By Karolos Grohmann

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The Rio de Janeiro Olympics, which come to an end on Sunday, were an iconic Games despite a long list of problems and a lack of cash, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach said on Saturday.

A day before the closing ceremony of the first Olympics in South America, Bach said the performances of athletics combined with the purpose-built venues had made the Games a success and proved less affluent nations could host the Olympics.

"These were and still are iconic Olympic Games in many respects," Bach told reporters.

"We have seen iconic athletes across all sports, seen athletes who were icons and even strengthened their positions like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. And others who became icons here.

"We all saw the level of competition over all sports was extremely high, with stunning performances from the athletes. This really is the spirit of the Games," he said.

Rio organizers struggled with transportation, security, empty stands and a shortage of funds as Brazil was gripped by its worst recession since the 1930s, with political turmoil further hampering preparations.

Rio won the right to host the Games in 2009 amid a booming economy but due to a severe economic crisis over the past few years organizers had to get advance payments from the IOC while also asking for public funds to complete preparations.

Bach defended the IOC's choice of Rio saying it would have again chosen the Brazilian city because the Olympics were staged "in the middle of reality".

"I think this is a really iconic Games. It is also Games in the middle of reality. They were not organized in a bubble. They were organized in a city where there are social problems, social divides, where real life continued and I think it was very good for everybody.

"To be close to reality and not to have it in a bubble for 16 days, the Games somehow being isolated. To be in the middle of it, to see reality and by seeing this to put sport into perspective."

Organizers, who had pledged Rio would be the safest city in the world during the Olympics, repeatedly had to apologize for incidents of crime involving athletes, media or visitors.

Critics had said the Games were the last thing Brazil needed, with money better spent on social welfare projects instead.

An ongoing political crisis with suspended President Dilma Rousseff facing an impeachment trial and interim President Michel Temer being deeply unpopular, only added to the Games' problems.

"The IOC has shown that it is possible to organize Olympic Games also in countries which are not at the top of the GDP (gross domestic product) ranking," Bach said. "It has shown great solidarity and seen great solidarity.

"We have shown that we are ready to face social reality and to address this."

(Editing by Nina Chestney and Clare Fallon)