Rio 2016: Athletes' passion always overcomes Olympic problems, sports historian says

With less than two weeks until the opening of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, some are wondering whether organizers can actually pull off the event in the midst of a disastrous economic situation and worries ranging from security to the risk of Zika virus infection.

Brazil is chaotic, but past Games have carried on despite pollution, gridlock, even murder

A Brazilian Armed Forces soldier patrols on Copacabana beach ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

With less than two weeks until the opening of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, many are wondering whether organizers can actually pull off the event in the midst of a dire economic situation and worries ranging from security to the risk of Zika virus infection. 

But this is far from the first time people have doubted whether a host country can pull off a successful Olympic Games, says David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians

"This happens even in the most successful games," said Wallechinsky, who is also a broadcast commentator and has been to 16 Olympic Games. "And then the minute the competitions begin, it all shifts to the athletes." 

Even in extreme situations where terrible things have actually happened, such as a deadly pipe bomb explosion in Atlanta in 1996 and the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and nine hostages in Munich in 1972, "the competitions continue." 

"You've got 10,000 athletes who have been waiting for this and so that's a powerful force," he said. "That energy of those 10,000 athletes kind of pushes through, you know, the Olympics no matter what bad things happen."

Still, Wallechinsky acknowledges the situation facing Rio is historically unique.

"What you have different here is a country in chaos," he said, noting that Brazil has seen "a real change of fortune" since it was chosen in 2009 as the host city. 

In addition to economic collapse and a looming vote on whether to impeach Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, the country continues to battle the mosquito-borne Zika virus

The only Olympic event that has been significantly affected by a public health issue, Wallechinsky said, was the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, during the Ebola outbreak. Three athletes were prevented from attending after a decision not to allow people from Ebola-affected countries to compete in "water or combat sports," he said.

Some of the issues Rio faces "are very serious," Wallechinsky said. 

Water pollution is among the concerns plaguing the 2016 Games. Finnish sailor Camilla Cedercreutz, right, said she had never witnessed the kind of pollution she has experienced in the waters of Rio. (Steve Wade/Associated Press)

"The water quality for the sailing events is really disturbing," he said. People there talked to him about it when he visited two years ago, he said, calling it "a scandal" that the event would be held in polluted water when there were "pristine waters, you know, 50 kilometres away."

There are also significant concerns about infrastructure, Wallechinsky said.

Here are five Olympics that were plagued by concerns and problems, either in the lead-up or during the events themselves — but the Games went on.

London 2012 

There were "dire warnings" before the London Olympics in 2012, Wallechinsky said. 

Amid concerns about the event being a potential target for attack, Britain hired a global security firm, G4S, to bring in 10,000 staff. 

Members of Canada's contingent take part in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Games.

But just weeks before the Games were to begin, G4S acknowledged it wouldn't be able to meet that target.

The British government called in 3,500 extra troops to fill in the gap and the head of G4S made a public apology and pledged to pay the costs of the military deployment.   

Athens 2004

Like Rio, Athens was facing financial hardship going into the 2004 Olympics, Wallechinsky said, but the organizers were "able to grab some money ... from the governnment."

Still, "they didn't complete everything in time," he said, and the quality of infrastructure was a problem. He remembers rushing up the stairs at the women's water polo venue when he felt something "funny" beneath his feet. 

Britain's Kelly Holmes celebrates as she crosses the finish line to win the women's 800 metres Olympic final in Athens in 2004. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

"It was the stairway chipping away as I ran up the stairs," Wallechinsky said, noting that sometimes, Olympic venues are built hurriedly and are not designed to last.

But nothing collapsed, and the Games hosted 301 events that year — one more than the previous Olympics in Sydney — and reached an audience of 3.9 billion people through television coverage, according to the International Olympic Committee website

Atlanta 1996

"The 1996 Atlanta Olympics were a mess," Wallechinsky said.

The transportation system was overcrowded and disorganized, the computer results system didn't work during the Games, and security wasn't adequate, he said.

Spectators at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta pack the Peachtree Center Marta rail station. Olympics organizers summoned the mayor to join emergency talks on the traffic gridlock during the Games. (Reuters)

A bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park on July 27, the ninth day of the Games, leaving two people dead and more than 100 injured.   

Atlanta "was almost the template for how not to do things," Wallechinsky said. 

From a sports perspective, the Atlanta Olympics did have some shining moments, especially for Canada, as it earned more medals than ever before in a non-boycotted Olympics. Sprinter Donovan Bailey won two gold medals, rowers Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle won the double sculls and Clara Hughes brought home two bronze medals for cycling.   

Barcelona 1992 

Wallechinsky recalls a couple of issues leading up to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.  There were concerns that the preparations wouldn't be finished on time. But in the end, "they pulled it off," he said.

Michael Jordan, with the U.S. flag, stands with Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen and Clyde Drexler before the gold medal presentation to the men's basketball team at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. (Ray Stubblebine/Reuters)

There was also a problem with polluted waters where the sailing competitions were taking place. Wallechinsky remembers plastic bags floating in the area.  But, he said, it wasn't as bad as the situation Rio is facing. 

Munich 1972

The 1972 Munich Olympics stand out as one of the most tragic Games in history, with the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by a Palestinian militant group called Black September. A West German police officer was also killed and five Palestinians died. 

People stand at a memorial for the victims of the 1972 terror attack during a service in the former Olympic athletes village in Munich in August 2002. (Reuters)

The Games paused after the crisis, but then resumed in defiance of the attackers.


Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.

With files from CBC Sports, CBC Digital Archives and The Associated Press


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