COMMENT: Time for ever expanding Olympic Games to slim down and rediscover its soul

Ggeneral view of the Maracana Stadium from the hillsides in Rio de Janeiro
Ggeneral view of the Maracana Stadium from the hillsides in Rio de Janeiro

In the crackling hillside favelas that glower down upon the Rio Olympic Park, it is safe to assume they still care little for the rudiments of mixed doubles badminton.

One week in, and the International Olympic Committee’s decision to take the ever-growing Games to South America appears as precarious a choice as hooking up to the electrical cables which fizz across the cramped corridors of the desperate, precipitous suburbs.

The glib hope, of course, is that some of the city’s so-called disenfranchised youth will be inspired enough by their pin-prick glimpses of the action below to aspire to repeat the improbable journey of Brazilian judoka Raffaela Silva, who started in the notorious City of God and shot all the way to Olympic gold.

Such stories make one hesitate to heap scorn on a Games that has been drenched in difficulties every bit as moralistic as they are material. But at the heart of the problem is not so much the inevitable failings of this exuberant and wildly exciting city, with its economic crises and its presidents lurching into impeachment, but the insatiable maximalism of the International Olympic Committee itself.

Stumble around the soulless and three-quarter finished concrete void that is the Olympic Park, past the generic souvenir huts and the stalls selling soggy twelve-dollar cheeseburgers, and it is not hard to come to the realisation that these truly are the Games that ate themselves.

What is the point, you might ask, of the IOC’s enthusiasm for spreading the Games to South America if, when it finally gets there, it is purged of its stereotypical samba soul to the point that what remains is less the Girl from Ipanema, as the girl who works zero-hours in a Sports Direct warehouse in Shirebrook?

A good hour away on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema it is a different story. The beach volleyball courts strung across the sands present a timely reminder of this country’s passion for sport in so many forms.

Those with time and spare cash on their hands dribble of the charms of cobbled, historic Lapa or the ex-pat bolt-holes at the posh ends of the beaches where the moneyed jostle for selfies on the interminable medallist merry-go-round.

All of which serves to make the chain-linked ‘Olympic bubble’ all the more inexcusable. It saps that soul which is surely imperative in order to serve the Games’ single and long-forgotten purpose: inspiring kids to put down their Playstations and go out and get fit.

The Games that ate themselves continue to munch, Pac-Man style, up new levels of big-ness. In Tokyo in 2020, five new sports will be added.

It is perhaps representative of the all-pervading mood of capitalistic maximalism that two headline acts of the opening week can be offered up as ideal emblems of the IOC’s desire to continue to gorge.

It is there in the casual eagerness to crown Michael Phelps, beneficiary of a ludicrously over-stacked swimming programme, as the greatest Olympian ever; to hold him up as an inspiration for kids who might say, yes, I want to sacrifice my youth in order to be shaped and stretched into Olympic contention, and yes, one day I will too get to tattoo myself with blood-cup bruises in the name of sport.

Or in Kim Rhode, the Californian shooter who became the first summer Olympian to win medals at six straight Games and who likes, well, shooting things: even, if necessary, she says, her own government.

Neither do we in Britain escape the criticism, for embracing a climate in which great clumps of medals and funding targets take first place over individual moments of brilliance, where ever they may rank.

There are plenty of glorious things about the Rio Olympics. The volunteers and locals are delightfully eager to engage, whether or not they hold the Games at heart. And the sport, of course, shines through: you could stage the Olympics in that Shirebrook hangar and still guarantee a Saturday just as Super.

But these positives serve as mere tantalising glimpses into what the Games could and should be, and once probably were. They will not silence the self-satisfied creaking of ever-expanding waistlines, any more than they will the favela gunfire.

The Olympics were inaugurated as a bastion of honourable, amateur competition. They badly need to slim back down so they can once again see their feet.