As Curtain Falls on Rio Games, Time Has Come for Journalists to Eat Their Hats

The powers-that-be in Brazil organized a well-run Olympics in near-perfect venues, despite skeptics' predictions. Meanwhile, I've become a total sports junkie.

Tourists at the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, August 20, 2016.
Philippe Lopez/AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO – So that’s it. The Olympics are over. This huge and amazing demonstration of human ability ended Sunday. But the real finale was the previous day, and was much more emotional, at the Maracana Stadium in front of 88,000 spectators. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house; many were standing.

It was during the soccer finals between Brazil and Germany. All 88,000 people roared, whistled, drummed and applauded with such force that the stadium’s massive concrete pillars began to trembled and my ears were totally deafened. Did the engineers who built the Maracana take into account that the crowd would be Brazilian? If not, then it’s the most dangerous place in Rio.

Brazil scored a historic win over Germany, two years after being beaten during the World Cup 7-1. The Brazilian win was thanks to its star Neymar, who both scored the first goal and clinched the victory with a penalty shot during overtime. Half the stadium was wearing his jersey – the yellow-and-green one with No. 10 on it. Today I’m going to buy one for myself. Who says I can’t?

Until now Brazil had won every possible international soccer title except for the Olympic gold. But it achieved that final mission on Saturday night, and all of Rio celebrated in the streets until dawn with samba dancing and beer. It even seemed a little more joyful than our celebrations in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv.

It was a great victory for Brazil, and a small victory for me. After all, you already know how much I love Brazil and its people, and my readers also know how much I detest Germany and its people. So thank you, Brazil.

Why was it so short?

When I got to Rio nearly three weeks ago, I thought I was overdoing it. Three weeks is a long time to hang around. Where did I ever get the notion that I have to see all the competitions? I was a little jealous of my colleague Nahum Barnea of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, who had come for only a week. How would I survive all this time?

But within two days I’d become a total sports junkie, and I began running between all the fields and arenas. Today I’m really sad that it’s all over. It went by too quickly. What’s two-and-a-half weeks? What would be so bad about seeing sports at the highest possible level in the world for another week? Is it not better than witnessing the pseudo-wrestling matching between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon? After all, I didn’t get to watch all 32 sports; the distance between the different venues didn’t permit it.

My colleague Ron Kaufman told me before I flew over here that I should also go see some unusual sports that are unknown in Israel but are interesting – like field hockey, for example. I wanted to do that but it didn't happen. Isn’t that too bad? Couldn’t they extend the competitions just a little bit longer?

Yes, it was a success

Many journalists found themselves in a serious ethical dilemma. They had predicted that the Olympics would be a massive failure due to their arrogant attitude toward Brazil. They wrote 1,000 times that Brazil wasn’t capable of managing such an operation, that none of the facilities would be ready, that the transportation wouldn’t operate properly, that athletes would fall victim to crime and that the Zika virus would consume everyone.

But it all turned out to be a big lie. The facilities were in near-perfect shape, the transportation was fine, and the hospitality was very good. Of course there were glitches, as could be expected in such a huge enterprise. There were screw-ups in London and in Beijing, too.

But journalists can’t admit their mistakes, and certainly won't respond to allegations that they exaggerated or lied to get ratings. That’s why they invented all kinds of “glitches” to focus on during the Games. And we’re talking about silly things, like stadiums that weren’t full, particularly the track-and-field arena. Okay, so it wasn’t full – so what? Brazilians aren’t so thrilled by track and field. They filled the Maracana for the soccer matches, but didn’t watch athletics en masse. That’s their right.

And Rio isn’t like London or in Europe, where a guy can get up in the morning in Brussels, say, pay 100 euros and fly off to London to watch an international high-jump competition. To get to Rio from anywhere else takes an entire day and 1,000 euros. What’s more, there were large, impressive facilities built here that are hard to fill. It’s meaningless to include in the statistics all kinds of less popular events, like women’s soccer, which draw fewer fans but take place in a huge stadium.

Then the media claimed that Rio’s residents didn’t even know there was an Olympics going on and that the Games didn’t resonate at all in the city itself. Another lie. Everyone knew; it was the talk of the town, and most people were pleased about it. In downtown Rio, the organizers dedicated a special long boulevard to the Games, which they filled with related attractions and huge screens on which the events were broadcast all day long to large audiences. There were also souvenir shops, huge billboards, and even landscaping elements in the shape of the “Rio 2016” logo. But it’s much cooler to declare that Rio’s residents were unaware, following a comprehensive investigative report that included an interview with a clerk in a local supermarket who said he could care less.

There were also long items devoted to “the severe shortage of volunteers.” That’s a problem at every Olympics. Volunteers are convinced that they’ll be chosen to accompany the Queen of England to her seat at the golf course, but when they end up standing in the sun, directing people to the nearest bathroom, they decide not to show up the next day. They’re not getting paid, after all. In any case, at the Olympic Park and Olympic Village there were enough volunteers, perhaps too many.

And what about the numerous articles that predicted that thieves would disrupt the games? Those same journalists pounced on the story of American swimmer Ryan Lochte who excitedly told the media that he had been in a taxi that was held up at gunpoint by thieves who stole his wallet and those of his three teammates. Who needed more than that? Here was the proof! For two days this story topped all the TV broadcasts. It was the smoking gun.

But it quickly turned out that Lochte is violent – and a liar. There had never been a robbery at all. The four swimmers were coming back drunk from a party and tried to enter a gas station bathroom, which was locked. Without hesitating they started to yell at and shove the worker at the station, demanding that he open it. He refused and they kicked in the bathroom door. When a security guard called police, they told the officers a fabricated story about a hold-up, and then ran to the airport to catch the next plane to the States. Lochte managed to flee, but the others were arrested before they could fly out. The police plan to charge them with a break-in. They already paid, however, for the damage they caused.

So it’s true that Rio suffers from crime, including muggings of tourists, all year long. But during the Games the authorities deployed thousands of soldiers and policemen throughout the city, and they were out in force on every corner, contributing to a feeling of security and deterring criminals, such that the issue wasn’t even on the Olympic agenda. The problem was that Lochte’s lies made headlines, while the truth was reported much more modestly. It didn’t serve the media’s narrative.

A double-header

My main goal in going to Rio was to see the legendary American swimmer Michael Phelps and the no-less-legendary sprinter Usain Bolt in action. Before I left several “Olympic experts” told me that I had no chance of seeing Bolt run the 100 meters, because attending an event in such high demand meant getting special tickets and I’d never get one. It was actually another journalist, Uzi Dan of Haaretz, who said, “Don’t worry, you’ll manage. You might not even need a ticket.”

But I was worried. To fly to Rio and not see Bolt? That would be nothing short of a historic failure. It would be like Moses who couldn’t enter the Promised Land. So I gave in to my fears and bought a ticket in advance that cost a fortune. (I’m embarrassed to say how much it cost because you might make fun of me.) And then it turned out that Uzi Dan was right. The organizers decided not to restrict entry, and I was easily able to get into the press section, located right at the 100-meter finish line, as the expensive ticket burned in my pocket.

So, you’ll ask, why didn’t you sell it to one of the thousands of people milling around outside? Because the stories about muggings and robberies every second and everywhere had done their job. The lies affected me, too. I was afraid that the minute I offered the ticket for sale, it would end in a violent robbery. So I kept the ticket, and was out my money. Let it atone for my sins.

Oren Smadja forever

Last week I wrote about Oren Smadja’s world-class ego. At the press conference in honor of Or Sasson’s bronze medal in judo, Smadja, the coach of the men’s judo team, talked only about himself. Someone from Mars who would have stumbled into that press conference would have been convinced that it was Smadja himself who had won the medal, not Sasson.

This week I unearthed some more details about Smadja’s delusions of grandeur. Immediately after that press conference he sent some embarrassing text messages to a few journalists, reminding them not to forget to mention that he was the only one to win an Olympic medal both as a competitor and as a coach. He even made sure that a large sign to this effect would greet him when he made his royal landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

At that same victory press conference for Sasson, Smadja said, “I’ve been killing myself for four years, and now I need to take a long exotic vacation with my family, and I might not return to coach the team.” The entire world is holding its breath. Smadja won’t coach? How will the sun come up again in the morning? He even added words of thanks to his wife, who had barely seen him for four years because of his devoted work. It reminded me of all the polite thank-yous offered by those who win important awards. But Smadja didn’t win! Or Sasson won, remember? Perhaps he managed to confuse you, too!

Immediately after he landed in Israel, Smadja was invited to a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where the coach told him he was thinking of quitting. By then it was old news, but the shocked Netanyahu immediately wrote a Facebook post urging Smadja not to resign. It’s clear that Netanyahu doesn’t believe Smadja’s idle threats. It’s even clearer that he doesn’t care who coaches whom in judo.

But last Friday Smadja topped everything, telling one interviewer that he is “a shy guy who grew up on the values of family and friends Publicity is good, but in some ways it just made me more withdrawn.” Withdrawn? Really, now. There is no one on earth who talks more about himself. There is no one who glorifies himself more. If that’s shyness, what’s openness?

And it’s not just an ego problem. Stealing the limelight from Israel's judokas does them a disservice. If they are dwarfed by Smadja, then they don’t get the recognition and honor they deserve, and they lose some of their motivation. They will also get less funding budgets and fewer sponsors, because the focus is all on Smadja.

That’s how international glory fades. The 31st Olympic Games are over, and only Oren Smadja remains. See you in Tokyo – with Oren Smadja, of course.