An Olympic sized stuff up

Every Olympics people like to consider if it was “the best Olympics ever”.  It is already clear this one in Brazil won’t make it.

Laura McQuillan was a journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. She knows a week is a long time in politics.

It turns out, a week is a living hell in the geopolitics around the world’s biggest athletics event, the Olympic Games.

This time last week, McQuillan had just penned a short note to email out to thousands and thousands of Sunday Star-Times readers. Our company’s Brazil correspondent had agreed to write a weekly column from Rio de Janeiro during the Games. “The Girl from Ipanema” we called her column, brightly.

“Rio de Janeiro really is a world away from the Parliament press gallery, where I spent most of my career before moving to Brazil 18 months ago,” she wrote.”Here, I’ve discovered a fascinating country steeped in history, culture, charm and the occasional oddity. As the only Kiwi journalist in the country, I’ve closely followed the Olympic build-up, as it’s been pulled together amid Brazil’s political crisis, deep recession, and security turmoil.

“During the Olympics, I’m looking forward to sharing both the stories of the Games, and those of Brazil’s Marvellous City and its people – Cariocas – with readers back home.”

But then it all went pear shaped. 

When McQuillan moved to Rio with her partner, jiu jitsu champion Jason Lee, they had been anticipating this coming month as the culmination of a grand adventure.

It was not to be. After he was kidnapped by two military police officers, driven to an ATM and forced to withdraw R$2000, the couple were sucked into a vortex of intimidation in a nation that feared bad international headlines just before the Olympics.

Repeatedly, military police turned up at their door. Worried for their safety, the Sunday Star-Times’ parent company Fairfax Media NZ helped them flee Brazil to make a new life on work visas in Canada.

Fairfax had already withdrawn its other journalists from covering the Games on the ground in Rio, concerned at constraints on their freedom to report. Negotiations with the host broadcaster broke down after Sky TV tried to impose such conditions as (at first) a ban on any criticism of its hosts and commentators, and (ultimately) a ban on any use of news and sports video whatsoever for 30 minutes.

Never mind the slap in the face for any Kiwi athlete whose triumph couldn’t be seen by friends and family back home until Sky TV allowed it.

Russia managed to find the right balance, as did China.

For New Zealand’s athletes, for New Zealand’s media, for the New Zealand public, the Rio Olympics are becoming an ever more vexed proposition. The mosquito-borne Zika disease. Raw sewage floating in the water where our sailors compete. The bitter taste of many Russian athletes being allowed to compete under the shadow of state-sponsored drug-cheating.

New Zealand’s chef de mission told how the team had to get down on their hands and knees to scrub clean the accommodation before the athletes arrived. On Saturday, a discarded cigarette in the “smokefree” Games village smoked out the Australian quarters, forcing about 100 athletes to be evacuated. They were lucky the blaze was discovered – workers had turned off the smoke alarms and sprinklers.

The big losers, in all this, are not the public. Not really.

The losers are the athletes who have trained their whole lives towards this moment. At London, some of them weren’t ready. At Tokyo in 2020, some will have already peaked. Sport is cruel, like that. There is sometimes just one chance. To wear that black singlet like the greats. Like Lovelock, like Snell, like Walker, like Kendall, like Adams.

Laura McQuillan is a good journalist. If she wants to, she will have more chances to attend the Olympic Games.

Not so for many of our athletes.

I was unlikely to follow much of the Olympics in the first place, with Sky having exclusive rights and not playing ball with other media, but at this stage it is clear it will take absolutely no effort to stay away from it.  The usual facade of respectability, albeit manufactured, hasn’t been able to be put up by Brazil, and like breaking the Fourth Wall, it’s going to continuously bleed through.

To call for a formal ban would be extreme.  Sky deserve to be mocked for their tight fisted and essentially self-defeating stance.  The IOC has no standing after letting Russia complete.  And finally Brazil has failed to deliver the most essential components that make up an Olympic Games:  safety, a clear and functional place to stay, and the Spirit of the Olympics.   As such, I will celebrate any New Zealand achievement for the individual, but I will otherwise ignore the event as it doesn’t deserve our my attention.


– Jonathan Milne, Sunday Star Times

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