A Cynic’s Guide To The Olympics

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A Cynic’s Guide To The Olympics

Words by Mr Dan Davies

3 August 2016

Has it really been four years since the London Olympics? With the prospect once again looming of 16 days spent watching weird and wonderful sports on television, it’s time to reacquaint ourselves with the quaint – plus the curious and the downright bizarre – fixtures of an event that prides itself on being the pinnacle of sporting excellence.

As usual, the harbingers of doom have been setting new personal bests in the build-up, which is not altogether surprising given the mess the host nation finds itself in. But, as our alternative guide shows, there’s more than just the pre-Games carping to look forward to.

So, strip off, stretch out and get ready to witness the emergence of a colourful cast of unlikely new heroes, marvel at the ever more outlandish ways science is employed to cheat, and remind yourselves of all the well-worn cliches. After all, it will be four years until we can do it all again.

Moaning about the Olympics should be an Olympic sport in its own right – everyone takes part, elbowing opponents out of the way to find new reasons why the next games is going to be an unmitigated disaster. If you’re planning on competing in this year’s pre-Olympic Moan-athon, here’s a brief workout to get you in shape: Brazil is in economic meltdown; government corruption is rife (see point three); there have been mass demonstrations; the building works are chronically over-budget; the Zika virus has resulted in a public health emergency and widespread withdrawals (see point seven); tickets sales are sluggish; and, oh yes, the International Olympic Committee recently made a mockery of its own event by ducking the issue of Russian doping. Rio 2016 is shaping up to be a classic.

Learn the names of countries you never even knew existed (Comoros? Kiribati? Palau?) while marvelling at how badly the world’s finest athletes are made to dress for the biggest night of their lives. Certain nations should have an advantage – Team Great Britain will be decked out in Stella McCartney, American athletes will be attired in Polo Ralph Lauren and Team France will doubtless look suave in Lacoste – but others have been serial offenders (take a bow Spain, Australia and Mexico). Hungary in 2008 will take some beating, however – they entered the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing looking like they’d just lost a food fight in a strawberry packing plant.

We won’t know the identity of this year’s Eric the Eel until he or she steps into the spotlight – and that’s the beauty of the Olympic underdog. Mr Eric Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea only learned to swim shortly before representing his country in the 100 metres freestyle at the Sydney Olympics, taking more than twice as long as the other competitors to complete his heat, in which he memorably swam solo. We’ll be looking out for Equatorial Guinea’s swimming team in Rio, and keeping our fingers crossed for Mr Davilson Morais, a super-heavyweight (in the very truest sense) boxer from Cape Verde, a series of small islands off West Africa. Like Eric the Eel, Mr Morais qualified for the Olympics by default, despite only winning one fight in the qualifying event in Cameroon.

Synchronised swimming had long been a laughing stock, but in these straitened times, it’s only right that we give serious consideration to a sport that requires contestants to smile like maniacs while holding their breath for what seems like eons. Demonstrate your newfound interest by murmuring approvingly when teams pull off perfect “eggbeaters” (a type of kick) or execute immaculate “flamingo positions” (a form of sub-aquatic contortion). If coordinated smiling with optional waterproof glitter is not your thing, wile away the fortnight trying (and failing) to work out the rules in the sailing competitions.

Let’s face it, the Olympic Games is essentially two weeks of sports you would rarely, if ever, choose to watch on television, so it’s just as well there’s plenty to keep us entertained away from the venues. If we’re unlikely to see the mayor of Rio dangling helplessly from a zip-wire, it’s more doubtful still we’ll see the Brazilian president at all. Ms Dilma Rousseff, the country’s first female president, was suspended from office in May, and faces impeachment charges over breaking budget laws. Her seat on the board of a state-controlled oil company between 2003 and 2010, which is now at the centre of a bribery and money laundering scandal, hasn’t exactly helped her cause. Then, of course, there’s Russia (see point nine).

What is it about mascots? Put sane adults in garish suits and bulbous heads and they are instantly transformed into frantic, miming buffoons. The mascot for Rio 2016 is called Vinicius, who, according to his own official website, is “a mixture of all the Brazilian animals” (there are some 600 known species of mammals native to the country alone), and was “born out of an explosion of joy”. In fact, this yellow mutant looks like the product of an explosion of toxic gases at one of Rio’s heavily polluted outdoor aquatic venues (see point seven). Keep a tally of how many times Vinicius invades a lap of honour – and then console yourself that the person responsible is sweating buckets inside that ridiculous costume.

Spare a thought for the sailors and open-water swimmers who will have to contend with raw sewage, teeming waterborne viruses, and even rogue electrical appliances when competing at Guanabara Bay and Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. Earlier this year, a severed arm was found floating at one venue, while Olympic sailors have complained of hitting washing machines mid training, which should at least make for some added drama – “And the Dutch boat is going well, but oh no, what’s this? They’ve been holed by a Zanussi tumble dryer”. Then, of course, there’s the dreaded Zika virus, which has been sited by many of the world’s top golfers when withdrawing from the first Olympic golf competition in 112 years. Mosquitoes won’t be the only hazard on the new Olympic golf course: it has has been built on an area of marshy land popular with caiman (small alligators).

After the aberration that was the beach volleyball competition being held in the middle of London four years ago, the 2016 event is being staged in what many consider to be its spiritual home: Copacabana Beach. What better way to vicariously feel the warmth of summer than by watching tight-bodied individuals throwing themselves around on golden sands? The only shame is that the IOC didn’t think more carefully about capitalising on the venue with another great beach sport: bat and ball. Afternoons on the sofa could have been happily wasted watching two middle-aged men in budgie-smugglers standing in shallow water while aimlessly batting a small rubber ball at each other with cheap wooden paddles.

Russia has dominated the build-up to the Rio Olympics with revelations over its state-backed doping programme, which, investigators discovered, involved secret agents swapping “dirty” urine samples via “mouse holes” in supposedly secure laboratories. If the participation of Russian athletes has jettisoned the Olympic ideal of fair play, and President Vladimir Putin refuses to lighten the mood by taking part in the Olympic judo competition, the question remains of how to make the best of the situation? We suggest running a sweepstake on how many athletes across all nations will be stripped of their medals for failed drug tests. The 2004 Athens Olympics currently leads the field with 15, with three from Russia.

Watching the Olympics is, ahem, a marathon, and to get through it we recommend a two-week long form of bingo, in which the rules dictates alcohol must be consumed every time you see or hear one of the following on TV: an aerial view of Christ the Redeemer statue; Olympics being a “carnival of sport”; a shot of a pretty Brazilian girls in bikinis strolling on Copacabana Beach; samba-style dancing; toothy kids doing the Mr Usain Bolt stance; an aerial view of the stadium; a cutaway to the Olympic flame; a commentator describing a plucky loser as “brave”; an athlete in tears; a close-up of Pelé smiling in the VIP seats; reference to the “Olympic family”; mention of the Rio. Award yourself a whole bottle of champagne if any athlete is spotted drop-kicking Vinicius into Row J of the Maracanã Stadium.

Illustration by Mr Peter Gamlen