With the Rio Olympics now over, here’s a quick question: What was the biggest story? If you said the Ryan Lochte Saga, you’re likely — and sadly — correct, at least in terms of recent media saturation (which, this media person would note, has largely been driven by massive reader/viewer interest).
But let’s face it, at the end of the day, the twists and turns of the swimmer’s story overshadowed tremendous performances by his U.S. Olympic teammates, especially the American women as a group. As time marches on, there’s a good chance that the tabloid-esque features of L’Affaire Lochte will cause it to diminish in our collective consciousness, while our continued admiration for other feats burnishes their legend.
With that in mind, here’s a look back at the Rio Olympics, divided into the Bad (stories that got people talking but are probably best left to recede in importance), the Good (stories that will be remembered for all the right reasons) and the Under-the-radar (stories you might have missed but are worth savoring).
Let’s just say the name one more time: Ryan Lochte. At least his fabrications about being robbed at gunpoint and subsequent, mealy-mouthed apology gave Post columnist Sally Jenkins several chances to describe him in ways such as “the dumbest bell that ever rang,” as well as someone who “made a convenient self-promotional vehicle out of a city tortured by crime and poverty.”
If any U.S. athlete actually benefited from Lochte’s fish tale, it was Hope Solo. After making herself a target for boos from Brazilian fans with pre-Games comments and social media posts about the Zika virus, the goalkeeper played inconsistently, if not poorly, in Rio and then displayed petulance after a stunning quarterfinal loss by calling the victorious Swedish side “a bunch of cowards.”
Of course, Solo was hardly the only person concerned about Zika, and that was just one of the many issues that seemed to pose grave challenges for the Games’ organizers in the run-up to the Olympics. Other widely publicized problems included pollution, shoddy infrastructure, high crime and political turmoil. Oh, and then there was this headline: “‘Welcome to Hell,’ Rio police tell visitors, as body parts wash up on Olympic beach.”
Lochtean lies aside, there were credible reports of athletes getting robbed, not to mention a media bus being hit with either stones or bullets, but overall, the Games ran reasonably smoothly. However, organizers suffered a black eye, while water polo players complained of burning eyes, when two pools turned green.
Katinka Hosszu might describe some of the skepticism aimed at her dominant performance, including three gold medals and a world record in the 400-meter individual medley, as competitors being green with envy, but she was dogged by suspicions of performance-enhancing drug use. Amid that ongoing story, NBC announcer Dan Hicks earned criticism for referring to Hosszu’s husband/coach, Shane Tusup, as “the man responsible” for her recent success.
In terms of doping notoriety, though, no one could match the Russians, many of whom were barred from Rio altogether. Those who competed did so under a cloud of mistrust, including swimmer Yulia Efimova, who was painted as a villain, fairly or not, by American rival Lilly King and many others. Another kind of corruption was implied, at the very least, when several boxing judges, some of whom helped Russians gain controversial victories, were sent home.
As with Lochte and Solo, U.S. athlete Gabby Douglas found herself on the wrong side of public opinion, but in her case it was mostly due to her body language and facial expressions. A darling of the 2012 London Olympics when she won the women’s all-around title at the age of 16, Douglas was reduced to fighting back tears in a Rio media session.
The there was the French race walker who fell victim to a very poorly timed case of gastrointestinal distress. This can’t diminish in our collective consciousness soon enough.
This article has to end at some point, so there’s no realistic way to list all of the high points for the U.S. team alone, given its staggering haul of 121 medals, 51 more than second-place China and including at least 12 medals more than any other nation in all three categories (gold, silver, bronze).
As mentioned, though, hats off to the American women, who accounted for over half of those medals, including 27 of the 46 golds. Swimming sensation Katie Ledecky lived up to the hype, raking in four golds and a silver while smashing world records (her own, of course) in the 400- and 800-meter freestyles. Meanwhile, Simone Manuel and Ashleigh Johnson not only earned spots atop the podium in swimming and water polo, respectively, they blazed trails for African Americans in the pool.
Much was expected of Simone Biles, and she delivered in Ledecky-like fashion, winning four golds and a bronze, usually with emphatic flair (shout-out to decorated teammate Aly Raisman, as well). Little wonder that the diminutive dynamo was given the sizable honor of being selected as the U.S. team’s flag-bearer for the Closing Ceremonies.
Allyson Felix set a record for women on the Olympic track with her fifth and sixth career gold medals, both coming in relay races and bringing her total to nine overall. Here’s hoping that helps her get over the heartbreak of losing the individual gold medal in the 400 meters, after Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas nipped her with a remarkable dive across the finish line.
Plenty more history was made by U.S. women, including Helen Maroulis, who won the first gold medal by a female U.S. wrestler, and Gwen Jorgensen, who took the nation’s first gold in women’s triathlon. Claressa Shields became the first American boxer to win back-to-back golds, while bronze medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics with a hijab — and provided some choice words for Donald Trump.
Moving to the men, it certainly will be a long time before the exploits of Michael Phelps are forgotten. He won the most medals of any athlete in Rio, five golds and a silver, running his already insane records to 23 golds and 28 Olympic medals overall, including an amazingly dominant showing in the 200-meter individual medley. (Not doing so well in that race? A certain U.S. swimmer who, despite spending so much time in water, found his pants conspicuously on fire.)
Phelps also made a huge splash on the Internet, giving birth to an oh-so-viral meme when NBC cameras caught him with quite the intense stare before a showdown with South African nemesis Chad LeClos. Not to be outdone, Usain Bolt gave Phelps a run for both his “Greatest Olympian ever” money and his Internet ubiquity. The Jamaican icon went three-for-three in Olympic sprint finals an unprecedented third straight time, and he made it look laughably easy — literally so, leading to a photo that fed all sorts of online yuks.
The name “Pita Nikolas Taufatofua” may not be recalled by history so much as “that buff guy who doused himself in oil before carrying his country’s flag.” But Taufatofua’s memorable Opening Ceremonies appearance, reprised during the Closing Ceremonies, did wonders for interest in tourism in that country, Tonga.
Under the radar
Many athletes use the Olympic stage to make political statements of various kinds, but the final day in Rio brought one that carried real risk for Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa. When he crossed the line second in the men’s marathon, he made an “X” sign with his arms, symbolizing a protest of his country’s killing of hundreds of its own Oromo people, a situation Lilesa then spoke of to reporters afterwards, further putting his own life at risk.
“If I go back to Ethiopia maybe they will kill me,” the new silver medalist said. “If not kill me, they will put me in prison. I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country.”
Monica Puig can expect nothing but accolades when she returns to Puerto Rico, which she represented while winning that U.S. territory’s first gold medal, in women’s singles tennis. Oksana Chusovitina failed to medal in Rio, but she succeeded in gaining a huge amount of admiration, first for simply being in the Games at all, as a 41-year-old gymnast, and then for attempting the so-called “vault of death.” Again, she’s 41!
We’ve gone over some of the problems Brazil had while staging the Games, most of which are very far from over now that the show has left town. At least the country can look back with immense pride at the performance of its Neymar-led men’s soccer team, which won gold in a particularly cathartic way by topping Germany, a country that had trounced Brazil, 7-1, on its soil in the 2014 World Cup.
In addition, the volleyball-mad country could celebrate men’s triumphs in both the indoor and beach versions, and it got another huge lift from pole vaulter Thiago Braz da Silva, who set new Olympic, South American and personal records en route to a gold medal. A nation made up of people who didn’t ask for all the bad publicity that came their way, and who mostly lived up to their reputation as a joyous, party-loving group, deserved its series of triumphs late in the Games.
Finally, the tale of Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin didn’t exactly fly under the radar, but it deserves to be celebrated for years to come. After getting tangled up and falling to the track in a women’s 5,000-meter heat, they took turns encouraging each other to get up and finish the race, leading to an emotional connection that had nothing to do with winning or losing and everything to do with athletic camaraderie.
With any luck, future recaps of the 2016 Olympics will pay less attention to the fabrications Lochte spouted and more to the moment D’Agostino and Hamblin shared. If there’s anything to be said for the “Olympic spirit” — assuming Olympic officials haven’t already poisoned that term by greedily taking advantage of cities such as Rio — the two runners gave us a story that should have legs.