everyone went home.

The Olympics always end with a disconcerting whimper, the medals frenzy peaking somewhere in the middle of week two and the last events sputtering out across an eerily calm final few days. And for all its weirdness, the glitter-bomb that is the closing ceremony does succeed in hijacking the fade out. It's a garish crescendo but a necessary one, a pyrotechnic apology for the unusual scheduling and a chance to say a proper goodbye.

When such a manic, all-of-humanity-consuming event is compressed into such a short space of time its sudden absence does feel slightly chilling. Channel-hopping over the last two weeks was a ridiculous pleasure; every press of the blue button a guarantee of something genuinely beautiful – something that celebrated the pinnacle of human physical and mental achievement, showcasing the peak artistry of the most complex living thing known to exist in the universe. Channel-hopping on Monday morning produced Bargain Hunt fleeces and Ben Fogle at the zoo.

The barren TV schedule is itself disconcerting, and amplifies the sense that the Olympics were a passing tornado, provoking frenzied and drunken enthusiasm but now leaving us, dazed, to survey the rubble. From a British perspective, this leaves some sobering thoughts on our own indulgence in the chaos of the Games.

Photo by Aaron Gordon

The Rio Olympics displaced some 70,000 people and killed thousands more. $11.6 billion of public money was spent on the Games despite mounting evidence that there is no positive economic impact whatsoever for a host nation. Useless stadiums and defunct transport links now litter a city that will be sweeping up the rubble for years – perhaps decades.

It seems as though the IOC and Brazilian organisers largely succeeded in averting our eyes from the true scale of the horror, as advertising monoliths and hastily erected brick walls shielded the favelas from view. But such is our desperation for a good news story in 2016, the British press have largely ignored the disaster.

READ MORE: The Rio Games Were An Unjustifiable Human Catastrophe

Most of us were swept up in the gold rush. The extraordinary tally of 67 British medals, a record-breaking haul that trumped the Chinese, felt genuinely energising in a desperately troubling year for British politics. But there is an undeniable tension behind all this nationalistic fervour, a sense that celebrating British superiority jars uncomfortably with the Brexit vote and its ugly aftermath.

Jingoism has always lingered in dangerous proximity to racism and discrimination, but even British lefties – those of us who reject that national borders should delineate identity, passion, or empathetic priorities – could be found whooping at trampolinists they didn't know existed until minutes before their routine.

Britain's Olympics: relentless nationalism or a reclamation of our collective identity? // EPA Images/Alejandro Ernesto

Now that the Games are behind us, should we question our motives here? Perhaps championing positive Britishness was a way of reclaiming our territory, a welcome relief from Brexit and an outright rejection of the racism that threatens to redefine our identity to the outside world. Or perhaps it's just that the BBC – that fluffy, harmless corporation with its primary colours and round edges – legitimised our nationalism with their own bouncy fervour.

The fuzzy Blue Peter vibe of the BBC studio served as an extension of the IOC's feel-good bubble, its smiley introduction to the stadia, with Copacabana beach as the backdrop, a narrow portal into the city. With the clear objective of unifying our nation in its love of sport, corruption and poverty were entirely absent from their coverage.

READ MORE: Rio Didn't Need An Olympic Golf Course, But They Built One Anyway

It is difficult to disentangle this post-Brexit hand-wringing from the political landscape of Brazil, a nation whose identity and self-efficacy has squirmed desperately under the weight of hosting. It is no secret that most Brazilians felt spending $11.6 billion of taxpayer money during one of the worst economic crises in the nation's history was a bad idea. The result has been an inescapably brutal depiction of the chasm between rich and poor.

Even from the comfort of a British sofa, the magical gloss of the Games was persistently undercut by the haunting sensation that the Games shouldn't be here; that there is something infinitely more important, more in need of our attention, than what is happening on the track and in the pool.

Rio, beyond the Olympic bubble // Photo by Aaron Gordon

In truth, it was often plain embarrassing. Cheering on our athletes and celebrating the unifying force of the Games felt faintly ridiculous with Rio as the backdrop, whilst the glazed smiles of wealthy tourists seemed to mock its slogans: the "transformational power of sport" and "A New World" were conspicuously absent from the streets of Rio.

It's only as the dust settles on the 2016 Olympics that these two defining anxieties – of British pride and Brazilian legacy – begin to make sense side-by-side. There is, perhaps, something significant in the relationship between celebrating the achievements of your own nation – a small, meaningless bubble in the world – and collectively ignoring the poverty on the outskirts of Rio. Is it a foreboding narrowmindedness, or just a necessary shrinkage of the world that allows us to find joy in spite of the planet's massive scale and entrenched inequality?

The 2016 Olympics have been a spectacular success from a sporting perspective and will be sorely missed. But how Brazil handles the aftermath, and where Team GB's success fits into the wider arc of Britain's bizarre and troubling year, will most likely define our collective memory.

It might be a while before we can disentangle the emotions of those two awkwardly glorious weeks, and decide whether accepting the BBC's cosy narrative made us complicit in the human rights catastrophe – and whether we really think that a good news story for Britain was enough of a reason to celebrate the Games.

@alexkeble

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