The Summer Games are finally here and how one feels about them is as individual as the 11,000 plus athletes expected to compete in Rio. After a barrage of dire warnings and articles that the Brazilian city was not ready to host the world’s biggest sporting event, and the ongoing Russian doping scandal, and the still ongoing claims of corruption within the International Olympic Committee itself, it’s go time. Ready or not.
For tennis, the decision to compete or not in this year’s Games has also been an individual choice for many players for a myriad of reasons. While overall consensus from players chosen to compete at the Games has been upbeat and positive, lingering concerns about infrastructure, security and especially over potential health risks proved too much for some players to ignore. There’s also the fact that unlike the 2012 Games in London, the tennis events will not offer any ATP or WTA ranking points. That alone was enough justification for some players to opt out of Rio and instead focus on ongoing summer hard court events leading up to the US Open.
As a result, a lot of players chose not to compete, especially on the men’s side. Several top names withdrew due to concerns over catching the Zika virus, even if they admitted that was the real reason or not. Injuries also forced several well-known players out of the event who wanted to be there. For Roger Federer, his ongoing issues after recent knee surgery forced him to completely shut down his entire 2016 season. While winning a gold medal in singles is not a necessary addition to the Swiss great’s resume, that he won’t get that chance to try to win it in Rio, or likely again at any Olympics games given his age, must be a disapointing pill for Federer to swallow.
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, after mulling over at length whether or not to play, is in Rio. So is Andy Murray, fresh off winning his second Wimbledon, and likely the man Djokovic will face in the gold medal match. Murray, who won singles gold in 2012 and who will be Great Britain’s flagbearer in the Opening Ceremony, has publicly ripped those players who used Zika as an excuse not to compete. The biggest question mark, and potential spoiler to both Djokovic and Murray winning gold, just might be Rafael Nadal. Despite a tender wrist, Nadal is aiming to compete in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. An ambitious schedule for sure, but one that just might yield a medal of some sort for the Spanish star when the Games are done in what would be a much needed boon for Nadal after a rough season so far.
While the men’s field is lacking some of its biggest names, the women’s draw is pretty much packed.
World No. 1 Serena Williams and her sister Venus Williams are back trying to defend their gold medal in doubles from 2012. Serena is also aiming to repeat as gold medalist in singles. Williams will face stiff competition in both Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza, each of who have beaten Williams in two Grand Slams this season. Add in most of the top ten including Simona Halep, Agnieszka Radwanska, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Madison Keys, and more and the women’s event will be competitive right from the opening round.
Rio, with its mismatched lineups feels like Beijing. Not the 2008 Summer Games, but the yearly combined ATP 500 and WTA Premier Mandatory event that features a handful of top men’s stars on one side and all of the biggest names from the women’s tour on the other. If the world’s best who have gathered in Rio can compete at their best given the concerns about facilities and logistics is a question that isn’t yet answered either.
Kuznetsova herself has been posting behind the scenes videos on her Twitter account where she and her fellow Russian teammates complain about what they feel are substandard facilities. “It’s like you train at a construction site” the two-time major champion complained in one video on unfinished courts. In another, Kuznetsova shows off the huge dining facility for all athletes but then complains that there isn’t enough healthy food on offer.
Sergiy Stakhovsky, competing for the Ukraine, complained on Twitter that the IOC forced him to remove a critical video he made about the facilities.
How one wants to view the Games all boils down to personal point of view. After so much discord and controversy, perhaps it’s best for the players and fans who want to focus on Rio to just try and make the best of it over the next two weeks. While the bold claims of local politicians that the Games would rejuvenate Rio’s stagnant economy, especially for its poorer citizens, has yet to be realized, that should not damper the celebratory aspect of the city not only playing host to the world but to those athletes in all sports who wait four years for this one moment to shine. Rather than dwell on what might be better or what should be better, especially for the future of Rio and the Games itself, perhaps it’s best to celebrate and root for those players who chose to compete for their country and, in a larger sense, to continue the Olympic values set forth by its founder Pierre de Coubertin: Friendship, Respect, and Excellence.