Ever since Mary Lou Retton shined her pearly whites and won the all around gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles I’ve been a huge fan of the Games. Every four years when Bob Costas’ impish face fills my television screen I get pangs of uncontrollable joy. Cue the Olympic music and some inspirational ballad written specifically for the occasion by Whitney Houston or Kelly Clarkson or Lady Gaga (depending on which decade you are in).
I was no less excited for this Summer’s games and I was not disappointed. So many incredible moments. Displays of athletic greatness. The human interest stories. The behavioral embarrassments. Here is one super-fans take on the best of this year’s Rio Games.
Let’s start with what I think was the most amazing athletic feat of the entire Games – Katie Ledeky’s performance in the 800 meter freestyle. Not only did Ledeky set the world record in the event, she beat her nearest competitor by 12 seconds. Keep in mind she is winning by this margin against other Olympians. It’s not like she’s lapping me in the pool. At this level, winning any 8 minute event by 12 seconds is like a pro basketball team beating another pro basketball team by 100 points. No one was even close. The only thing on the screen with Ledeky was the World Record pace line (which she was also ahead of for the entire race). Incredible.
In the world of Women’s 53kg freestyle wrestling, American Helen Maroulis beat an absolute legend in the sport, Japan’s Saori Yoshida, to win Gold for the US. Not only was this an incredible endeavor of sport, it was how Maroulis handled the aftermath of the victory that was most revealing. Asked whether the fact that her historic victory was overshadowed by the Ryan Lochte story (more on this later) bothered her, Maroulis responded that she didn’t compete for media coverage or for glory, but for the love of the sport, for the discipline of training and to repay the dedication and belief that her family and her coach have had in her. What a bad ass. Also a bad ass in the field of women’s combat sports was Kayla Harrison who took Gold in Judo in as a half heavyweight – one of the coolest names for a weight division I’ve heard in any sport.
Speaking of Judo, coaches in this sport absolutely win the best-dressed award. While their athletes are out their in robe-like judogis, these coaches are nattily dressed in Ralph Lauren designer 3-piece suits. Way to class up the tatami, coach.
Wang Zhen of China completed the 20km race walk in 1:19:14 to win gold. This is the equivalent of walking for an hour and twenty minutes at a 10mph pace which is remarkably fast considering you are never allowed to not have one foot on the ground.
In weightlifting, Nijhat Rahimov took a massive 12kg jump on his second attempt in the Clean and Jerk to break the world record in the 77kg division. Rahimov also broke the world record in the total and took the gold medal right out of the hands of Lu Xiaojun who was the overwhelming favorite to win. A 12kg jump in this weight class is absolutely absurd and there was no reason to expect that he’d make it. It was the most dramatic lift since Mathias Steiner took a huge jump in the 2008 Games to win an emotional Gold medal one year after a car accident took the life of his then wife.
On the less heroic side, Behdad Salimi of Iran threw a super heavyweight tantrum after his second clean and jerk was overturned by the jury and he ended up bombing out of the competition. This after he broke the world record in the snatch by matching the heaviest snatch done in competition – ever. In addition to Salimi’s antics, the entire Iranian fan base decided to boo other lifters in a real show of sportsmanship and class (this is sarcasm if you haven’t caught on). Subsequently they decided to carpet bomb all weightlifting social media accounts with “#behdadsalimi” in a show of protest. So over-the-top were the actions of the lifter and the fans the International Weightlifting Federation is currently considering sanctions against Iran in future competitions.
OK, Lightning Round:
Yes, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are incredible, once–in-a-generation athletes. And we should enjoy and appreciate them while they are still competing. But it’s a bummer that the excessive media coverage of two athletes really took away from some other impressive accomplishments.
Egyptians not wanting to compete against or shake the hand of Israeli athletes was upsetting and disgraceful.
Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini spoke about bombings that routinely occurred during practice, how she had to swim for her life when her boat capsized during her escape and basically chalked it all up to “hey, shit happens”. She then went on to win her heat in the 100 meter butterfly while competing for the refugee team. Oh, and did I mention that she’s 14 years old.
Simone Biles and the US Women’s Gymnastic team performed incredibly well even when the burden of high expectations was upon them. It’s not easy to dominate when everyone expects that of you but the Final Five came through by essentially defying gravity.
Watching the entire stadium sing the national anthem of the home country after Brazil won the gold medal after a shoot out in soccer was incredibly joyous and emotional. It’s always great to see the host country succeed and show their national pride, particularly in a sport that is so important to them.
The Ryan Lochte incident is quite frankly the most overblown media story since Kim Kardashian “broke the internet”. The fact that he got drunk, vandalized a gas station and made up a story about it is, quite frankly, not even the most interesting thing about Ryan Lochte. I mean, check out the dude’s hair.
Shout out to Fiji, Puerto Rico, Vietnam and Kosovo for scoring the first gold medals in each country’s history.
Could I go on? Of course, I’m a super fan, remember. But regardless of what sport or athlete or moment you found to be the most memorable one thing should stick out after two plus weeks of watching the competition – particularly if you are someone who trains with any sort of purpose. And that is just how difficult it is, how dedicated you must be and how rare it is to be able to achieve these levels of athletic greatness. Maybe that is why I love it so much. Maybe I’m just in awe.
Or maybe Mary Lou’s smile just pierced the heart of a then twelve year old boy.
I’m not sure which.