A few months removed from the 2016 Olympic Games I’ve finally put words to a page on my time in Rio.
Off the bat — and to keep things to the point if this is all you read — it’s hard to call 2016 anything short of successful.
From a performance perspective, we saw incredible results and in the case of Canadian and New Zealand OCs, near record medal hauls. Great Britain & Northern Ireland’s rise back to being a major player again at The Games wasn’t unnoticed and Russia’s dubious inclusion after damning evidence of state wide doping shouldn’t be swept under the rug.
From an event delivery standpoint, the LOC put on a pretty amazing Games. Anyone expecting London needed to realize: you’re in Brazil, we’re talking different worlds here. I’m sure it’s part of the reason why the IOC selected Rio and entered South America for the first time. That being said, there needs to be a serious review on IOC expectations of Host Cities when tasked with putting on the second biggest event on the planet after the World Cup.
Here’s my good, bad and ugly:
We’re not just here for fun, we’re here to win
I remember getting decked out in my Dad’s Team Canada singlet from the 70s when I first got to Beijing in 2008. It was a really cool experience, but being at the track as a Canadian, I often felt like an outsider. With 33 athletes across a full program I had this feeling I was more about experiencing what the Olympics was all about rather than to being there to cheer for my country. I hate to say it, but I sensed our athletes felt that way too. Fast forward eight years and Team Canada is fielding twice as many athletes in Athletics and that 2008 feeling was non-existent. The athletes were there to compete, make finals and win medals — and they did. (This goes for New Zealand too!). These funding models are starting to work; it’s great to see fruition from years of hard work. Keep the gas pedal down.
Going for it and being able to sleep at night
I had two particular days different from the rest and both happened down in Pontal on the Race Walk course.
First was the Men’s 20km Race Walk. I woke up the morning of the race and I had this feeling that today was Iñaki’s day. As a two-time Olympian who was staring down the barrel of a transition to a new life as just a corporate lawyer this might be his last race ever for Canada (never say never, though). Iñaki was fit, training camp went well, his head was in the right place and I knew he was going to go for it. Being early in the Athletics calendar, this could be the part of the start of a record Games for AC. Iñaki went for a medal and as the race progressed I sensed this feeling shifting more towards reality. The thing about endurance events, particularly technical ones like Race Walk, is no matter how prepared you are it does come down to the day. It wasn’t his day but I am so proud of him and what he’s done as an athlete (and human). Iñaki you went for it and gave it your all, that’s all anyone asked and was your plan from the get-go.
Fast forward a week later and we had Evan taking on the 50km Race Walk… which for anyone who doesn’t know the sport it is just as insane as it sounds. You’re talking about a 3.5-hour race where a good chunk of the competitors, understandably, don’t make it to the finish line. Evan is one of the toughest and most fired up people I’ve ever met — the ultimate competitor. He has this drive to succeed coupled with an unwavering moral fiber most people
wouldn’t didn’t know about (unless you follow Race Walk closely, then you’d be aware he helped uncover Russia’s systematic cheating in Athletics all from a laptop at home — but that’s another story). After a huge performance a week before in the 20km we knew Evan was a medal shot.
What happened towards the end of his race was a tussle as the Japanese athlete, then in 4th place, went to pass Evan who was sitting 3rd. The final result was Japan three, Canada four. Team Canada appealed the contact and were successful, only to be overturned hours later (this almost never happens).
After a quick chat with his team Evan elected to hold off on challenging the flip-flop of that initial DQ. Many people would counter with why wouldn’t you challenge to receive that bronze medal, but Evan summarized it perfectly here:
I will sleep soundly tonight, and for the rest of my life, knowing I made the right decision. I will never allow myself to be defined by the accolades I receive, rather the integrity I carry through life.
If you want highs and lows, this was the day. The thing is, Evan has this eyes-straight-forward mentality. Most people think that the ultimate goal of Olympic athletes is to win a medal and be a champion, but Evan showed the most important thing at the end of the day is laying it all out there and being able to rest your head on the pillow completely at peace. Not many people would have acted the same as he did, then again, not many people have the long term vision and ethical drive he does (bring on Tokyo).
Read Evan’s full statement here.
The Games are a time to (re)connect.
Once you break down who you were spending your time with and where everyone started their journey from to get to Rio you realize how big this thing is. We came from all corners of the globe for the same common purpose. For many of us, we tossed aside other things going on in our lives (good and bad) and just had a moment. From immediate family (Charlie & Dave), to old teammates (TBirds!) and cross-town rivals (SFU still sucks) through to completely fresh new faces who all now have a lifelong connection. It’s pretty special.
People always ask me “Why do you always go to events like this?”… and it’s hard to give an honest answer because if you’re asking then you don’t get it. There is something indescribable about moments at Olympics and World Cups.
I felt it in Vancouver 2010, Rugby World Cup New Zealand 2011, World Cup Brazil 2014, etc and I mentioned two moments above but there were 1,000. From chatting with the dude from Atlanta at his 7th Summer Olympic Games (Sydney was the best, if you were wondering), to watching Blizz Bann get announced on to the court vs. Brazil (IN BRAZIL… @ THE F*cK@ng Olympics), to tracking down the same painter I bought art from a few years earlier when in Rio, to split shorts for Shawn night… we had a time.
Canada Olympic House
This needs to a quick shout out: COH was unreal.
You know you’ve nailed it when your patrons are calling it “Home Base.” The COC and their volunteers and were absolute beauties. That place was a highlight and was great to have for friends and family to connect. Rio is not the easiest place for some people to be in and COH provided a necessary sanctuary and security for many. Also, having the CBC feed with a Molson in your hand when you’re in Rio was unreal!
Five gold stars team!
Empty stadiums and dodgy ticketing
It’s impossible to get through an Olympic Games without the topic of empty seats being raised. Ticketing is tough and when you’re juggling the wants and needs of 206 NOCs you’re destined to fail.
Rio’s stadiums were a joke though.
The IOC and LOC will use a range of reasons like Zika or the economy as to why stadiums were half full (or not even). I believe it’s more systemic than that.
The bit that really gets me is when you can’t legally buy a ticket to an event to watch your friends compete and you later find out the stadium wasn’t half full.
Here’s how to fix this in my opinion (note: this solution relates to my point below around Host Cities and the IOC losing touch with reality):
Centralize selling and distribution by the IOC instead of using national travel partners:
- One system for all is better in the long run and have the IOC take ownership and share in the risk-rewards here instead of making it one of the sole revenue streams for the LOC.
- Create a very systematic quota and lottery system tied to the qualification of National Teams. For example: I as a fan may choose to be considered for Canadian Men’s Volleyball team tickets. Immediately following their inclusion into The Games, Canada’s quota is actioned with a majority going out through a lottery and the remainder being allocated directly by the NOC & NSO — to people already in the lottery — (e.g. 75% / 25%). Remember, if this system is centralized this a feasible process and means that family and friends of athletes enter the same process as everyone else and can make sure they’re able to be there. Note: this doesn’t work for track for most countries (NZ, you’re fine though!)
- Set specific targets for ticket sales (both domestically and for each country) and if sales aren’t being hit these tickets are immediately drip fed back to the open market keeping any type of speculation to a minimum on a secondary market (below).
- Offer a capped secondary market — let people capitalize if they choose, but put a ceiling on it. The dark world scalping is going nowhere and is corrupt from some of the highest levels in sport. There are two ways to try and attack the problem. The first is to find the corruption and penalize it (a la War on Drugs mentality). The second is to create systems and processes at the consumer level to disrupt the status quo meaning people like myself aren’t breaking the law by buying tickets through illegal outfits, but rather turning to a globally distributed system — that technically and literally works. Consumers will do what’s easiest and if you can build this you will win in the long run (fire doesn’t burn without oxygen, right?).
I get it, trying to fairly distribute tickets to events years in advance to people who do not know if their national teams or athletes are going to be there is an impossible task. The current setup unfair to Hosts and the IOC taking ownership of this and building a custom fit solution that also cuts out resellers like CoSport is a necessary way forward. The transparency of these partnerships and their relationship with the IOC is dubious at best.
It’s 2016, we don’t need companies like CoSport or New Zealand Olympic Travel to exist in relation to the Olympic Games — all they do is add to the total cost of the Games for patrons, strip revenue away from event itself, and add an added level of archaic complexity into ticketing when instantaneous mobile solutions exist globally. I’m sure they pay the IOC to make their own fortunes, but it’s another example of the IOC taking more and giving the LOC less and it’s hurting everyone.
Commuting the days away
I’ll be first to admit that getting around was better than I thought. Instead of the nightmare I was expecting we mostly dealt with a constant mild-frustration. Nothing broke, things were just far and getting around was slow (Uber was a saviour in this though, I think without it the city would have had a few nightmares).
Rio is the exception, not the norm, when it comes to Host Cities. It has unmoveable geographic limitations complemented by terrible traffic in the developing city. There was no solution, only a best fit. Some days I would have spent six hours commuting and, since venues didn’t have amenities around them, if you were doubling down on sessions (i.e. morning and evening Athletics sessions) there wasn’t the option of only commuting once and sticking around the stadium for the afternoon. I don’t want to focus too much on this, it’s just a reality of the situation, and we did have a lot of fun going there and back but after however many trains and Ubers over three weeks I certainly was aware of the time we spent en route to X, Y or Z.
Athlete selection blunders
Athletics Canada was a huge success at The Games, but they had some interesting decisions around (not) selecting athletes. I know the cost of getting an athlete to the Games (it’s not cheap), and I understand Head Coaches and Administrators have many things to juggle with their National Teams. But, leaving people at home when they’ve hit standards, are fit, and have years left in their relationship with the sport has a far greater cost than their $10-15K OG price tag if you lose them over this. Selections moving forward need to be black and white — this is track and field after all! I hope Athletics Canada recognizes this as a flaw this year and addresses this during their review looking forward to 2020.
Russia, drugs and a spineless IOC
Russia has been systematically doping its athletes and cheating its way to podiums. Most recently when they hosted the Olympic Games in 2014, but based on the medal performances in Athletics 2013 (Moscow) v 2015 (Beijing) I would hazard a guess there was some state involvement there too. The fact that the majority of their athletes were cleared to compete is a joke, then watching the IOC sit on the sidelines by transferring governance to IFs was unbefitting of a leader. Russia should be gone until things are cleared up and cleaned up (maybe, 2020). But as we saw, money still rules all, and the IOC aren’t effective leaders.
Many call me naïve when I state that clean athletes win medals.
“Everyone at that level is cheating” is an easy statement — it’s not a true one though.
The best example of this is Nick Willis in Beijing which I think is the best truly clean performance I’ve ever seen in an event marred by the darkside for as long as I have been aware enough to comprehend cheating in sport.
The way forward for clean sport is a messy one because those cheating have resources far beyond those who are trying to police it. I don’t have the answer here, but having a tough stance from the highest authority down is a good place to start and I’m still shocked we didn’t see that happen in 2016.
2016 was always going to be a failure in the eyes of the media. Focusing on corruption, things breaking, safety issues and Zika fears the scene was set for the world (don’t get me wrong, they all need coverage they just shouldn’t be the only coverage). In the world of online today and with the way media outlets make their money (i.e. by generating click-throughs) it’s a big reason why instead of seeing positive messages and stories we’re blasted with click-bait articles by like “Aussie news crew attacked by transvestites at Rio’s Copacabana Beach” (TVNZ) and “With just days to go, Brazil still not ready for the Olympics” (ABC).
Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in Brazil knows it’s different to anywhere on the planet, that’s part of what makes it such an incredible place. From my travles, the amount of love and passion that country possesses is second to none, but from what I was being fed via Twitter and Facebook we saw none of that. Instead, focusing on distractions like Lochtegate. I wish things weren’t this way, but it’s just a reality of the times with online journalism, ad-blockers, and officious IOC Broadcast Partners protecting ‘what’s their’s.’ Brazil deserved better.
Host Cities and IOC losing touch
At the end of the day, Brazil put on a great Games. It was distinctly theirs and Rio will go down for many years as the anomaly compared to the other early Games of 21st century — in a very positive way. What I mean by that is 20 years from now people will speak most fondly about Rio, it was just different (then again, Brazil is!).
My major issue is the city of Rio and the people of Brazil are going to be paying for these Games for a long time (like Montreal/Canada did after 1976). They were forced to build stadiums they likely won’t need, turn parkland into a golf course and uproot houses and families to get it all done. This can’t keep happening.
Anyone who follows mega-events bidding processes start to finish will have noticed the dwindling of cities and nations willing to sign on to the requirements put in place by the IOC & FIFA.
The 2022 Olympics will be in Beijing who beat out Kazakstan (the only other candidate city on the ballot after Norway’s citizens voted by referendum to withdraw from the process… you know something’s up when even Norway’s saying No to the Winter Olympics).
The IOC have claimed they’re reforming. Things need to come back down to earth and less needs to be pushed on to Host Cities. My challenge to the IOC is to begin to form more symbiotic relationships with your Hosts.
I don’t really know what to say here. The couple weeks which make up an Olympic Games is so surreal. It’s like time stops for a minute. I truly hope this never changes in my lifetime, but I’m scared it will.
The Olympic Movement isn’t broken, it’s just hurting right now,
The IOC needs to take some leadership and govern. They need to:
- structure give-and-take agreements with its Hosts (vs. take take take).
- take a firm stance on doping in sport and be part of the solution
- recognize the Olympics relevance in 2016 is precarious at best and be open to outside the box thinking (remember, this is coming from a track guy!)
Final, final thoughts. I had such a blast down there — Brazil and the Olympics are two of my favourite things! I’m very lucky to have been able to not only get down there but also be supporting such amazing Canadians and Kiwis doing their thing for real. Congrats to everyone who left it all out there — see you in Tokyo.
I’m looking forward to an interesting next few years and no doubt I’ll be back with some more thoughts over this time