Unlike the usual pomp and buzz, the Olympics this August has just slipped on us almost unexpectedly. In theory, the Olympics are supposed to be an exhibition of the finest in atheltics and physicals skills among all the countries of the world. It also acts as a showcase for different cultural expressions, especially during the opening ceremony when all the different country delegation come decked in their national garbs for billions to witness on TV. Even those with passing interest in sports take the time usually to witness the spectacle of the opening ceremony, and each country’s tries to outdo the other (my personal favorite is the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony which was both quirky and distinctly British).
This year’s Olympics in Rio have sadly been overshadowed by events off the field of play which have taken the headlines. Brazil of late has been sunk into political chaos. There has been a sustained campaign to remove the current President, Dilma Rousseff, from office, resulting in impeachment proceedings that are still ongoing. Rio has been engulfed with crime and violence, and its slums are now in the spotlight. Several Olympic participants, including four American swimmers, have been robbed at gunpoint, an indication of how bad the situation has been outside of the actual sports. This is in stark contrast to 2009 when I recall being in New York as Brazil won the hosting rights for the Olympics. At that time, Brazil was seen as a rapidly advancing country and a model for the rest of the developing world. How its stock has sadly fallen.
As somber as the situation was outside, there were plenty of human moments during the Games that will live on for years to come. The swimmer who garnered the most attention was not Michael Phelps, who dominated in the past Olympics but was only very impressive this round. It was Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui, whose mix of childlike innocence, candid talk and enthusiasm in her reactions have made her the internet crowd darling. She cut through the usual formalities of these events with a sense of genuine wonder that was very appealing.
Another unheralded star performer was weightlifter David Katoatau from the island country of Kiribati. His weightlifting performances were followed by characteristic traditional dance moves that had the audience enraptured. While his dances may seem fun, they carry a serious message. The tiny island of Kiribati where he is from is threatened to completely disappear in the next 30 years due to climate change, and his dance are strategicially meant to draw attention to this dire issue. “Most people don’t know where Kiribati is,” Katoatau told Reuters. “I want people to know more about us so I use weightlifting, and my dancing, to show the world…I wrote an open letter to the world last year to tell people about all the homes lost to rising sea levels. I don’t know how many years it will be before it sinks.”
The photo of the hijab-wearing Egyptian and bikini-wearing German during their volleyball match garnered an undue amount of attention, as did the achievement of bronze medal winning American Ibtihaj Muhammad, who also wears the hijab. Conversations around feminism and women’s public expressions remained a sub-theme for the Olymppics this year for some reason. One cannot divorce sport from the wider cultural and political issues that happen outside.
All in all, this Olympics may be remembered for all the wrong reasons but it still was a fine exhibition of human emotions and its controversies only added to the drama.