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Ollan Cassell signing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics poster in Rio; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

The doomsayers had their say – the Rio Olympics, under the crushing weight of the poor economy, scandals, environmental and health scares, worries of security, would fail.

Ollan Cassell has seen it all. As a member of the 4X400 US men’s track relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as in his role as the executive director of the Amateur Athletic Union, the American governing body for 17 sports in his time, Cassell has been to every Olympics since 1964, excepting the Athens Olympics in 2004.

So when he arrived in Rio, he read all the stories about the problems. He certainly noticed the empty stands. And he put up with the traffic snarls that paralyzed the city during the Games. But Cassell knew that once the Games started, the problems would fade to the background.

The org committee was broke, the country is in a mess. They threw their president out. They didn’t have the finances to get things done. But like all the other Olympics, for the athletes with medals on the line, they‘re ready to compete. Regardless of what the situation is, once the Olympics roll around the athletes are ready. The athletes are focused on competing and wining regardless of what’s going on. When the lights go on, and the gun goes off, the press writes about how great the games are.

And what was the most amazing event Cassell witnessed? “The most spectacular event I saw in Brazil was that 400 meter world record (set by Wayde van Niekerk). I couldn’t imagine anyone could go 43.3 seconds. It’s like going 21.5 for two 200s!”

There were of course fears of security. Cassell was in Mexico City when hundreds were killed as government troops thwarted an anti-government protest prior to the start of the 1968 Olympics. Cassell was in Munich when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli Olympians and coaches in 1972. But Cassell felt safe in Rio de Janeiro. Accompanied by his daughter, Cassell played tourist and was comforted by the presence of security.

 

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Ollan Cassell at Christ the Redeemer; from the collection of Ollan Cassell

 

As was true with the world cup in Brazil, there were about 75000 to 80000 soldiers. I felt safe. No one in my group had been robbed or held up. The military was patrolling all the time. When you went out into the streets, sightseeing, you would see the military trucks with open beds and machines guns driving through the area. It was like an armed camp, but you felt safe. They had barriers in the sightseeing areas, big steel barriers the kind police use when they want to direct car and foot traffic into certain area. They were imposing. But that’s been true at all the Games. In London, they had barriers to make sure you went where they wanted you to go.

As for the environmental or health issues, to Cassell, it wasn’t an issue. “I didn’t hear of anyone getting sick because of the water. And I saw only one mosquito, which my granddaughter killed.”

But perhaps, one of the most satisfying parts of an Olympian’s life is to re-connect with the Olympian fraternity.

It’s a special feeling – being an Olympian. There are so few of us compared to the population of the world. In Olympic Villages there are about 10,000 Olympians, which is a select group. In the United States, there are about 5,000 living Olympians, with quite a few in their 90s. So it’s wonderful to see old friends and Olympians at these events.

To read about Ollan Cassell and the history of international sports from the 1960s to the 1990s, read his absorbing book, Inside the Five Ring Circus: Changing Global Sports and the Modern Olympics.

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A napping stray cat on the Escadaria Selarón staircase

On September 12, 1964, a month prior to the opening of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Mainichi Daily News published the last of a 15-part UPI series entitled, “Great Cities of the World”. The article was entitled “Rio: The City of Marching For Tomorrow”, a meaningless title really. The theme was a familiar one for emerging markets at the time: a fascinating city in a far-off land that was growing rapidly into prominence.

Below are a few of the highlights from that article about the city of Rio de Janeiro that provide us with hints to what has changed, and what has not over the past 52 years.

The Same

  • Corruption: “Rio is still Brazil’s center of political intrigue and corruption.” The article goes on to state that the laws are made in the recently established government seat, Brasilia, but that “the deals are made in elegant Copacabana Beach apartments owned by leading politicians, or by their mistresses, distant relatives or front men.” For sure, this is still true.
  • Industry: “Rio, outside the big coffee-and-automobile complex of Sao Paulo, has managed to win a positions in the textile, food processing and electronics industries.” Coffee and cars are still big exports for Brazil, as are textiles, electronics, aircraft, iron ore and orange juice.
  • Umbanda: “Umbanda claims 30,000 followers in Rio, but the signs would indicate more.” This uniquely Brazilian religion, a fusion of Roman Catholicism, African traditions, and indigenous American beliefs, is still a viable religion, with estimates of 400,000 followers in Brazil, with many of them likely in Rio.
  • Feral Cats: “No reformer has yet suggested doing away with Rio’s half-wild stray cats, numbering countless thousands, which dominate every park, alley and quiet street and no one is likely to attack them. A lot of Cariocas believe cats have ‘the souls of people.'” Rio, apparently, is still a cat haven.

 

Not the Same

  • Population: The population in 1964 was 3million. Today, Rio is creaking with a population over 11 million.
  • Maracana Stadium: Rio still goes crazy for soccer and plays big games in the Maracana Stadium. However, back in 1964, the stadium held an astounding 230,000 people. After the stadium was renovated and re-opened in 2013, it now seats 78,000.
  • Guanabara Bay: “The sparkling blue beauty of Guanabara Bay…”: That certainly isn’t a phrase bandied about these days.

 

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Guanabara Bay

Always

Fun in the Face of Solemnity and Challenge: As was true in 1964, it is still true today: the symbol of devout Catholic belief, Christ the Redeemer, is seen as a symbol of faith and peace, and at the same time, an expression of sweet cynicism. As the article stated, “‘He’s not giving His blessings,’ Cariocas like to wisecrack. ‘He is shrugging His shoulders.'”

christ the redeemer