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Every white elephant has a silver lining





The city of Rio enjoyed a two-year long carnival for the ages in the middle of the decade. After the party of the 2014 Fifa World Cup came the unqualified success of the Rio Olympics last August - against overwhelming odds, at that.

For a country in the midst of recession, and blighted by unrelenting stories about its level of preparedness, behind-schedule stadium construction and civil unrest, it was some feat to put on the show they did.

As fans, we'll remember golden moments like Usain Bolt lighting up the stage once again, Michael Phelps exacting revenge on Chad LeClos, 10 South African medals being accumulated, and even a surprisingly compelling duel between Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson in the golf.

For the locals, the joy was even more overpowering, as Brazil's athletes racked up an impressive 19 medals. Poliana Okimoto, for example, made history as she won the nation's first ever swimming medal. She was just one of many homegrown heroes who revelled in a city's delight, knowing her life would change thereafter for the better.

Yet unfortunately, it didn't. In fact, across Rio, it has got significantly worse. Okimoto, like almost all of Brazil's athletes, has not received prize money and bonuses promised to her. In fact, she lost her only sponsor shortly after the Games.

The city declared itself bankrupt just weeks after the Olympic torch moved on, amid innumerable scandals of bribery and corruption.

Indeed, the former president was found guilty of the latter, and sentenced to nearly a decade in prison. A state of financial emergency was announced, and suppliers and stakeholders remain unpaid to this day, while key public services are now hopelessly underfunded.

While the Games is not the root cause of Rio's economic suffering, it underpins the broken promises of a better tomorrow for its residents. Instead of a boom, and a legacy of better transport networks, new schools and colleges, a reduction in crime, and a path to a more sustainable financial future, locals have had the status quo reinstated - except with a bigger hole in the public finances.

Decaying, empty stadia littered around the place symbolise this better than anything else. Once shrines of the ultimate sporting theatre, these white elephants are in a state of disrepair.

Of the 27 that were built for the Games, nearly half haven't been used since. The Olympics Aquatics Stadium is derelict, the Maracana has had its power switched off due to unpaid bills, and the Barra Olympic Village has 3,500 empty apartments. The Deodoro Sports Complex sits shut with padlocks on the gates. You have to see the pictures to believe it.

And yet, amid the sense of gloom lies the Olympic Golf Course. It appeared to be going the same way as these other sporting arenas in the months following the closing ceremony, with rumours of overgrowth and dilapidated facilities. In November, it was all but written off as just another white elephant.

But that's all changed in 2017. The determined efforts of stakeholders such as the Brazil Olympic Committee, the International Golf Federation, and club CEO Marcio Galvão have restored the course to a comparable condition to those heady days of 13 months ago. Feet through the door have been steady too - roughly 700 rounds per month, with the anticipation that this will increase two-fold over the coming year.

It may not sound like much, but, given a population of over 200 million and an 8.5 million km² landmass, the fact that it has just 120 golf courses and 9,200 registered players shows how little interest there has been in the game of golf in Brazil.

But plans are in place at grassroots level to grow the game, starting at primary schools with clinics and programmes. In conjunction with corporates, golf scholarship programmes are being created too, with the biggest focus of all being on social inclusion, and shedding golf's elitist image within the public eye.

Clearly, much of the proof will be in the pudding, and there remains plenty of work to be done. But there is more than just a bit of hope, and it's fair to say that, of all the bastions of Rio '16, the Olympic Golf Course is one of the few to stand tall (in the metaphorical sense, anyway). And one with arguably the best chance of creating an enduring, game-changing legacy.

Perhaps it isn't a story which will get people screaming with delight just yet. But, given the levels of negativity of golf's presence in the Games during the build-up, it's a deserved slap in the face for all those leading players who shunned the opportunity to play, and also for cynics like myself who backed them up.

Let's hope this positive direction of travel continues, and that aspiration and reality converge. What a turn up for the books that would be.


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