John McGrath

John McGrath: Why am I staying home? Blame it on Rio

A worker walks past a set of Olympic rings in the Olympic Park ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro.
A worker walks past a set of Olympic rings in the Olympic Park ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro. The Associated Press

I’ve covered seven Olympic Games over four continents, and each time managed to return home in one piece.

The closest I came to unhinging was in Barcelona, in 1992, when I bought a nice cigar for what I assumed was about $10. A few hours later, I learned that I had given the clerk the equivalent of $1,000.

Foreign money is a terrible thing to waste.

Otherwise, I’ve been lucky. Not once was I robbed at gunpoint, or bitten by a mosquito carrying a virus, or sickened from contaminated water, or lodged in a flooded room with exposed wiring. These are among the many perils supposedly facing Brazil-bound tourists heading to the 2016 Summer Games, scheduled to open Friday night in Rio de Janeiro.

When friends who know what I do for a living ask me about my plans for Rio, I reply with a stock answer:

“I’m not going to Rio, thank God.”

The thanking of God is not hyperbole.

Barcelona, Sydney and Beijing were once-in-a-lifetime experiences for me, as was Albertville, the Alpine village in southern France that served as host for the 1992 Winter Games. I’ve got fond memories of the three weeks I spent a decade later in Salt Lake City, where the first major international sporting event following the 9/11 terrorist attacks was staged.

Security issues demanded the patience to stand in line for five hours at the airport, but were not without some levity. I recall ordering lunch at a downtown bar as a voice on the speaker system informed patrons there was a police procedure in progress: We couldn’t leave.

That’s right. Utah cops forced me to remain inside a bar.

But I had no desire to test my luck in the Third World that is Brazil, where a deep recession and a history of political corruption have combined to intensify the suspicion these Olympic Games are a disaster waiting to happen.

Then again, aren’t every Olympic Games a disaster waiting to happen?

Take Atlanta. It’s one of my favorite cities — as a former resident, I’m well familiar with its charms — and I had no doubts the hub of the South could put on a 1996 show underscoring all that’s possible when a community tethered to tradition embraces progress.

Atlanta’s installment of a comprehensive light rail system was years ahead of Seattle. Venue options were obvious. Lodging was no problem, thanks to the proximity of dormitories at Georgia Tech and Emory University.

Atlanta had all this going for it, and yet, after all of 72 hours, the Atlanta Games were derided as “The Glitch Games.” Essential information — basic stuff, such as the final score of, say, a basketball game — wasn’t relayed to news outlets.

Transportation snafus were legendary. Bus drivers from Pennsylvania and Texas, lured by the opportunity to earn $9 per hour, found themselves dazed and confused.

A driver transporting journalists to a rowing event was so flummoxed by the freeway traffic she cried while making the exit returning her to downtown.

Atlanta was not some remote outpost in 1996. It had the muscle, and the resources, to make the Olympic Games an easily realized destination for sports fans around the world.

And 500 bus drivers quit during the first weekend.

Given the transportation problems that plagued Atlanta 20 years ago, it’s no wonder Rio de Janeiro is looming as the ultimate nightmare screaming for a solution on the future of the Olympic Games.

Here’s one: Discontinue the bidding system that pits cities and countries against each other. Designate five permanent sites for the Summer Games, and five permanent sites for the Winter Games.

Constructing a velodrome for bicycle racers to compete for a few days in Sydney, a baseball park in Athens, a 70,000-stadium stadium in Beijing — where the national pastime is Ping-Pong — fulfills any definition of stupidity.

Granted, the travelogue side stories will not be as interesting if, for instance, Los Angeles is designated as a site in the cycle. But sacrificing interesting travelogue side stories seems like a reasonable compromise necessary for the preservation of the Olympic Games.

Dumb it down, trim the fat, and let’s hope that everybody returns from Rio de Janeiro in good health, avoiding mosquito bites and the more tangible danger of paying $1,000 for a cigar.