The night after Usain Bolt brought relief to a world united by his majesty and a shared disdain for twice-banned doper Justin Gatlin, tickets couldn’t even be given away. Action in the sparsely-populated Olympic Stadium was briefly suspended as torrential rain was deemed sufficient for a complete restart of the men’s 110 metre hurdles heats and pole vault final, and the women’s 400 metre final ended with a Bahamian stumble into a full-stretch lunge to seal gold. For Brazil’s Thiago Braz da Silva, the hosts’ best hope of a track-and-field medal, conditions were mildly biblical and aspirations mildly comical, having come just 19th in the 2015 World Championships.
His pole vault final was merely a contest to claim silver behind Renaud Lavillenie – defending champion, Olympic and world record holder, worldwide season leader, and flawless through his first four vaults despite only entering at a height that had eliminated 26 of the 32 competitors. Breaking his own Olympic record by vaulting 5.98 metres appeared so devilishly casual that da Silva did the only rational thing: skip that lifetime best-eclipsing height, forcing Lavillenie to vault again immediately to buy himself time to pick through his own bag to see if he even had a pole long or flexible enough. On the first attempt, the Brazilian couldn’t even get high enough to hit the bar. As Lavillenie clattered it three times, the opportunity was seized.
Thus, Brazil’s Olympic idyll was complete: an unfancied athlete powered by roars from the home crowd chewed up expectations into an infectious smile by reaching the pinnacle of a sport that few ever acknowledge beyond quadrennial blasts of gleefully devouring everything with a flag. Perhaps the most glamorous destination to have ever hosted the “Summer” games in one of its own winter months, Rio de Janeiro largely defied the precautionary cries of “Zika,” “political corruption and scandal on levels that would make even sporting administrators ashamed,” and “the buildings aren’t finished.” Aside from the sofa that may have capsized a canoe and the accidental pollution of the diving pool with 160 litres of hydrogen peroxide to gift Tom Daley and his Daily Mail-ignored company a deeply verdant tinge to their artful splashes, even the water brought a drought to the pessimists, and the threat of violent crime only became a sticking point when twelve-time medallist Ryan Lochte lied to media and police before fleeing the country because he was too embarrassed to tell his mother the truth about a drunken skirmish at a petrol station.
One shadow, though, refused to yield. The World Anti-Doping Agency’s McLaren report, commissioned to unveil the breadth of Russia’s state-sponsored doping programs, led to faint suspicion lingering over almost anything that drew breath. Punishments for drug offences are already horrendously slack, hence the likes of Gatlin continue to race despite being relentless offenders, yet by permitting 271 of Russia’s intended 389 athletes to compete and not granting an opening for Yuliya Stepanova, the athlete who blew the door off the racket and completed her outstanding sentence, the International Olympic Committee displayed a shameful lack of conviction and determination to utilise athletes’ support to clean their events. Instead, they left their Paralympic counterparts to show some backbone for their tournament, stripped-down due to atrocious ticket sales and funding shortfalls.
Certainly, the blanket bans afforded to Russians by the IPC and governing bodies for athletics and weightlifting will have prohibited clean competitors from taking part, but in such a context any flippancy regarding cleanliness must be acted harshly upon. If it is even worth persisting with the charade of depicting profession sport as an arena for celebrating the pure and innocent power of human capability and endeavour, and as fans we must not tolerate Lizzie Armitstead’s repeated missed tests or Mo Farah’s connections to coaches of drug cheats regardless of their own presumed regimes and successes.
Where situations were perhaps at their murkiest was in the swimming pool, where allegations of sheer incompetence with qualification timings was overshadowed by Russia’s Yulia Efimova and China’s Sun Yang each adding two medals to their London hauls despite observing suspensions for failed tests in the meantime. Sun’s suspension was only announced once served and Efimova’s use of meldonium this spring, a recently-banned substance most notable for bringing down Maria Sharapova, came barely a year after a 16-month disqualification. With colleagues openly bemoaning their participation and Great Britain’s head coach declaring that doping cost his team four medals, this floundering governance is all the more disappointing given the superb events that took place.
Pool action didn’t properly start until 2am for British viewers thanks to NBC’s arm-bending for a primetime Michael Phelps Show, however those who did lose sleep alongside Helen Skelton’s affable and appropriately-clad crew witnessed incredible feats. Phelps himself returned from post-2012 retirement to bring his career tally to 23 gold medals, though a pure and spritely set of pretenders to his throne captured the limelight. With your flawless Adam Peatys and Katie Ledeckys, the blend of advancements in technology and technique presents an exuberant spectacle that is both enchanting and, we hope to Cristo Redentor, wholly natural.
That Phelps’ final solo race ended in a tie with longtime rivals Chad le Clos and László Cseh almost a second behind Joseph Schooling – a 21-year-old who saw Phelps as a childhood hero and claimed Singapore’s first ever gold medal – was particularly apt. In a fortnight of incredible drama both on and off the clock, the athletes yielded the passion lacked (unsurprisingly) by many locals to forge heroes, immortalise legends, and realise potential. Where the impact and integrity of the games itself is concerned, only time will tell.