Anthropologist Erika Larkins Recaps The Challenges, Criticism, And Success Of The 2016 Rio Olympics
In the years since its selection as the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics, Rio de Janeiro has drawnstrong opinions both domestically and abroad about the sustainability and feasibility of the global sporting event. Despite security concerns and health issues - and even a fabricated robbery by American swimmer Ryan Lochte that generated international headlines - University of Oklahoma anthropologist Erika Larkins says the games went off without a hitch.
“A lot of people were complaining that the services weren't as good as they were in London and that they paid a lot of money for tickets, and in some cases the venues ran out of food. You couldn't even get a bag of popcorn without standing in line for an hour,” Larkins said. “But maybe that kind of stuff doesn't really matter. I think this is maybe where Rio has a gold medal. Maybe the Olympics, are really about sports, and about people coming together.”
Many U.S. athletes elected to stay home from the games due to concerns about the Zika virus or water quality issues that could affect open water events. But Larkins said many people reported not even encountering mosquitos during their time in South America.
“I've been bit more in Oklahoma since I've been back than I was in Rio. And so I think we don't have to worry about that moving forward,” Larkins said. “As for the water stuff - it would have been great if they had cleaned up the water. It would have been a wonderful legacy for Rio. It doesn't look like it's going to have any health impacts on athletes.”
However, while the Games’ events, competitions, and ceremonies may have been successfully executed, Larkins says media coverage and international treatment surrounding the Rio Olympics have underscored existing divides in Brazilian politics. Protestors were a frequent sight before and during the games.
“There was some political protest during the Olympics. Not anything big or violent, but people simply holding up signs against the interim president, and questioning the state of Brazilian democracy,” Larkins said. “And those were very quickly, the camera would pan way from those very quickly, and they tried very hard to sort of scrub all images of that from the broadcast.”
Larkins also said sports aren’t democratic, and global economic divides become apparent and can determine who succeeds during the Olympics.
“It's not always about who's the best athlete, it's about who has the best training, who had the best equipment. Of course, there’s these natural talent issues, but also, it isn’t. It’s about opportunity and access to resources,” Larkins said. “You can see that a lot in the Opening Ceremonies, when you look at just the number of the delegations: how big the U.S. is, how many athletes they send. I always end up rooting for the country that has, like, one athlete, that was able to send one person.”
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On the Lochte scandal
I think it was also deeply insulting to a lot of Brazilians and maybe one detail of the story in particular, which was that whenLochte invented this story, he said that he had been robbed by police, by men, maybe they were police, or they were wearing police uniforms. Rremember that there was something like 80,000 security personnel that were deployed to Rio for the Olympics. Those people, took-- I mean, how does it feel when you've spent years preparing for something like that and your number one goal is to keep athletes safe, to suddenly sort of have your profession being represented as dishonest people that would potentially hold up, you know, swimmers at gunpoint, on a, you know, on a dark night? And I think that maybe in some ways, that's why the story didn't end. That's why we actually found out what happened, because I think that those people took this invention very, very personally, because it was a criticism of the security apparatus there and also a criticism of all of the work that they had done to keep athletes safe.
On media coverage
I heard here that NBC was very criticized for sort of overdoing the human interest story. On the Brazilian side, there was none of that at all. And something else, there was no commercials. Or very few commercials. So literally, you were just watching the sports. And so, it was weird, because when we watch the Olympics, so much of what makes it for us, or what makes it more interesting, are those stories. And so it was interesting seeing it in, you know, from Rio and not having that. At the same time, you can kind of feel the energy around it by being there live which is really different.
SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Erika Larkins, welcome back to World Views.
ERIKA LARKINS: Thank you for having me.
GRILLOT: It's always great to have you here and to catch up on Brazil. You are fresh back in the country, having just spent the past year in Brazil, and of course the Olympics, which was a big part of your whole life in the past year. You've been studying it, you're writing a book about it, about security at the Olympics. So you spent a lot of time with the Olympic officials, and had kind of an insider view. Now, we've talked coming up to the Olympics about what to expect and kind of how things are going to play off now, but overall, I mean, we didn't see any of the potential difficulties or challenges they were facing, certainly, there in Rio. But were there many? I mean, give us the more accurate view of what perhaps you saw there.
LARKINS: I don't think that -- there really were not that many. I mean I think overwhelmingly, it went off without a hitch. You know, of course, the representation in the media up until the end, I think, was pretty critical. I think a lot of people were complaining that the services weren't as good as they were in London and that they paid a lot of money for tickets and, you know, in some cases the venues ran out of food, you know, you couldn't even get a bag of popcorn without standing in line for, you know, an hour, but maybe that kind of stuff doesn't really matter. Maybe, you know -- and so I think this is maybe where Rio has a gold medal, is that maybe this, the Olympics, are really about sports, and about, you know, people coming together and all of that aesthetic stuff just doesn't matter.
GRILLOT: So, there were some very interesting events that happened throughout, obviously, as if Ryan Lochte didn't get enough press, or you know, attention from what happened with that scandal - the lie about being mugged at gunpoint - but I want to bring it up, because the Brazilians obviously took this very personally. I mean, it's like the Brazilians were expecting everything to go well and, and were working hard, I guess. Let's put it that way. Working hard for it to go well, and so this was something that they just couldn't stand for, they couldn't, you know, they didn't want something like this to happen, but then they certainly wanted to demonstrate that it didn't happen. It was more of a PR move, perhaps, on the Brazilian part.
LARKINS: Yeah, I think it was also, you know, deeply insulting to a lot of Brazilians and maybe one detail of the story in particular, which was that, you know, when Lochte invented this story, he said that he had been robbed by police, by men, maybe they were police, or they were wearing police uniforms. You know, remember, that there was something like 80 thousand security personnel that were deployed to Rio for the Olympics. Those people, took-- I mean, how does it feel when you've spent years preparing for something like that and your number one goal is to keep athletes safe, to suddenly sort of have your profession being represented as dishonest people that would potentially hold up, you know, swimmers at gunpoint, on a, you know, on a dark night. And I think that you know, maybe in some ways, that's why the story didn't end. That's why we actually found out what happened, because I think that those people took this invention very, very personally, because it was a criticism of the security apparatus there and also a criticism of all of the work that they had done to keep athletes safe.
GRILLOT: And possibly even Brazilian culture. I mean, it's, it's highlighting, you know, one of the stereotypes, if you will -- and stereotypes are based on part, at least, on, on some truth -- but the stereotype that Rio is a very dangerous place. And, you know, a lot of people didn't actually go, because of the concerns with their safety and security and then of course health, which I want to get to. But they worked hard, as you said, to try to prevent that, but it also kind of perpetuates that view that Brazil is an unsafe country and that Rio in particular is an unsafe city.
LARKINS: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that's partly, you know, why people were so upset. I mean, the idea that it could be true, you know, was deeply insulting to people. And I think it raised another point, you know, which is maybe this is a takeaway for the larger Olympics, you know: is this about sports? Or is this about huge athlete parties and, you know, sponsor houses that are for, you know, the elite, or is this sort of something for everyone, and I think where Lochte took a lot of flak in, you know, social media and in the press was that, you know, these are very privileged athletes coming from sort of the quote-unquote developed world, treating something, somewhere like Rio, as a place that's just there for, you know, them to make a mess of. And I think that sort of dynamic was a really important one that the case showed us.
GRILLOT: Did some of that play out in the sports too? It seems like we've seen a few stories here and there of how, again, kind of developed versus you know, developing world, you know, which is something that I guess plays out in most Olympics. I mean again, the athletes that are able to train, you know, in the developed world, that have those kind of financial resources, the support for a team like, you know, the United States Olympic team that, you know, which won, of course, an enormous number of medals, that there really is that almost perpetuation of the divide between the Global North and the Global South in some way.
LARKINS: No, absolutely. And people noted that. You know, watching the Olympics, at one point you know, when I was in the security center, somebody said "oh, Michael Phelps has more medals than Brazil does," you know, and also I would get asked a lot, you know, "well how do you feel; are you rooting for the U.S. or are you rooting for Brazil?" And it's true, you know, that it's not, you know -- sports aren't democratic either. It's not always about who's the best athlete, it's about who has the best training, who had the best equipment, you know. Of course there's these natural talent issues also but, you know, it isn't. It's about opportunity, and access to resources, and that's -- you can see that a lot in the Opening Ceremonies, when you look at just the number of the delegations: how big the U.S. is, how many athletes they send, you know, as opposed-- so I always end up voting for, you know, rooting for the country that has, like, one athlete, that was able to send one person.
GRILLOT: Yeah, right, the underdogs. And, and like, the refugee team, right…
GRILLOT: …I mean that was just a team that perhaps, you know, was representing people from around the world and was being kind of cheered on you know, around the globe, and so there were so, so many great stories like that. People that engaged in great sportsmanship, you know: the runners that fell and then helped each other up and cross the line, and I think we're provided a medal for that. But then also, bad sportsmanship comes out too, right? There was some of the track and field controversies, and of course the Russian controversy with the doping scandal, which we've talked on the show about in the past couple of weeks. So, I mean, I guess the Olympics, like most things, you get a little bit of everything: politics, history, culture, and, of course, great, you know, human stories, and then challenging stories or competition.
LARKINS: Yeah, and I think you can absolutely see that in the media coverage. You know, I heard here that, you know, NBC was very criticized for sort of overdoing the human interest story. On the Brazilian side, there was none of that at all. So you-- and something else, there was no commercials. Or very few commercials. So literally, you were just watching the sports. And so, it was weird, because when we watch the Olympics, so much of what makes it for us, or what makes it more interesting, are those stories. And so it was interesting seeing it in, you know, from Rio and not having that. At the same time, you can kind of feel the energy around it by being there live which is really different.
GRILLOT: Yeah. It is an interesting point, on how different countries do treat these types of big events, because I can tell you, having watched it every night here in the United States, there were a lot of commercials - it's highly commercialized, and it was almost like watching the Super Bowl every day, right? I mean people pull out their biggest and best commercials, because you know, that's where the people are watching at that point in time. So it's a very different treatment.
LARKINS: Yeah, and I mean, I think in some ways this is maybe a good lesson from Rio is that maybe all of that commercialization is too much. You know, maybe people don't want that. Maybe people also just want to see the sports, and not get all the stories.
GRILLOT: Well certainly there was some criticism as well, here in the United States, about treatment of athletes, you know, these human interest stories treating them differently, you know, female athletes that were, you know-- their victories were credited to their, you know, male counterparts or their male, you know, coaches, or their male spouses, or whatever, but, you know, not so much for the men. I mean, did you see that kind of reflection in Brazil as well? I mean, there were a lot of Brazilian female athletes that did very well at the Olympics, and so how are they perceived vis-à-vis, you know, their male counterparts, the male athletes?
LARKINS: I think it's really similar, you know, to here. You could also see it in the stadiums. You know, the women's sports, with the exception of gymnastics, tended to have lower attendance, and the tickets were less expensive. And so, you know, it's the same kinds of dynamics that you see. I've always said about Olympics and about mega-events in general is that they're not separate from everything else It's not just this exceptional Olympics. They're just places where you can see all these other dynamics happening in greater relief. It's sort of easier to see because of the sort of volume and the spectacle of the event itself. So it doesn't surprise me that there's these same issues around you know, gender and inequality, around democracy, around how to develop, you know, developed versus developing world. It makes sense that all of these things would appear.
GRILLOT: That they all play out in that type of environment. Well, so, tell us a little bit about the Brazilian response, because I know that there were some protests, there were some stories of those who protested, especially here at-- Brazil is of course a very important regional player, but they're spending, you know-- their financial situation isn't the best. I mean, they're struggling economically, and yet they've spent an enormous amount of money on these Olympics; obviously, countries, you know, choose to do that because they think they're going to make money, but it almost always doesn't pan out that way. But what is the kind of economic response and the social response to this big event from that perspective, in terms of affecting political life day to day?
LARKINS: Now, I think, there's going to be like a post-Olympic, I don't know, like a mega event hangover, I guess, for a lack of a better way of putting it, you know. There's been this whole story about the buildup - can we do it, can we pull it off, is it going to be a disaster and what would that mean to us. Now, I think, you know, and even, I mean, the people that protested the most against the Olympics that had objected the most, while they were still critical, I don't think anyone wanted this to go badly. I think everyone wanted this to be a great success, and I think that Brazilians are proud of how it went. I think they do feel like they showed the world that they could do this. Now the question is-- the economy is in the tank, the political situation is very divided, I mean, the, the country is very divided, and, you know, none of that's going to change any time soon. So, now what? And I think that's really unclear. You know, there was some political protest during the Olympics, not anything big or violent or anything, but people simply holding up signs, you know, against the current, the interim president, and, you know, questioning the state of Brazilian democracy. And, you know, those were very quickly-- the camera would pan way from those very quickly, and they tried very hard to sort of scrub all images of that from the broadcast. And, you know, even in the opening ceremonies, the interim president chose not to be introduced because he didn't want to be booed. This is like, the first time that's ever happened, and it's an enormous break with protocol. So I think that just indicates how deeply divided things are, and sort of what the way out of that is going to be is sort of yet to be seen. I don't think it's going to be an easy one, and I think it's going to be hard for them to find consensus, you know. And also, up until now, the mayor in Rio has been able to - as a really important political figure - has really been able to sort of keep a lid on investigations into where all the money for the Olympics has gone - who got the building contracts, was this all done fairly, or not. And I think already, with the close of the Olympics, you're starting to get a little bit of a push to open those books more, so I think there's going to be some questions about whether or not all of this, you know, the beautiful games were built on practices that were not very equitable. You know, and I think that we're probably going to find out that the answer is “yes” to that. And it'll be interesting to see if that's going to really tarnish the people's opinion of how the Olympics went off overall.
GRILLOT: Well that will be interesting to watch for sure. But I, very quickly, before we finish-- Erika, I have to get to this health issue, because a lot of people again decided not to go to Brazil or there was some significant concern for the athletes and those who went about zika and other types of, you know, water-borne illnesses that they were concerned about. So just very quickly, what was your impression of the health situation and do we have any concerns, kind of longer term, given, you know, people are now are going to go back to their home countries having been exposed perhaps to something, or are we not worried about that?
LARKINS: I don't think we're worried about it. You know, overwhelmingly, people said they never even saw a single mosquito the whole time that they were there. I have to say, I've been bit more in Oklahoma since I've been back, than I was in Rio. And so, I think that, you know, we don't have to worry about that moving forward. You know, as for the water stuff, too, I mean it would have been great if they had cleaned up the water. It would have been a wonderful legacy for Rio. It doesn't look like it's going to have any health impacts on athletes. So, it looks like in that sense, Rio maybe got a - I don't know if we want to say a gold, but, [laughs] at least it's close to the podium.
GRILLOT: At least for now, from what we can tell. Alright, thank you so much, Erika, for giving us the update. Welcome back to Oklahoma. It's great to have you home, and we will continue to talk about and watch what's going on in Brazil and in Rio in particular, so thank you.
LARKINS: Thank you.
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