Rio Golf Course a year later
July 27, 2017 Guanabara bay. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Eight months before the start of the Rio Olympics, I wrote a post entitled: “Brazil’s Olympian Challenge: Everything.”

Unemployment in Brazil was 10%. Inflation was 10%. Brazil’s credit rating was junk status. The currency had devalued by a third at that point in December 2015.

Guanabara Bay, where the boat competitions would take place, was getting horrific PR due to pictures displaying the filthiest waters you’d never want to wade through.

The president of Brazil, Dilma Rouseff, was in the process of being deposed for corruption, as news of the biggest corruption investigation in Brazilian history was splashed across the news headlines on a daily basis.

And I wrote all that even before the Zika Virus became a thing.

A year later, not all that much has improved in Rio de Janeiro.

As this good AP summary of Rio a year later states, you could say there was some good to come out of the Rio Olympics.

The Olympics left behind a new subway line extension, high-speed bus service and an urban jewel: a renovated port area filled with food stands, musicians and safe street life in a city rife with crime. These probably would not have been built without the prestige of the Olympics. But the games also imposed deadlines and drove up the price. A state auditor’s report said the $3-billion subway was overbilled by 25 per cent.

Guanabara Bay a year later
July 27, 2017 Guanabara bay. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

But generally, the bad according to that article outweighed the good.

  • The Olympics left a half-dozen vacant sports arenas in the Olympic Park and 3,600 empty apartments in the boarded-up Olympic Village. Deodoro, a major complex of venues in the impoverished north, is shuttered behind iron gates.
  • A $20-million golf course is struggling to find players and financing. A few dozen were on the course on a recent, sunny Saturday. The clubhouse is mostly unfurnished, and it costs non-Brazilians 560 reals ($180) for 18 holes and a cart.
  • Since the Olympics, the bankrupt state of Rio de Janeiro has ceased major efforts to clean the bay, its unwelcome stench often drifting along the highway from the international airport. “I think it’s gotten worse,” Brazil’s gold-medal sailor Kahena Kunze said in a recent interview. “There was always floating trash, but I see more and more. It’s no use hiding the trash because it comes back. I figured it would get worse because I haven’t seen anything concrete being done.”
  • Some of the politicians behind the Olympics have been accused of graft, and organizers still owe creditors about $30 million to 40 million. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who wept when Rio was awarded the games, was convicted last month on corruption charges and faces a 9 1/2-year prison term. He is appealing. Former Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes , the local moving force behind the Olympics, is being investigated for allegedly accepting at least 15 million reals ($5 million) in payments to facilitate construction projects tied to the games. He denies wrongdoing.

The Rio Olympic organizers are still struggling under the weight of an approximate USD40 million debt. When the organizers appealed to the IOC for relief, the IOC replied no, saying “it had already contributed a record $1.53 billion to the Rio Olympics.

Fortunately, the Brazilian government was able to find more sympathetic ears in the British government. It was announced on August 1, 2017 that the British government would donate GBP80 million (over USD100 million) to Brazil, the ninth largest economy, to help “reduce poverty and fund economic development.”

Of course, it’s not all bad news.

At least Ryan Lochte, the American swimmer who lied about being robbed at gunpoint at a Rio gas station, was actually cleared last month of charges that he falsely communicated a crime to authorities.

Yay!

Neymar nails the final penalty kick to win gold

On August 5, 2016, all eyes were on Rio de Janeiro.

Despite all the doomsayers’ diatribes about political corruption, the fears of the zika virus, the filth of Guanabara Bay, and the anemia of the Brazilian economy, the Games went on. And the Games were great!

Anthony Howe's Olympic sun

In the moving opening ceremony, the famed Brazilian love for music and dance were on display. Super model Gisele Bundchen strolled across the field to the tune of The Girl from Ipanema. The honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron was given unexpectedly to Athens marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, whose 2004 Olympic marathon was bizarrely interrupted by a defrocked Irish priest. And the cauldron de Lima lit was stunning, the fire’s light reflected magnificently in a shining, swirling structure of metal places and balls, creating a spectacular golden vision of the sun.

A bright spot for the IOC was highlighting the plight of the global refugee issue by forming an all-refugee team, an excellent idea!

And to be honest, from a sports perspective, if you bring the very best athletes in the world together, the drama of the competition will subsume almost all else (for good and for bad.)

For Brazilians, here were a few of their nation’s most inspirational stories, starting with Neymar’s winning penalty shot that sealed Brazil’s first even Olympic gold in soccer.

Here are a few other amazing stories I covered, particularly from a Asia/Japan perspective:

The Rio Olympics were far from perfect. But those Games a year ago today had its moments, many that will be remembered for decades.

No doubt, more await when we See You in Tokyo!

See you in Tokyo Rio Olympics

Monster Strike Kaekura memem
The Monster Strike mobile game ad in the Yamanote train in June, 2017.

I was on the Yamanote Line train when I looked up to see all in-car advertisements devoted to Japan’s #1 best-selling mobile game from 2016 – Monster Strike. I usually don’t care about mobile games, but the ad immediately caught my attention – animals in mid-stride racing together, on a dark black background.

It is exactly the same concept as the second of designer Yusaku Kamekura‘s poster in 1962, marketing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to come.

Kamekura emblem design_2

That same evening, I see a television commercial for a logistics company called Kuroneko Yamato, with nearly the exact same design concept. Kuroneko means “black cat”, so with a black cat leading five Kuroneko transportation men in a sprint, they put the bodies in action on a yellow background instead. And yet the nod to Kamekura’s poster design is unmistakable.

Kuro Neko Shinka
Kuroneko Takkyubin Ad

After Kamekura settled on a design for their second Tokyo Olympics poster (click here to see the first design that won Kamekura the Olympic account), he assigned Osamu Hayasaki as the photographer, and Jo Murakoshi as the director of the project. The idea was to employ photography for the second photo, instead of the mainstream use of illustrations.

Their idea must have been to capture the idea of speed and power, so they arranged to have men from the US Military (from the airbase in Tachikawa as I believe someone once told me) dress in track gear, and move as if exploding from starting blocks. As this site explains, they employed four photographers to snap a shot of the runners in motion, in the dark, pressing the shutter button just as they flashed strobe lights.

It is said that it took over 80 takes to get just the right balance for that poster.

And over 50 years later, this meme lives on.

Rio Closing Ceremony_3
From the 2016 Rio Olympics closing ceremony video tribute to Tokyo 2020

Nigel Talton likely imagined himself breaking the tape at a championship track meet, or even the Rio Olympics, but he probably didn’t imagine himself winning a sprint at SunTrust Park…between innings at Atlanta Braves games…in a teal-colored spandex suit with big blue goggles.

But when you’re an aspiring track star, you do what you must to pay the bills.

Working two jobs in order to afford to keep training in track, the 26-year-old from Fort Valley, Georgia had a moment on Friday, June 9, 2017 that most people or companies can only dream of – a video that goes viral.

Talton’s job is to play a superhero-like character called The Freeze, who races from the left field pole at SunTrust Park, around the warning track in front of the outfield fence to a finish line in right center field, against a fan who has a 200-foot head start. The Freeze almost always wins, but in this particular case, the fan celebrated just before reaching the finish line, only to be passed by The Freeze. The fan’s shock and subsequent face plant made the video must-see viewing, and made The Freeze a star.

According to track blog, FloTrack, while Talton is employed part-time by the Atlanta Braves as a ground keeper and The Freeze, he is a legitimate sprinter, with solid personal bests, including 10.47 in the 100 meters and 21.66 in the 200. But as FloTrack explained, world-class track is a highly competitive world. “Talton came out of college as an accomplished athlete, but in the cutthroat world of track and field, his times were not good enough to secure a sponsorship.”

And yet, Talton loves to run and does not want to give up on his dreams. In fact, he aims to make the 2018 World Indoors. “I just want to make a team before I’m done,” said Talton. “My route to that path was detoured, and this came upon me, so right now I’m just continuing to train… just training and saving up for next year.”

Nigel Talton and his alter ego The Freeze
Nigel Talton and his alter ego The Freeze
Except for the elite, most of those who have finished with college and the support it provides for track and field athletes have to enter the rat race. People like Talton have to scrape by to continue the dream.

“I just want to have the opportunity to train as a professional track runner,” Talton said in FloTrack. “I wish there was a program for us athletes. It’s so hard for us athletes that don’t have sponsors that have potential. It’s very hard, that’s why I work two jobs. I’m going to continue to keep my faith and continue working for the indoor season… It’s not about me, I’m just doing it to inspire others and to entertain.”

There’s no doubt that RaceTrac, the company that operates convenience stores throughout the southern part of the US, and sponsors this between-inning activity for the Atlanta Braves, has lucked into a marketing bonanza in promoting a frozen drink called “Numbskull.” The question is, can Talton leverage his 15-minutes of fame into sponsorship, and make it a little easier for this world-class sprinter to take his game to the next level.

“I never know what’ll happen out of this ‘Beat The Freeze’ contest,” Talton said in this Washington Post article. “I’m just blessed and waiting, waiting for whatever opportunity come across my way.”

Kevin Synder's gold medal
This photo provided by Kevin Snyder show Kyle Snyder’s damaged gold metal from the 2016 Rio Olympics on Tuesday, May 23, 2017, in Maryland.

The candidate team that submitted Rio’s bid for the 2016 Olympics were praised for their emphasis on sustainability – how they would revitalize their down-and-out urban areas, clean up their polluted waters, and build needed public transportation systems. They even promised to use recycled metals to build the gold, silver and bronze Olympic and Paralympic medals.

Unfortunately, many of those promises to make 2016 the Sustainability Olympics have not been kept. And as for the medals from the Rio Olympics, well, they are proving to be not so sustainable.

As I wrote in an August 2016 post, the medals were formed with mercury-free gold, and recycled silver and bronze. Even the ribbons were produced from recycled plastic bottles. According to this article, the medal manufacturer employed 80 people to handcraft the medals, who spent 48 hours making each one.

Unfortunately, recipients of the medals have begun to understand that all that gold does not glitter. You can see American wrestler Kevin Snyder‘s gold medal in the picture, which has a commonly reported issue – flaking and discoloring of the medal’s varnish. Apparently when a medal is dropped or rubbed up against other objects, the surface has been known to flake, particularly the silver medals. It has also been reported that the cover of medals have fallen off, but I am yet to see photographic evidence of that.

A spokesman for Rio2016 has explained that, perhaps, the medals were built for Brazilian heat. “We’re seeing problems with the covering on between six or seven percent of the medals, and it seems to be to do with the difference in temperatures,” Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada said, according to this NBC Sports report.

The good thing is that the medal factory is back in business as the Rio2016 organizers are promising to replace the medals. But American Kerri Walsh-Jennings, who won bronze in beach volleyball to complement her three golds from previous Olympics, has grown attached to her flaking bronze medal.

“They’ve offered to replace them. I’m not sure if I want to swap it out,” Walsh-Jennings told The Associated Press, adding the reason was “100 per cent sentimental.”

Lelisa Feyisa With_Family_NYCH_2017_Jane_Monti
Feyisa Lilesa with his wife Iftu, son Sora and daughter Soko, after winning the 2017 United Airlines NYC Half (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Since the time he left Rio de Janeiro, with a silver medal in the marathon from the Summer Olympic Games, Feyisa Lilesa has not been able to enjoy the triumphant return home to an adoring populace like most other Olympian medalists.

Instead, he lives a life a self-exile.

When he crossed the line to finish his marathon achievement in Rio, he crossed another line by extending his arms and crossing them in the shape of an X, with fists clenched. It was a clear sign to his country men and women in Ethiopia that Lilesa was outraged with his government, his arms raised in protest against his country’s leaders for the treatment of the country’s largest ethnic group which he belongs to – the Oromo. According to reports, hundreds of Oromo have been killed by Ethiopian troops, and thousands of others have been injured, arrested or disappeared, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

While the Ethiopian government has said Lilesa would be welcome back with arms wide open, he does not believe that. And in his new home in the arid desert of Arizona in the United States, in his lonely jogs, he is constantly reminded that a government agent of Ethiopia might be lurking to do him harm.

“There is nothing I could do to stop it if someone wanted to do something to me out there,” he says through an interpreter in a May 1 Sports Illustrated article. “I am alone, just like I am alone in this country. All I can do is stay strong and keep going.”

The time I first wrote about Lilesa in December, 2016, he truly was all alone, as he left his family behind when he defected to the United States. And according to the Sports Illustrated article, a remarkable interview, his wife, Iftu, let him know what a painful decision he had made when he first talked with her on the phone.

When Iftu called, he could not pick up the phone. He didn’t know what to say. It took him two days to call her back. There was fear and anger in her voice. “Why didn’t you tell us what you were doing?” she demanded. “You gave us this good life, and now our lives aren’t as good. What plan did you have? You’ve risked everything. Why did you make this decision?” She knew her husband had been pained for years. She knew that he felt stifled, that he’d kept quiet for fear of reprisal. She knew he had visited imprisoned protesters and had given clothing and training shoes to needy Oromo. Deep inside, she knew the answers to her questions.

She knew what is in his heart. And according to this fascinating article, Lilesa was thinking that he could make a difference if he was able to get a medal in Rio. This act of defiance was not a spontaneous act of a tired athlete who had just run hard for over two hours. It was premeditated.

Preparing for Rio, Lilesa felt desperate to call attention to a crisis largely ignored by the international community. He needed a medal. Only gold, silver and bronze finishers would get significant media coverage. He had won big races in Europe, the United States and Asia, including the Tokyo Marathon at the start of 2016. But he wasn’t a heavy favorite in Rio. His time in Tokyo had been 2:06:56, only the 31st-fastest marathon of the year. Rio would be the race of his life — a race for his people. He kept his plan a secret, even from his wife and children. If he’d told them, he would have been swallowed by emotion. If he had felt Iftu’s sorrow, he might have lost his nerve.

Feyisa Lilesa reunites with family
Feyisa Lelisa reunited with his familyafter six months of self exile

But he did not lose his nerve. And when given other opportunities – the Honolulu Marathon in December, 2016, or the London Marathon in April, 2017, Lilesa will cross his arms to show he is still thinking of his family members and friends who have suffered and perished. But now, he no longer is running this political marathon alone. On Valentine’s Day of 2016, Lilesa was re-united with his wife and children.

On Feb. 14 — six months after Feyisa said goodbye to them in Africa — his children leap into his arms in the Miami International Airport. Soko, a girl sharp and willful, seems beyond her years. Sora stands close. Near the baggage claim in the bright airport, they laugh and tease, and Feyisa picks them up and cuddles them. Moments later, he holds Iftu in a tight embrace. Tears stream from her brown eyes. With both hands, he wipes them away. Tears well in his own eyes, but he does his best to stand straight and keep them from falling.

Lelisa feels that tears will demonstrate weakness, for he does not want the government to believe that he is succumbing to the pressure.

Lelisa is not weak. He is stronger. But he is not happy.

“It is much better now, with my wife and children,” Lilesa says. “But if you put this on a scale of 1 to 100, I am only at 15 percent happiness. I am in exile, not for myself first and foremost but for my people. And my people are suffering. Going through hell. The situation has gotten worse. I have told you that right now I do not want to cry. The day I will cry is when my people win justice and freedom. That day, I cry nonstop, out of joy.”

Posto da Torre
Posto da Torre in Brasilia, Brazil.

The Posto da Torre is a busy gas station in Brazil’s government seat of Brasilia. Before 2013, Posto da Torre (Tower Gas Station) was just one of many of gas stations in the capitol. After 2013, Posto da Torre became the symbol of corruption in Brazil.

A drug investigation by police into a money exchange shop located on the Posta da Torre property revealed that billions of dollars secretly skimmed from the accounts of Petrobras, Brazil’s state oil enterprise, as well as construction companies, were moved into the hands and accounts of Brazil’s most prominent politicians. In fact, over 100 of Brazil’s top politicians have been implicated in what is today called Operation Car Wash, known in Portuguese as Operação Lava Jato.

One of the more well-known names caught up in web of Operation Car Wash is former mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, whose name has appeared on lists of people receiving payments from construction companies, presumably related to the development projects for the 2016 Rio Olympics. According to this post from Inside the Games, Paes is alleged to have received over USD5 million from from engineering giant Odebrecht.

Paes, who ended his role as mayor at the end of 2016, has denied wrongdoing, calling allegations “absurd”.

Former Brazil President, Henrique Cardoso is also under investigation for taking bribes from Odebrecht, has spoken recently about Operation Car Wash and its significance. “Car Wash has played a very important role in Brazil because it lifted the lid, which was necessary. But that will not resolve things immediately. It is a process,” he said in this Reuters article. “How do you change a culture? With time and by setting a good example – there is no other way.”

An interesting aside: there is no car wash in Posto da Torre. As The New York Times cheekily point out, the closest this Brasilia gas stop has to a car wash is a laundromat. At any rate, it is money that gets washed, not cars. When politicians will come clean is anyone’s guess.