Most athletes inspired in Rio; Olympic brass? Not so much

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Simone Biles defied gravity. Simone Manuel defied history. Michael Phelps glared, still hungry. Katie Ledecky churned all alone. Meb Keflezighi did pushups. Allyson Felix anchored. Usain Bolt glanced at the heir apparent to his right and grinned.

A distance runner helped an injured opponent to her feet. A sprinter dove in desperation. A hurdler's toddler son capered happily on the track. A wrestler wept. Thirteen water polo players, one after the other, carefully looped their gold medals around a treasured coach's neck.

Neymar scored.

Yet amid the giddy 17-day narrative presented in high definition, two low-resolution videos stood out. One caught young athletes with a careless disregard of consequences. The other showed an older bureaucrat in a bathrobe who may have thought he was beyond any consequences.

Tone-deaf Ryan Lochte and three other U.S. swimmers are home, awaiting potential discipline. Patrick Hickey, the 71-year-old International Olympic Committee member from Ireland arrested at his Rio hotel and charged in a $3 million ticket-scalping scheme, is jailed until further notice.

Author and academic Jules Boykoff had dinner with Brazilian friends after Lochte's inflated tale of victimization finally unraveled and unleashed so much rightful resentment.

"It was the one thing that did unite all Brazilians across the board," said Boykoff, who lived in Rio for the latter part of 2015 while finishing a book about Olympic politics. "He treated the country as his own private spring break, south of the equator. It was a vicious satire of white male privilege.

"My friends told me, 'If you can understand our frustration with him, then you can understand how we feel about the IOC. They jet in, live a life of privilege and then jet out, never to be seen again.'"

There were different degrees of misconduct and broken promises playing out in Rio these past three weeks, ranging from petty to venal and beyond. Still ahead are the Paralympics, whose push for greater status and exposure has been inexcusably undermined by lack of funding.

The contrast between Olympic field of play and the world just outside the fences has never been so great, yet the Games carried on like an irresistible musical with a sketchy producer. Now that IOC president Thomas Bach has declared Rio's absence of disaster a success, we can expect unabated entitlement and overburdened host cities to continue indefinitely.

Brazil wore its issues on its bright yellow sleeve from the time the bid campaign began, but even the most pessimistic observers likely couldn't have foreseen the confluence of events that would follow.

The economy tanked. The government heaved and shifted and continues to quake, and nearly every part of the social fabric is still swaying, depleting the crucial Olympic volunteer corps. The Zika virus spread, at first silently and then agonizingly out in the open when it was linked to birth defects.

Contractors tasked with building venues and modernizing sewage treatment stalled and skimmed from the top. The stench that rose from the canal bordering the western edge of the Olympic Park was a daily reminder of a lost opportunity.

Some ironies in these Games doubled in on themselves. Scattered reports of waterborne illness and debris from the athletes competing in the bay and lagoon and ocean trickled in, yet the most obvious aquatic issue surfaced in the contained space of the diving pool, when hydrogen peroxide accidentally and unbelievably dumped into the water turned it green. Organizers dosed it with chlorine and told the athletes to close their eyes.

The iconic beach volleyball venue on Copacabana Beach and the settings for tennis, swimming and gymnastics throbbed with full-throated fans. They raised the roof at the Velodrome, where the memory of interminable construction delays was quickly eclipsed by brilliant and sometimes contentious racing.

Track and field, orphaned far from the other venues, played out before swaths of empty blue seats that made Hickey's arrest for illicit ticket resales seem like ill-timed satire. In an ideal world, the sections yawning empty should have been filled with children from surrounding favelas. The reality is that there wasn't enough will to cut through Rio's barbed-wire class system or its noxious traffic to get them there.

Rio 2016 doesn't bear responsibility for the current chaos in the anti-doping system, although its on-site laboratory came with a dubious past and a recent suspension that led to a testing gap for Brazilian athletes in the weeks before the Games.

The World Anti-Doping Agency and the IOC displayed a distinct lack of urgency from 2010 on, as evidence of organized doping in Russia made its way to them via informants and journalists. Eventually, WADA's own investigations forced action. The IOC punted the Russian eligibility question to international sports federations, sending a clear message that Russia and its sports bankroll were to be accommodated. Hickey, an active proponent of holding the 2019 European Games in Russia, was among the most outspoken on the subject.

Nearly 300 Russian athletes competed here, winning 56 medals heading into Sunday's final day. If recent drug sample retesting history is any guide, a disproportionate number of those medals will become hand-me-downs. Meanwhile, Russian whistleblower and elite runner Yuliya Stepanova and her husband, living in voluntary exile in the United States, have had to take further safety precautions after her online WADA account was hacked. In a coldly masterful feat of compartmentalization, Bach told reporters Saturday: "We are not responsible for dangers to which Ms. Stepanova may be exposed."

Distrust in the anti-doping infrastructure has magnified many athletes' longtime distrust of one another. That boiled up in a number of interview sessions in Rio, sometimes driving a wedge between countries or even teammates. Something has to give. Either the suits who claim they're running things need to fix them, or the men and women in the arena need to dare them by organizing and trying to negotiate their own working conditions.

The diving pool, drained and refilled, returned to blue. The mosquito presence, as predicted by infectious disease experts, was low-key. Bullets may have been fired at an official bus, and a stray one fell into a media tent at the equestrian venue. For the most part, a heavy military and police presence maintained order for visitors. The inconveniences of erratic transit and scarce food for Olympic tourists so obviously paled before the raw, visible poverty in Rio that people largely shut up about them.

Evacuating Rio feels different from Sochi 2014, another Games coated with a distasteful film that has only darkened over time due to geopolitics and doping. Sochi's rotting remains are off in a remote and lightly visited corner of that vast country. Rio's Olympic Park lies in the midst of urban sprawl. Venues are intended for repurposing or reuse, but they also could become "a grim everyday reminder of misaligned priorities," as Boykoff put it.

An unabashed critic of waste surrounding the Games, Boykoff does take heart from some by-products of Rio 2016. The protests here were largely peaceful. The trampoline effect of Olympic media exposure meant activists were heard. Amid the customary dislocation of poor people that precedes any Games, the Vila Autodromo favela next to the Olympic Park won its battle for existence, reduced in size but intrepid, in a "massively lopsided power struggle," Boykoff said.

It's not surprising that the athletes succeeded in lifting the Games and distracting us from the disillusionment and naked inequity around them. Most of them are professionals at this point, and that was their job.

They train in empty spaces and in all weather, in countries with every form of government and cultural climate. They entertain, and in the best-case scenario, their stories are inspiring rather than being divisive or banal or fodder for embarrassing gas station surveillance video. The dysfunction in the Olympic industry that likes to call itself a "movement" is just another kind of pain they have learned to push through.