Ready, Set, Rio! SF State faculty talk Olympics

An aerial view overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Rio de Janeiro is hosting the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, August 5-21.

Experts weigh in on topics surrounding the 2016 Summer Olympic Games

During the next two weeks, the eyes of the world will be fixed upon Rio de Janeiro, the site of what is arguably this summer's most highly anticipated event, the Olympic Games.

The 2016 Games, and its host nation Brazil, found themselves magnets for a number of controversies and scandals leading up to tonight's opening ceremony at Maracanã Stadium. As the world's elite athletes prepare to compete for Olympic glory, we've pooled together a few of San Francisco State University's elite academics to serve up their takes on all things Olympics.

What's the importance of Rio hosting this year's Olympic Games?

Claudia Guedes, associate professor of kinesiology

"Brazil is now widely recognized as one of the world’s leading sporting nations since becoming the first South American nation ever selected to host the Olympic Games," says Guedes, an expert on the history of physical education and sport in Brazil. "To me, the importance of Brazil hosting this year's Olympic Games is to give hope to its people for a better tomorrow and to further promote the acceptance of ideas like gender equality and cultural diversity to new generations of Brazilians while simultaneously reviving a national sense of history and pride. All Olympic Games have presented problems, however Brazil has been the biggest challenge for the International Olympic Committee because of all the major issues happening all at once, including political crisis, corruption and the embarrassment of the impossibility to clean Rio de Janeiro's lakes and beaches. The Olympics have brought urgency to fix major problems in six years that have not been addressed in Brazil for decades, or even centuries — a lesson to be learned by a country which often takes for granted its natural beauty and people's hospitality."

What might viewers be feeling about this year's Games?

Miriam Smith, associate professor of broadcast and electronic communication arts

Smith says one word can sum up the audience mood going into the 2016 Olympics — apathy — for two big reasons. "First, it would be difficult for anything real or imagined to beat the drama of the presidential election — daily revelations, enough mud being slung to fill a stadium, lots of heat but little light,” Smith said. “Second, almost everything we have heard about Games preparations in Brazil has been not just negative, but scary — Zika virus, drug-resistant, bacteria-infested water and not-quite-ready venues."

What drives athletes' emotions?

David Matsumoto, professor of psychology

What are some social implications of hosting the Games in a place like Rio?

Susan Zieff, professor of kinesiology

"Issues like the grossly polluted waters in Guanabara Bay, the political turmoil and general social unrest of the nation have raised enormous challenges for the Brazilian Olympic Committee to operate a safe, healthy and calm event for witnessing by a global audience," says Zieff, a specialist in the socio-cultural aspects of sports and exercise. "The unrestrained relocation of thousands of poor Rio residents, largely occurring with limited media coverage, further strengthens the view that the presentation of the Olympics is paramount to the nation’s international image as a capable host. We have seen this before: Residents were moved from neighborhoods in Atlanta, Sydney and London to make way for Olympic structures, with little fanfare or regard. From Rio, we have been shown images of enormous favelas, often with limited plumbing or electricity, that will literally look down upon the new, multi-million dollar facilities constructed for the Games. However, political and social unrest have been part of the Olympic Games since their founding in Ancient Greece. Rigid social and economic boundaries divided who had access to training and preparation for participation since the games began in 776 B.C.E. Since the Games’ renewal in 1896, conflicts about national identities, shifting geographical boundaries and general political unrest have transformed the Olympics into a show of economic and political power, making it nearly impossible to simply view athletic competition."

And the economic/political implications?

Juanita Darling, associate professor of international relations

Darling, director of SF State's Latin American Studies minor, says hosting the Olympics has played a significant role in the current Brazilian economic and political crisis. "The Workers' Party is a political party in Brazil and one of the largest left-wing movements, known as the pink tide, in Latin America. It has undertaken the equivalent of a war on poverty, supplementing the incomes of the poor and providing incentives for poor families to send their children to school. In turn, Brazil's poor majority have supported the party. The nearly $10 billion that Brazil has spent on the Olympics at a time when the economy is deteriorating has threatened those social programs while Olympic construction projects have displaced poor neighborhoods. As the opening day approaches, it is becoming clear that Brazil has not kept commitments to clean polluted water venues and that other construction is behind schedule. Instead of being a point of pride, hosting the Olympics is becoming an embarrassment. This has undercut support for the Workers' Party, making party leaders more vulnerable to being held accountable for their alleged transgressions."

How serious are the water quality issues in Rio, and what can be done about them?

William Cochlan, research professor in biology

"They seem serious, but are mainly due to toxic compounds from industrial waste and the untreated sewage that flows into some regions," says Cochlan, a biological oceanographer and marine microbial ecologist for SF State's Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies. "Nothing can be done for the Olympics, as such problems cannot be rectified overnight, and many of the toxic compounds are likely in the bottom sediments. Athletes would be advised not to swim in such waters and to limit exposure to their bare skin and any accidental consumption."

What makes an "Olympic athlete," and what challenges do they face in Rio?

Matt Lee, professor of kinesiology

"Although the majority of Olympic athletes are genetically 'gifted,' it's estimated that genetics account for 25-50 percent of an individual’s aerobic capacity, and exhibit many physiological properties that the majority of individuals will never obtain, years of intensive, sport-specific training programs must go into maximizing each athlete's potential," says Lee, associate chair of SF State's Department of Kinesiology. "Quality training programs are broken down into different cycles that vary the training stimulus over time in order to optimize performance at a certain time point. Other variables to consider prior to competition include the attainment of adequate sleep, nutrition, and dealing with the pressure of competition, often with the aid of sport psychologists. Athletes training specifically for the Olympics are under enormous pressure, as all of their years of training might be focused on one event on one day with the entire world watching. There have been a multitude of stories in the media describing the negative environment surrounding the Olympic Games in Rio. In addition to the health concerns of the Zika virus, I’ve heard everything from the Olympic Village being relatively uninhabitable, to the open water swimmers having to swim through raw sewage. Although it would seem that these concerns would have a negative effect on the athletes and their performance, I believe that the intense physiological and mental training that the athletes have gone through to get to this point will allow then to overcome these potential obstacles."