Just like so many millions of people around the world, I have enjoyed watching many of the athletic events at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this year, but I must admit that I have also been taking a step back to consider it all from a broader perspective. Perhaps because the International Olympic Committee is so very open about touting the Games as an event of worldwide importance, I have found myself thinking more and more about the importance of this year’s Olympics to the world. I wonder if, when we look back from the perspective of a few years down the road, these athletic competitions in Rio will seem both a perfect symbol of where we are—and where we may soon be.
Many articles have already been written about the problems plaguing Rio and Brazil as a whole: crime, corruption, and collapse of the highest (or lowest) order. The truly remarkable aspect of this year’s games is, to be honest, not the achievements of the individual athletes. It is instead the willful ignorance of the mass media when it comes to the stark contrast between the horrid plights of the desperately poor masses trapped in Rio’s endless slums and the happy-happy-happy events of the splashing, leaping, and twisting athletes cosseted within the heavily fortified Olympic venues.
A touch of harsh reality intrudes here or there—athletes mugged, coaches attacked, security personnel killed—but this fades away with the next blaring anthem and medal ceremony. Thanks to 85,000 soldiers and police holding the impoverished and abandoned residents of Rio hostage under the barrel of a gun, the illusion of the regenerative economic powers of organized athletic competitions is kept intact so that the television networks, luxury real estate developers, and corrupt officials can continue to make money. Brightly painted walls have even been constructed to shield the delicate eyes of the tourists opening their wallets to enrich the few from the sight of the nasty poor—how very, very thoughtful!
All the astounding athletic achievements aside, I have to wonder if the Olympic Games in Rio are actually an eerie premonition that we ignore at our own risk. Just as the Berlin Summer Olympic Games in 1936 could easily be seen in retrospect to be an inflection point that foreshadowed the awful rise of Nazism and the horrors of World War II, it seems quite possible that the self-indulgent and self-involved spectacle in Rio de Janeiro this summer will someday be seen as the perfect parable of a global political and economic situation spinning rapidly out of control while the elite threw themselves a wonderful party at everyone else’s expense.
Not a day seems to go by now when the world news isn’t filled with stories of a financial institution in difficulty, an industry under siege by mindboggling changes in technology, a police force or army battling their citizens, politicians making promises they know there is no chance of ever fulfilling, wars slaughtering humans and driving them from their homes, and governments pleading poverty and demanding yet more money from our already empty pockets.
Now toss into our own national brew increasingly disconnected and desperate government, imploding private and public sector debts, a racial climate that has slipped from negative to toxic, and the worst pair of major party Presidential candidates since Franklin Pierce whipped Winfield Scott in 1852.
We will be making choices—as individuals, communities, states, and nations—over the next few years that will be impossible to walk away from. The real message of Rio just might be that the time for ignoring our most pressing and intractable problems is now gone for good, so perhaps we should just enjoy our last big party before it is over and reality comes crashing down upon us.
All things considered, does the smug party in Rio seem celebratory or foreboding? Should we be patting ourselves on the back for a wonderful bash that made us all feel good for a moment or listen to the glum assessment of the Olympic Games from a Rio slum-dweller as recently reported in The New York Times: “The rich play, and we die.”