A fond farewell to the Rio Games

Fans await the start of the men’s beach volleyball gold medal match between Brazil and Italy at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016.
Fans await the start of the men’s beach volleyball gold medal match between Brazil and Italy at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016. AP

Farewell Olympic city, where the Christ the Redeemer statue, owner of one of the most spectacular vistas in the world, spreads his arms the same way Usain Bolt does at the finish line, as if to say, “Behold the wonder.”

The Rio Games were wonderful, especially considering all the panicky angst preceding them. They will be remembered for proving that it was past time for South America to be an Olympic host, not for the Zika outbreak that didn’t happen.

I return to Miami, Zika ground zero, with no mosquito bites but many new friends that I got to know on a first-name basis – because that is an endearing Brazilian custom.

The setting was sublime from every angle, whether looking up at or down from the Sugarloaf and Corcovado (Hunchback) peaks, whether admiring the beaches, which have a subculture of their own, or the bay.

Organizers took advantage of the landscape, situating beach volleyball at the heart of Copacabana, rowing and canoeing at the Lagoa, sailing in Guanabara Bay and cycling, triathlon, and the marathon along the coastline.

Rio gave us a musical Olympics, serenading spectators with bossa nova or exciting them with samba. Dancers and drummers appeared inside and outside venues. It was the first Olympics at which marathoners, water polo players and the world’s greatest track star danced with elaborately and scantily-clad (ital)sambistas(ital). Music is an essential element of the Brazilian soul.

As for the smells, the aroma of sewage was ever-present. Rio does not get a medal for its sanitation system.

Cariocas were warm and welcoming. Their self-deprecating sense of humor helped everyone survive the transportation headaches in this traffic-choked city. Despite grumbling about the misplaced priorities of staging the Olympics during a recession when education and health care budgets have been slashed, Brazilians say they enjoyed the Games immensely, although they don’t look forward to cleaning up the mess and paying the bills. The victories of the men’s soccer and beach volleyball teams made it worth it.

Three unforgettable athletes made Olympic history by establishing themselves as the most dominant ever in their respective sports. It’s hard to comprehend their awesome accomplishments: Bolt won his triple-triple on the track, Michael Phelps collected the 23rd gold medal of his five Olympics and, except for one slip on the balance beam, Simone Biles flew far above the competition in gymnastics.

Of the 10,900 athletes representing 206 nations, Americans were the most successful. The U.S. became the first country to top the medal chart in every category since 1948 with a total of 121 medals.

Ugly Americans took the spotlight, too, as Ryan Lochte and three fellow swimmers embellished an account of robbery at gunpoint to cover their Speedos. Rio residents, already sensitive about their city’s violent image, were offended. But the crime wave, like the Zika epidemic, never happened.

Russian athletes were mostly absent, banned because of their country’s state-sponsored doping system. Any past drug cheats who did win medals were called out by clean athletes in revolt.

South Florida’s athletes excelled. Miami’s own Brianna Rollins, Ashleigh Johnson, Sylvia Fowles, Monica Puig, Danell Leyva and Sam Dorman bring home seven medals, five of them gold.

Predictions that this would be the worst Olympics ever didn’t come close to true. Rio’s spirit far exceeded that of Sochi and Atlanta.

Cariocas put much effort and expense into these Games despite the obstacle of a bankrupt and dysfunctional government. Impeached president Dilma Rousseff will be kicked out of office by the end of the week. Fully half of Congress is under investigation or has been indicted on corruption charges.

Rio is distinguished by its energy but also by its visceral inequality. Mansions and favelas share the hillsides, with the shantytowns precariously stacked like building blocks. The poorer you are, the longer your steep climb – unless you want to hop on the back of a moto-bike for $1.50. U.S. cities have similarly huge gulfs between rich and poor but not in such proximity.

Rio’s poverty raises the question of why the Olympics were held here. The Games have become such a bloated monstrosity that they overwhelm the cities hosting them.

Teachers, doctors and firefighters aren’t getting paid but Rio has a new velodrome. A new golf course destroyed a nature preserve even though golf isn’t very popular. Olympic Park may soon become a ghost town.

It’s time to rethink the cost, size and purpose of the Olympics. Are the Games for the athletes or VIPs? International and national Olympic Committee members receive obscene perks. Expensive seats at the track and field stadium went unused by corporate sponsors more interested in networking with clients than watching the competition.

For this reporter covering Olympics No. 13, the most important moments came on the field of play but the most indelible ones came when meeting the people who give a place its personality. In the favelas and at the juice bars, from the churrasquinhos in working-class neighborhoods to Copacabana’s broad promenade, obrigado David, Dahlva, Dani, Bruno, Cristiane, Antonio, Aleffy and Douglas for being the true hosts of the Olympics. Tshau.