A little over two years ago, International Olympic Committee vice-president John Coates described the state of Rio’s preparations to stage the 2016 Olympic Games as “the worst ever.”
Coates, speaking to Reuters at the time, said: “I think the situation is even worse than Athens.”
Those words sent a shiver down the spine of all those who remember how the Greek capital gave new meaning to the phrase ‘skin of the teeth’ with decorators washing out their paint brushes while spectators queued for the opening ceremony.
Now, with a matter of months to go before the opening of the Rio Games, things appear to have improved immeasurably. In April the IOC Coordination Commission made its final visit to the city and left with the encouraging words of chair Nawal El Moutawakel offering comfort and encouragement in more or less equal measure.
“Despite the complex political and economic context, we are confident that Brazil and the Brazilians are on track to deliver successful Olympic Games with an outstanding legacy,” she said.
“The last stretch is always the hardest. During the operational phase that we are entering now, there are thousands of details still to manage, and their timely resolution will make the difference between average Games and great Games.
“The Rio 2016 team is ready to rise to this challenge and deliver Olympic and Paralympic Games that will reflect Brazilians’ warmth, hospitality and passion for sports. We believe that Rio 2016 will make the host nation proud.”
It would have been altogether appropriate had the official statements been accompanied by the emoji indicating a long sigh of relief, because, yet again, the show will go on even if the preparations have gone right down to the wire.
Of course Brazil is in a difficult place right now. When the Games were awarded, the country was enjoying an economic boom that has since turned into a recession, which has inflamed political differences and sensitivities.
Add in the corruption scandal that has engulfed many of the country’s business and political leaders and you have a recipe for confusion and uncertainty that is far from the ideal environment for the precise management and clear decision-making that are the prerequisites of delivering any project – sporting or otherwise – on time.
However, Brazil has form in this regard. Football’s 2014 Fifa World Cup was considered a basket case for years before a final spurt of feverish activity got it over the line. Today the tournament is remembered for the football – notably the home team’s scarcely credible 7-1 mauling by Germany – and pre-event public protests about vast amounts of money being spent on stadia and not healthcare, education and public transport.
The world’s major sports events are massively complicated projects with a variety of moving parts, each of which has to be individually managed and delivered as part of a synchronised plan. The whole thing has to be delivered to an absolutely immovable deadline.
Talk to people who work in the events business and they will tell you that is part of the excitement, contributing to the adrenalin rush of being ready for show time.
The reality, though, is that for all the experience that has been accrued over the years and all of the knowledge-sharing initiatives put in place by the IOC and other major rights-holders, things can and do go wrong. The question is whether any of that really matters so long as everything is alright on the night.
Ahead of the Athens Games, just as story-hungry media types were dipping their pens in vitriol to expose lapses in security and last-minute preparations, a very senior IOC official put things in perspective.
“The fact is that so long as things happen on time and what is in front of the TV cameras looks perfect, everything will be fine,” he said.
As it happens, he was absolutely right. Athens 2004 may have been a financial disaster for Greece and a complete shambles in terms of legacy planning, but the Games delivered what it promised – great sport and compelling stories to a global audience who did not get a chance to peek behind the scenes.
Of course, Athens 2004 is far from the only event to have adopted ‘just in time’ as its maxim. The 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi was shambolic in almost every respect. A matter of weeks before the Games were due to open, facilities remained unfinished and the Scotland team issued an official statement describing the accommodation they had been allocated at the Athletes’ Village as “unsafe and unfit for human habitation.”
The Scotland team was moved to new and allegedly finished accommodation, but even then all was not well. Team Scotland management said even this “required serious cleaning and maintenance to bring it up to the necessary Gamesready standards” and were forced to go about it themselves with the help of Games volunteers.
With many facilities being completed at the last minute, the impression of Delhi as a disaster zone was heightened when a footbridge near the main Jawaharalal Nehru Stadium collapsed to cause injury, but mercifully no deaths.
While the Delhi Games came within a whisker of being boycotted by concerned nations and has since become a byword for corruption, inefficiency and commercial dishonesty – many contractors and consultants were left unpaid even though their un-contracted additional effort played a major role in ensuring the event took place – things got better when the sports action got underway.
So far as the watching world was concerned, an impressive opening ceremony – organised by an Australian company that was not paid at the time – acted as a bridge across the void between the chaos and corruption of the buildup and created a clean slate for the event and, thankfully, its competitors.
The Athens rules applied in full. It looked good on TV and gave the world entertainment and intrigue of a sporting rather than political nature.
According to Nigel Rushman, whose company, Rushmans, has worked on the planning and delivery of global sports events for more than 25 years, that may be all that can be asked of organisers.
“At the end of the day what really matters is that the whole thing comes together for the spectators, TV viewers and, of course, the competitors,” he told SportBusiness International.
“Different nations have different ways of doing things and I think it is ridiculous to expect that culture to change just because a sporting event is being organised and for every host to conform to a level of expectation set in Europe and North America.
“It’s important to look at the big picture and what is actually delivered, but sports event people can be very inward-looking. What appears to be absolutely critical to the person in charge of one area of event delivery may be a small detail and relatively unimportant in the overall scheme of things.
“Things don’t always go entirely according to plan, but I can’t think of a single major international event that simply has not happened because of management issues, even though the journey can sometimes be bumpy.
“Major events are the lifeblood of sport, but sport has not adapted a systemic way of thinking when it comes to organising them. If a major company had a project in Brazil they would have a specific plan to identify and deal with a specific set of local challenges. Sport finds it more difficult to adapt.