For Love of the Games
September 4, 2016
The 31st summer Olympic Games ended in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Aug. 21. For 16 days, more than 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries competed for medals in more than 300 events, and hundreds of millions of viewers watched the games on television.
Poland’s athletes brought home a total of 11 medals from the Rio Olympics, one more than during the 2012 Games in London and the highest count in the last 16 years. In the overall medal tally, Poland finished in 33rd place with two golds, three silvers and six bronze.
Some Polish officials and athletes were hoping for more before the games, with especially high hopes held out for track-and-field events and the water sports of rowing, sculling, canoeing/kayaking, windsurfing and swimming. However, all the water sports put together yielded only four medals for Poland at the Games, including one gold by rowers Magdalena Fularczyk-Kozłowska and Natalia Madaj in the women’s double sculls.
The swimming results were a particular letdown for Polish sports fans. Swimmers like Radosław Kawęcki and Konrad Czerniak, on whom the nation had pinned high hopes, turned in times way below their personal bests and none of them even made the finals.
Poland’s fighters and wrestlers did not pack much of a punch either, with 36-year-old freestyle wrestler Monika Michalik being the only medal winner after taking the bronze in the under 63 kg division. Most other Polish wrestlers and boxers were eliminated during the opening bouts.
In a doping scandal, two Polish weightlifters—Tomasz Zieliński and his brother Adrian, an Olympic champion four years ago in London—were expelled from the Polish Olympic team in Rio de Janeiro and sent home after testing positive for a banned substance.
Polish athletes put up a disappointing performance in team sports. Only the men’s volleyball and handball teams had qualified for the Olympics, but neither won a medal in Rio. The volleyball team, the 2014 world champions, crashed out in the quarterfinals, while the handball players had a few good games, but lost to Germany in the bronze medal match and finished fourth.
Other big letdowns included Poland’s brightest tennis star Agnieszka Radwańska, who was eliminated in the first round, and two-time hammer-throw world champion Paweł Fajdek, who failed to qualify for the Olympic final after fouling on his first attempt and producing a pair of disappointing throws that were about 12 meters shy of his career best. Previously Fajdek also failed to qualify at the 2012 London Games after fouling his first three throws.
On the other hand, Anita Włodarczyk exceeded expectations in the women’s hammer by bringing home gold and setting a new world record. Her next-closest competitor was more than five-and-a-half meters behind.
In other sports, Maja Włoszczowska brought home a hard won silver in mountain biking, repeating her feat from the Beijing Olympics eight years ago, when she also took the silver. Cyclist Rafał Majka took the bronze in the men’s road race, and a somewhat surprising bronze went to Oktawia Nowacka in the modern pentathlon.
Other bright spots included 20-year-old Maria Andrejczyk who finished fourth in the javelin, with a throw just two centimeters shorter than the bronze-medal winner. Andrejczyk had advanced to the javelin finals after setting a new Polish record and achieving the best result in the world this year.
The 245-strong Polish contingent was the fourth-largest ever, after those in Moscow in 1980 (306), Munich in 1972 (290), and Beijing in 2008 (257).
The Polish Olympic Committee had set aside zl.720,000 in funds from sponsors for each gold medal in team sports, zl.480,000 for silver, and zl.300,000 for bronze. Athletes competing in individual sports could hope for zl.120,000 for a gold medal, zl.80,000 for silver, and zl.50,000 for bronze. Crews, relay teams, and doubles were eligible for zl.90,000, zl.60,000 and zl.37,500 respectively, and coaches could count on zl.60,000, zl.40,000 and zl.25,000 respectively. Altogether, the 11 medals bagged by the Polish athletes at Rio cost the Polish Olympic Committee a hefty zl.915,000.
Each gold medalist was additionally eligible for a bonus of zl.64,400 from the government, with the bonus for a silver medal at zl.46,000, and that for bronze at zl.36,800.
The Olympic Games enjoy huge interest among television viewers worldwide despite the fact that watching live broadcasts is sometimes difficult due to time differences. The Rio Olympics opening ceremonies on Aug. 5 were watched by 342 million people in all, according to the International Olympic Committee. This year’s television coverage of the Olympic Games in Rio attracted an estimated 3.6 billion viewers around the world who “watched at least one minute,” according to the IOC. The world’s population is roughly 7 billion.
Polish athletes have officially competed in the Summer Olympics since 1924. Earlier, when Poland was under foreign rule, the occupying countries used Polish athletes as members of their national teams.
The record number of medals, 32, was won by Polish athletes at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. This year the general expectation was that the Poles should do no worse than four years ago at London, when they grabbed 10 medals, two gold, two silver, and six bronze.
Historically, track-and-fielder Irena Szewińska, a sprinter and long jumper, won the largest number of Olympic medals for Poland, seven: three gold, two silver and two bronze. She took part in five Olympic Games between 1964 and 1980. Race walker Robert Korzeniowski won a total of four medals, all of them gold, between 1996 and 2004.
Rio Olympics by the Numbers
- 11,178 athletes competing in 28 sports
- 207 countries represented at the Games, including South Sudan and Kosovo for the first time
- 2 new sports included in the Games: golf (reinstated after a hiatus of 112 years) and rugby sevens
- 1st ever Olympic Games hosted by a South American country
- 4,924 medals handed out in 306 events
- 7.5 million tickets for spectators
- 45,000 volunteers, including several hundred from Poland, helping during the Games
- 6.45 million people living in Rio de Janeiro
- 24 million trees and bushes planted across the city to neutralize increased carbon dioxide emissions during the Games
- 74,738 grandstand seats available at the famous Maracana Stadium
More Than Medals
For most athletes, winning an Olympic medal is the crowning glory of their sports career. Many would not hesitate to trade their world championships medals and other trophies for a Olympic gold.
But some athletes decide to donate their medals for charitable causes. For example, discus thrower Piotr Małachowski has put the silver medal he won at the Rio Olympics up for auction in order to help a boy struggling with eye cancer. This was after the boy’s mother wrote to him shortly after the competition asking for help in saving her son.
How Poles Fared
Magdalena Fularczyk-Kozłowska and Natalia Madaj in women’s double sculls
Anita Włodarczyk in women’s hammer throw
Piotr Małachowski in men’s discus
Marta Walczykiewicz in women’s kayak single 200 meters
Maja Włoszczowska in women’s mountain bike race
Rafał Majka in men’s cycling road race
Maria Springwald, Joanna Leszczyńska, Agnieszka Kobus and Monika Ciaciuch in women’s quadruple sculls
Karolina Naja and Beata Mikołajczyk in women’s kayak double 500 meters sprint
Monika Michalik in women’s 63 kg freestyle wrestling
Wojciech Nowicki in men’s hammer
Oktawia Nowacka in women’s modern pentathlon
The celebrations are done and the Olympic torch extinguished; the most important sports event of the last four years has come to a close. What were the Rio Olympics like?
Many of those heading to the Games had a few worries about Rio de Janeiro. One of their main worries was the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which is especially dangerous for pregnant women but has also been linked to some neurological disorders. Most athletes and journalists remembered to take a large bottle of insect repellent with them. But this turned out to be completely unnecessary. During my three-week stay I barely saw a mosquito in Rio, although I regularly visited the city’s open-water areas, including the Lagoa Stadium, where rowing, kayaking and canoe sprint events were held.
Just how the Brazilians managed to deal with this problem will remain their secret, but they must have sprayed hundreds of tons of repellents all over the city because we could smell the characteristic odor in various places, especially at the beginning of the Games. One way or another, Zika has for the most part proved to be the Games’ biggest non-story.
Some swamp areas had been drained and leveled specifically for the Olympics, for instance to be used as a golf course. Golf made a comeback as an Olympic sport at Rio after a hiatus of 112 years.
The fears of the allegedly contaminated Guanabara Bay, where the sailing races were held, turned out to be grossly exaggerated as well. The organizers did their best to make sure that the Olympic crews, especially windsurfers, were spared the experience of running into an old sofa, an oil spill, or a dead body of an animal while competing for medals. Just a few years ago, only 17 percent of the sewage in Rio was treated. By March this year, the figure had increased to 60 percent and then rose a bit further by the time the Games started. It’s another thing that some small freshwater areas smell somewhat unpleasant in this kind of climate even if the water is clean.
Before going to Rio, we were also worried about crime and traffic jams, which locals say are one of the biggest problems in this city of over 6 million. The problem of crime was solved in a simple way: by deploying several divisions of troops to the scene. Officials said there were some 85,000 soldiers, police, and other security personnel—over the twice the size of the force used at the London Olympics in 2012—stationed around the city, including many of them at the Olympic venues. Some of the khaki-uniformed soldiers carried machine guns and had their fingers on their triggers—a sobering sight that became a powerful symbol of the Rio Games. But all this did the trick: For all its reputation as a city of favela gangs and street robbery, Rio was safe to visitors during the Olympics. While some incidents were reported, few of them were serious even though the city attracted roughly half a million people from all over the world during the Games.
Tight security checks were routinely performed at most Olympic venues. There were high fences, barbed wire and checkpoints with equipment for screening cars for bombs. This, however, is pretty much what all the Games have looked like since Munich 1972. And compared with London and especially Sochi, Brazilian security officers were much more friendly though sometimes they seemed a bit laid back.
And the ubiquitous soldiers not only ensured security but also served as interpreters. Not many people in Brazil or South America in general speak English, while the soldiers, especially higher-ranking ones, were usually fluent enough to enable communication.
When it comes to traffic, Rio is indeed notorious for its massive jams that almost never cease. And no wonder because the city has been developing spontaneously for decades, without any specific plan, and the road and rail network simply could not keep up. For instance, the Rio coastline along the Atlantic Ocean is almost 200 kilometers long. All this had to be joined with an infrastructure, and efficient transportation had to be ensured. A lot had been done before the Games: the subway line was extended, and more public buses and trains were put into service. But, above all, a whole new car-and-bus transportation system was established for the exclusive use of the athletes and Olympic staff.
Admittedly, the Games were mired by shortcomings affecting the Olympic Village. Some athletes abandoned housing at the Village amid complaints of no hot water, faulty plumbing and other issues. The same was true of the Media Village, in which I had the dubious pleasure of staying for three weeks. Issues included missing windows, clogged pipes and exposed wiring. However, overall the problem was somewhat blown out of proportion by the “fifth estate” on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Authorities in Brazil hoped the Olympics—just like the 2014 soccer World Cup—would help spur the development of the country. The problem is both these events took place at a time when Brazil, South America’s largest country, was suffering from a major economic and political crisis.
Still, the city itself has undoubtedly benefited from the Olympics, which for the first time in history were held in South America. Thanks to the Games, Rio de Janeiro has many new venues and, above all, it has new roads and tunnels, waterworks as well as sewage treatment plants that would have otherwise been too expensive to build.
While most of the Olympic venues will remain in the city, about a quarter of them were temporary. This shows that the Rio organizers learned from the experience of previous Olympics and did their best to limit unnecessary gigantism and build projects as efficiently as possible, using existing structures and adapting natural sites. Many of the sports arenas featured temporary seating that will be dismantled after the Games in order to create smaller venues for amateurs and youths to compete. Other venues will revert to their original purpose as exhibition halls or will be converted into shopping malls or housing estates. The Olympic Village is a case in point.
Sports-wise, the Games were as rewarding for fans as ever. Stunning performances, records broken, new sporting stars born, favorites proving their superiority, underdogs springing surprises—Rio 2016 had it all.
Rio 2016 correspondent for www.olimpijski.pl online news service