I wonder if, when the Olympic Games first began in 776 BC, the Ancient Greeks recognised the legacy that they would leave behind. Taking place at the foot of a shrine to Zeus, the god of the sky and ruler of Mount Olympus, the sporting tournament happened every four years before it was cancelled by Roman Emperor Theodosius in 393 AD. By the time it was reinstalled in 1896 it was different, but also extraordinarily similar; chariot-racing had been taken off the schedule, but other sports – from running, long-jump, shot-put and javelin through to horse-riding and boxing, remained more or less unchanged. Perhaps most importantly, while the original iteration permitted only Greek-speaking free men, the modern is proudly international and inclusive in its scope. Freedom, fortunately, no longer comes into the equation.
Every four years, the Games provides an unparalleled opportunity for its host country to exhibit its wealth and nationalist pride, but this year’s Rio Olympics has thus far made history not through extravagance and expenditure, but through Brazil’s inimitable knack for making a lot out of a little. It's a technique that's visible throughout Rio, whether that pertains to the construction of housing out of corrugated iron and waste materials in its sprawling favelas, which are estimated to house around 6% of the country’s enormous population, or to the Bahian samba rhythms which reverberate across its mountainous landscape.
Take the opening ceremony at Rio’s famed Maracanã Stadium, for example, at which, rather than funnelling valuable resources away from the competitions themselves, organisers opted to forgo high-tech concepts to celebrate Brazil’s vivid history and diverse culture with music, lighting, creativity and emotion, creating a moment of reflection on the impact of climate change in the process. “[It would be] a shame to waste what London spent [on the 2012 opening ceremony] in a country where we need sanitation; where education needs money, so I'm very glad we're not spending money like crazy,” one of the ceremony’s creative directors, Fernando Meirelles, remarked. “I’m happy to work with this low budget because it makes sense for Brazil." Likewise, while the Olympic park itself has an air of integrity to it; there's no façade needed to mask infrastructure here. Beyond the fluttering of the 206 bright flags of competing nations, you might spot the exposed scaffolding supporting seating around a stadium. It’s utterly appropriate, too, that Italian restaurateur and chef patron of Modena’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Massimo Bottura, is taking the waste food generated by the Olympic athletes’ village, and using it to cook 108 free dinners every day for the city’s homeless.
In the parks, of course, nothing matters but the events themselves – the atmosphere is electric, the crowd a sea of yellow and green, and cheers echo out in joyful waves as audiences cluster around pitches, courts and giant screens to watch history unfolding. The vivid oranges and peaches of the Rio sunsets seem perfectly in tune with the new signature palette Nike has developed especially for the games, combining the brand’s trademark volt yellow – the most visible colour to the human eye – with a flash of pink in a fusion gradient. (The track and field kit is testament to its impact – athletes fly along the ground in a glow of fluorescence, sending sparks of energy into the sunny winter sky as they take bronze, silver and gold.) Close your eyes, and the combination of Rio's circumferential mountainscape, the hum of cheering and prickling of tense silence, and the heat of the winter sun as it sets on another day of record-breaking athletic achievement might have you thinking you've lost 2000 years to experience the games again in Greece with their Olympian forefathers.
With thanks to Nike.