As the 31st Olympic Games drew to a close in Rio de Janeiro it is time to reflect on the latest instalment of the so-called ‘Greatest Show on Earth’. Prior to the event the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the IAAF faced their biggest crisis in recent memory. The host country itself had safety concerns with the spread of the Zika virus and faced questions regarding financing and the water quality in Guanabara Bay. Yet despite all these issues the competitive action has spoken for itself, providing gripping tension, explosive excitement and unforgettable moments.
With the Games fast approaching an investigation found state sponsored doping in Russia bringing into doubt their participation. Despite the findings, the IOC refused to grab the opportunity and impose a blanket ban on all Russian athletes, a mistake the IPC did not make. Instead individual sport’s governing bodies would make the decision regarding Russian participants. As a result Russia acquired a total of 56 medals, placing them fourth in the medal table. It is impossible not to ponder the legitimacy of these medals. Russian athletes are having samples retested and are being stripped of medals from Beijing 2008 and recently shot putter Evgeniia Kolodko lost her London 2012 silver medal. Those elevated to receive medals long after the event have been robbed of their moment to stand on the podium and see their national flag raised for them. Drug cheats ruin it for everyone. Justin Gatlin’s failure to reach the 200m final felt like justice but he leaves Rio having taken silver in the 100m. He has been banned not once but twice for doping offences but is still allowed to compete. If the Lance Armstrong saga proved anything it is that dopers are often ahead of the testers. The presence of Gatlin and Russian athletes jeopardises the sport and unfortunately with the golden poster boy from Jamaica appearing for the final time this process of spectator apathy could be accelerated.
Usain Bolt is now unquestionably a legend. The triple treble of gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay is a feat which is incredibly unlikely to be bettered. He is not just a phenomenal athlete but the humblest of men. Bolt is a showman. Box office. A man that transcends athletics. His record at the Olympics is unheard of but all achieved without anything other than natural ability, most notably his stride length. It is no coincidence that when he was competing the stadiums were at their fullest. Unfortunately not all events were as well populated by spectators.
One of the most disappointing aspects of Rio 2016 were the numbers of empty seats at events. The reality of hosting the Games in a country gripped by rampant poverty, plus the enormous geographical difficulties resulted in the poor ticket sales. In contrast, London 2012 saw millions of tickets for every event fail to match demand. Brazil had also hosted the FIFA World Cup only two years earlier and with the threat of the Zika virus deterring potential visitors further, some of the biggest successes were played out against a background of empty seats.
One of the most exciting events in the early stages of the Olympics was the Rugby 7s tournament. Rugby Union had not been included in the Olympic Games since 1924 and in that 92 year gap the seven aside game had become the perfect competition to complete inside three days. The combination of 14 minute matches, incredibly fast athletes and stunning tries made for two riveting tournament for the medals. Few are likely to forget the tension of Team GB’s epic quarter final battle with Argentina, Japan defeating New Zealand, the Australian women overcoming their trans-Tasman rivals or Fiji’s offloading masterclass to seal their own historic gold medal triumph. Team GB’s women fell short in the final stages, failing to claim a bronze medal but the Men’s team, brought together over the summer, did take away a spectacular silver. This would prove to be just one of a record haul of medals for Team GB.
After the incredible achievements of Team GB at London 2012 few imagined that it could be matched, especially without the backing of home support. But yet Team GB managed to not only match but then to exceed all expectations. Their 67 medals edged the 65 achieved in 2012. 27 golds also placed GB second in the medal table, delivering a bloody nose to traditional powerhouse China. In a number of interviews athletes praised the contribution that funding from the National Lottery has made. In the brutal reality of medals equal funding, performances like this prove that the strategy works. It was only 20 years ago that Team GB left Atlanta with only a solitary gold medal. The transformation is astonishing. Not only have the athletes themselves savoured their moment of glory but thousands of miles away so did the British public.
Despite the time difference millions watched on as incredible moments became etched in history as Mo Farrah, Jade Jones, Andy Murray and Nicola Adams retained their titles. Those were just a few of our stars but contributions came from a wide variety of sports. Team GB picked up medals in the Velodrome, on the athletics track, on water, in the water, in the boxing ring and at the Gymnastics. That isn’t even a comprehensive list. The gripping elation of the penalty shootout victory for the women’s hockey team no doubt provided the highlight to many people’s Friday night. For me the most emotional gold medal victories came for Charlotte Dujardin and her legendary horse Vallegro, in his last competition, and Nick Skelton. At his seventh Olympic Games the 58 year old won individual showjumping gold after a tense six-way jump off. Stood on the podium the emotion took hold and the man who once retired after breaking his neck finally had his well-deserved moment.
Whilst for many in Great Britain London 2012 will forever be the greatest Olympic games ever, without doubt Rio 2016 has been the greatest for our athletes. Team GB exceeded expectations and proved that our small island is still a country to be reckoned with in sporting competition. In Tokyo in 2020, anything could be possible…