In Good Conscience

Barren Pierre de Coubertin spirit lingers over contentious Olympics

Within one week, we are going to have to hold our noses and suspend our disbelief if we are to feel anything of the spirit of the Olympics.

Vladimir Putin calls the Rio Olympics the diluted Games because his track and field athletes and others are banned. Few would disagree; many would ask him who is to blame for that.

There might very well be innocent Russian victims of the IAAF blanket ban (as Rohit Brijnath eloquently pleaded this week in his column Clean Russian Athletes Deserve Their Chance Too.)

Yes, they do. But separating the clean from the rest in a state- sponsored pharmaceutical plot to cheat in sports is the devil's own job. If the former German Democratic Republic precedent of state-promoted drug abuse is any guide, not all of the children reared on anabolic steroids even knew what they were injected with.

And, for sure, there are other nations (certainly other individuals) at it in a big way.

But drugs are not the only pollutants around the Olympic circles.


PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

There is right now an epidemic of stories about the toxic waste in the water of Guanabara Bay, where swimmers and sailors are advised: Keep your mouths shut, don't inhale whatever you do.

And there are stories from Australians, who were among the first arrivals, of blocked toilets, leaking pipes and exposed wiring at the Olympic Village that is intended to house competitors and officials.

The Brits, who have a luxurious pre-camp in Belo Horizonte, are bringing with them a resident plumber to be on call 24/7 for the athletes.

And, to ameliorate the fear over the Zika virus, every Brit has been given ample supplies of insect repellent canisters to kill off mosquitoes.

I'm not helping, I appreciate, to spread the Olympic spirit.

So as a patriot, as a player, and as a person, Neymar's choice was made for him. He stayed away from the Copa last month, and prepared himself body and soul for the Olympics.

Yet the very purpose of the Games is the taking part, and the experience of a lifetime that draws the vast majority to share what Baron Pierre de Coubertin intended when he revived the ancient Greek Games as the modern Olympics, in 1896.

The essence of that is participation. It has to be: The Rio Games will have up to 10,500 competitors, competing in 306 events, representing 206 nations in 28 sports. That means for every gold medal, on average 35 other competitors are there principally for the taking part. And that should be the experience of a lifetime.

When Lionel Messi and Neymar, team-mates at Barcelona, talked together of their options for this summer, it was clear to them that they could not enter two tournaments in the short break between Spanish league seasons.

Neymar, in particular, had to prioritise.

Should he lead Brazil in the Copa America Centenario (the extra event put on in the United States to celebrate 100 years of the South American Copa)? Or should he instead skipper Brazil at its home Olympics (and try to make amends for what happened when Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup, and fell apart after Neymar was injured?)

Messi told him that World Cups and Copa Americas are important, but the Olympics were special.

The Argentinian told the Brazilian of how, at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, he found the experience of mixing with elite players and athletes from so many other sports "a spectacular experience like no other".?

So as a patriot, as a player, and as a person, Neymar's choice was made for him. He stayed away from the Copa last month, and prepared himself body and soul for the Olympics. His extra motivation, if any were needed, is that for all the great players in its history, Brazil has never won football's Olympic gold medal.

He is, incidentally, 24, which makes him an over-age player, allowed under the agreement between the IOC and Fifa to accommodate youth - but at the same time not to threaten the World Cup as the No. 1 profit maker from football's popularity.

You hope, for Neymar's sake and Brazil's sake, that it comes together for him this time.

However, there is another, separate species at these Games. It is one that has never "taken part" in terms of the essence of mingling with the other athletes across all disciplines.

The US basketball team, comprising some of the richest sportsmen on earth, will not set foot in the Olympic Village. They will be accommodated on a cruise ship docked in the bay.

A spokesman for the basketball superstars cited security as one reason why the NBA superstars have never, since the "Dream Team" entered the Olympics in 1992, lowered themselves to be part of the experience.

Given what just reportedly happened to the mother-in-law of Bernie Ecclestone - she was kidnapped for ransom in Brazil - security is a justified explanation.

There are others. The NBA spokesman, Craig Miller, told the Associated Press back in April: "We don't stay in the Olympic Village because we don't feel it's the best way to prepare for competition. The players have a long professional season and they want to spend as much time as possible with family and friends."

The beds issue, finding beds to accommodate the 2m-plus basketball stars, has been overcome down the years, in secluded hotels or, one previous time, aboard the then super-new Queen Mary 2 liner during the 2004 Games in Athens.

That ship was bigger than any hotel, and more luxurious than you can imagine, unless you have sampled its huge decks, its cinemas, casinos and restaurants.

The US basketball giants this time will be accommodated on Silver Cloud, a privately owned cruise ship that has berths for 296 people, at US$10,000 (S$13,500) a night in the best suites.

Berthed alongside it, dwarfing it, will be the Norwegian cruise liner Getaway?. That is reserved for the "Olympic Family", which includes the IOC members, the national Olympic committees, the sports federations, the sponsors and their highest-ranking guests.

The areas of hospitality and exclusivity miss out on the same thing that Messi told Neymar to enjoy: The sharing with about 10,000 others who come together once in an Olympic moon to just give their best. And then to party.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'Barren Pierre de Coubertin spirit lingers over contentious Olympics'. Print Edition | Subscribe