Up to athletes to redeem Olympic Games in Rio: Peter Mansbridge

The Olympics seem to have their share of problems, no matter the host city. Rio de Janeiro, however, seems to be in a dubious class of its own. But Zika-transmitting mosquitoes and a litany of other distractions won't stop the athletes from striving to make their achievements what everyone remembers about these Games. It won't be easy.

Athletes have a big task ahead of them: Make their achievements the most memorable part of the troubled Games

Christ the Redeemer during sunrise in Rio de Janeiro. The opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics is tonight, with CBC coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. (Reuters)

Who would have thought mosquitoes could nearly bring down the most powerful sports organization in the world?

But that's what happened and they still pose such a threat that thousands are arriving here in Rio de Janeiro every day loaded down with sprays, lotions and special clothing.

Or in some cases, they're not arriving at all.
A worker in Olympic Park sports a shirt that reads, 'Shoo Zika!' in Portuguese. (Reuters)

But the Zika virus is just one of Rio's problems. Past Olympics have had their issues, but the 2016 version is in a class of its own.

Brazil is a country in chaos.

Its political leadership is frozen in a corruption crisis so bad some of its members could end up in jail.

Its low-paid public service workers are paralyzing the country and threatening to do the same to the Games.

Its basic services are plagued by polluted waters, open sewers and unmanageable traffic.

Within metres of the glistening stadium the world will focus on for tonight's opening ceremony, people live in abject poverty. Some are forced to survive on less money in a month than the country's affluent will drop on snacks while watching tonight's pageantry.

Doping scandal

The Olympics itself is a gathering in chaos.

Led by a doping scandal that is stunning in scale and makes the Ben Johnson affair look like child's play.

Just two years ago, while Russian President Vladimir Putin was puffed up with pride during the opening ceremony in Sochi, his henchmen were in their labs orchestrating a massive fraud on the Games and the athletes who'd come from around the world to compete.
Russian President Vladimir Putin stands during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Russia was later accused of a massive doping operation. (Reuters)

It's hard to believe, but the Russians, under their own government's direction, actually built a system of fake walls, hidden drawers and duplicate samples that allowed some of their most decorated athletes to bypass the testing process on their way to the podium.

Many of those athletes have now been banned from Rio, but was that enough? Those who believe in the sanctity of the Olympics feel the penalty should have been much more severe.

And then there's the constant concern about security. The Games are under threat, so 85,000 police and soldiers have been deployed to try to ensure nothing goes wrong. But some countries are still worried and have shown their lack of confidence in Brazil by sending their own security to protect their teams.
Security is a major concern in Rio. Brazilian police watch over the Silversea's Silver Cloud cruise ship that will house the U.S. basketball team. (Reuters)

So Rio is tainted, even in these moments before the glitter gets underway.

But, while the taint is very real, two things just might change the picture.

One is the picture itself — the overwhelming natural beauty of this place is remarkable. Hosting the first Olympics on this continent, Rio will show off some stunning images to the world.
There is no denying the beauty in Rio. (Reuters)

Vancouver did the same in 2010 and reaped the tourism rewards. It's what every Olympic host city wants to do, and it's what Rio is trying to do now.

Big challenge

But the athletes are the influential force of any Games. Young people whose lives have been spent training, waiting and dreaming of this moment.

They are the athletes who are clean, who have always been clean, the athletes who believe in the true ideals behind the modern Games.

To them, the negativity associated with these Games has to be put out of mind and replaced with the competitive spirit that will drive them to the finish line.

The spirit that will push them to run faster, jump higher and be stronger.

  • You can watch the Rio de Janeiro Olympics opening ceremony starting at 6:30 p.m. ET on both CBC Television and CBC News Network
  • You can also stream it at or on CBC'S app for Rio 2016

It's why the world will be watching, and why thousands of athletes from across the globe will march, sing and laugh together tonight.

No matter how corrupt and chaotic the event and its host city may have become, these would-be heroes of tomorrow will strive to make their achievements the lasting memories of these Games and nothing else.

It won't be easy.
It will be up to athletes like trampolinist and Canadian flag-bearer Rosie MacLennan to make us forget about the troubles surrounding the Games. (Reuters)

About the Author

Peter Mansbridge

Former Chief Correspondent CBC News

Peter Mansbridge is the former chief correspondent of CBC News and Distinguished Fellow, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.