THE FIRST DAYS OF THE RIO OLYMPICS HAD EVERYTHING: A STIRRING OPENING CEREMONY, WORLD RECORDS, INSPIRING STORIES OF SURVIVAL, DISMAYING DISORGANIZATION—AND A STRAY BULLET
WHEN THEY came upon it on New Year's Day, 1502, Portuguese explorers thought the spot we now call Rio de Janeiro sat at the mouth of a river. It turned out to be the mouth of a bay, but they named the settlement after a river anyway, as if to mark a warning for future generations: Things here might not be what they seem.
It's a worthy caveat for these Rio Olympics, which after a halting run-up are proving to be a Games of work-arounds, split differences, and baits and switches. If Rio 2016 eventually becomes the party that organizers promised, it'll do so despite the stones thrown in protest by unpaid teachers as the Olympic torch arrived in the city. Last Saturday organizers pledged changes to security protocols so spectators would no longer miss parts of events because of lengthy lines. Then there was the ultimate fix, resorted to by firefighters at the Olympic Stadium before a women's soccer match between Sweden and South Africa: using bolt cutters to open a gate when no one could find the key.
The bravado of "zero tolerance" for doping gave way to an expediency that allowed about two-thirds of the athletes in the tainted Russian delegation to compete yet sidelined Yuliya Stepanova, the whistleblowing runner who helped expose Moscow's state-run doping regime. The corpse of a man shot by a policeman who said he had been assaulting people lay outside Maracanã Stadium as spectators left Friday night's opening ceremony. The next day a bullet—possibly fired by drug traffickers trying to down a security balloon, according to Brazil's defense minister—ripped through the roof of the media center at the equestrian venue in Deodoro. It might be arrogant for a country in crisis to spend $12 billion on an Olympics, but it's no less so to stage them in a city where more than 1,000 people died of gunfire last year and not expect bullets to be part of the proceedings.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach tried to turn all the disquieting developments on their heads. He called Brazil's troubles—political instability, a cratering economy, the Zika virus, a spike in urban crime—the ultimate "stress test." Simply by hosting the Games, he said, Rio organizers had proved that the Olympic movement is "robust." Bach might have chosen an analogy other than stress test, given that members of the Australian delegation had conducted one on their accommodations in the athletes' village, simultaneously flushing toilets and switching lights on and off only to see water rush down walls and wiring short out. This so concerned the IOC president that upon his arrival from Europe, he rushed to the village "unshaven," in his word, thereby revealing himself to be a first responder of the highest order.
Certainly there were no complaints from the 10 members of the first Refugee Olympic Team, Bach's greatest achievement in office. They include judoka Yolande Mabika, 28, who has become a bottle blonde since fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo for Brazil, embracing, as she puts it, "everything new—a new story, a new home, a new place, including the color of my hair." Swimmer Yusra Mardini, who escaped from Syria to Greece through Turkey, swam with two others for more than three hours through the Aegean Sea, tugging their swamped and sinking dinghy to shore after it became disabled with 20 passengers aboard. On Saturday, with noise from the Maracanã celebration still rattling around her 18-year-old head, Mardini won her heat in the 100-meter butterfly in her first race as an Olympian.
The opening ceremony of the first Olympics to be held in South America offered pointed messages for both the U.S., home of Donald Trump, and Western Europe and its Brexit-inflamed fevers. Trump "will hate the ceremony," its creative director, Fernando Meirelles, tweeted a few hours before his passion play about the dignity of immigrants and the threat of global warming. The show was suitably low-tech and low-budget for a country in crisis—a virtue, insisted Meirelles's collaborator Daniela Thomas, who called her team's ability to improvise "MacGyverism." Organizers felt no need to have an archer light the cauldron with an arrow or parachutists float into the stadium when each athlete could simply plant a seed in a cartridge of soil for the Athletes' Forest that will grow in the Olympic BMX park in Deodoro, in the northwest section of the city. The ultimate MacGyver move was conscripting Vanderlei de Lima, Brazil's 2004 marathon medalist in Athens, only hours before showtime to light the cauldron when it emerged that Pelé, for hazy reasons, couldn't make it.
Amid the samba and bossa nova and baile funk, the ceremony struck a couple of dissonant notes. It was jarring to see pollution decried and Rio's shantytowns glorified when these Olympics have been responsible for so much environmental degradation and the displacement of so many favelados. And while planting trees can sequester more carbon, Brazil's political crisis began with bribes involving the oil giant Petrobras.
But it's surely worth appealing to a billion TV viewers worldwide to give sanctuary to 60 million of their fellow earthlings and to save the planet they share. And to do so with refugee athletes, including one who during this Olympic cycle had actually swum for her life, gave the exercise an If-a-butterflyer-flaps-her-wings credibility. Mardini, who wouldn't qualify for the semifinals, won that heat because she had trained seriously in prewar Damascus and because those desperate hours wrestling that dinghy to shore strengthened her muscles and her will. She finished first because she showed up at a swim club in Berlin without a suit or a cap and said, "Hey, I'm a swimmer, can you help me out?" And someone did.
During the 1992 Barcelona Olympics an Asian journalist asked U.S. basketball Dream Teamer Karl Malone why some baskets are worth three points and others only two. There was a whiff of condescension to the Mailman's reply: "That's just the way we do it, my man." But Malone conveyed solidarity with his naive interlocutor, and that comment has worn well over the years. The Olympics offer up enough such holy moments to rebuke the "wristband, my man" exclusion in the world today, which Paul Simon put into song and Meirelles, Thomas and their team put into pageantry.
For better or worse, Rio welcomed to its Games the Family of My Man, which in this quadrennium includes not only refugees but also soldiers, police officers, epidemiologists, eco-boat skippers, lab techs and bomb squadders to go with the usual athletes, coaches and spectators. That list tells you today's world isn't the optimistic one of 1992, when the Cold War had ended and a rosy tomorrow seemed possible. But that doesn't mean you don't fight the good fight for peace. Every Games has a chance to redeem the Olympics, however briefly—even this one, what with Yusra Mardini and her refugee teammates washing up at the mouth of the River of January, to remind us that My Man is Your Man is Our Man, even if it doesn't always seem so.