Reflections on Rio

Last Call

More than 10,000 athletes from 206 countries gathered for the Summer Olympics in Rio to compete in 41 sports, and the world was watching. I’m using this global event as a mirror, curious about the image its sends back to us. Here is what I observed:

Rio got it done. If you believed any of the negative hype leading up to Rio 2016, you would have bet that the current state of affairs in Brazil would throw this event into complete chaos. But not so much.

Shame on the news media and its constant need to hype the negative, and high-five to Brazil, which pulled it off. Kudos to the artistic director of the opening show, who instead of ignoring the favelas tastefully acknowledged their existence. Such honesty is refreshing, and it’s the Brazilian way to deal with reality instead of ignoring it.

Shame on the athletes (mostly golfers and tennis players) who did not participate, and further shame on them for using the lame Zika excuse instead of just being honest and saying: “I’m too self-centered, I make too much money, my schedule is so busy I just don’t feel like defending my country’s honor…”

NBC coverage was terrible. There is no other way to put it. If you were interested in a daily summary of all events or wanted to discover some sports you usually don’t get to watch, you were out of luck. NBC’s choppy and time-delayed coverage was exclusively focused on American greatness. I can tolerate some patriotism, but completely ignoring any events where American athletes did not have a chance to end up on the podium — give or take Usain Bolt — is not reflective of the Olympic spirit. Instead of using the opportunity to focus on the human element and how sports can unite the world, NBC made it an entertainment product they could sell advertising around — $1 billion of advertising. It’s another bad example of money ruling the airwaves. (Unfortunately, we likely won’t see any coverage changes as NBC holds the contract to broadcast the Olympics through 2032.)

Talking about commercials, here are the medals for the best TV ads:

Gold: iPhone. A series of beautiful portraits of people of all races and colors, with a poetic narrative in the background. The message at the end (paraphrasing): “As much as we are different my friend we are more alike than you think; as much as we are different we are more alike than you think.”

The commercial is simple and beautiful. It emphasizes the Olympic spirit and becomes part of the narrative. At no point are any of the qualities of the phone being touted — except indirectly as you marvel at the beauty of the portraits shot exclusively on iPhones.

Silver: Samsung. An actor with a French accent mocks Americans who multi-task everywhere and all the time.

It takes guts to make fun of the social behavior the device you are trying to sell empowers, but obviously the brand knows that it can count on us to be unable to stand still and unable to get offline.

Bronze: Reese’s. Lindsay Vonn (a skier) is trying to do summer sports and is miserably failing. It’s quite entertaining and just shows how much skill goes into each discipline.

The notion that you don’t have to be a professional to be competitive at the Olympics is long gone, considering that it is not unusual for athletes to train 10 hours a day, leaving little room for education (since many of the athletes start their preparation four or more years ahead of the Games) or holding down a regular job.

All the other commercials are not honest and dumbed down. The worst is McDonald’s trying to put an emotional spin about dads feeding their daughters chicken McNuggets (since they are now made with real chicken and no artificial blah, blah, blah …  all it did was make you wonder what was in them before), but obviously conveniently leaving out the fact that McNuggets still are made using inhumane, cage-raised/slaughterhouse chicken and that fried food mainly consists of fat and salt, with just enough protein so that the coating does not fall off.

What the medal count reflects: If you are from a small and/or poor country that does not have a state-sponsored sport program, your chances of winning an Olympic medal are slim. Of the 206 countries that participated, only 78 won a medal. The U.S. won approximately the same number of medals as our “frenemies” China and Russia combined. The top 10 countries (the U.S., Great Britain, China, Russia, Germany, Japan, France, South Korea, Australia and Italy) won about the same amount of medals as all other countries combined. It is no coincidence that their combined GDP also reflects more than 50 percent of their share of global GDP. Some countries buck the trend by focusing on one discipline — like Jamaica and Kenya, where they know how to run very, very fast, and Cuba, where they either punch or wrestle their competitors from the mat.

If you are opposed to supporting the Olympics because Brazilian families have been displaced from their homes to make room for the brand-new venues, good for you, but I’ve got news for you: the same thing happened in Russia and China, and “forced labor” is being used to build the Qatar 2022 World Cup stadiums as well as the sneakers you just ordered online.

In order to change that, we should stop trying to buy as much as we can afford for the cheapest price and start asking questions about the social value of the brands we support.