Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Olympic Wrap-up, Part One

The 2016 Summer Olympics have come and gone with lots of highs and lows... and I am talking mostly about the actual sports, and not at all about the long strange trip of Ryan Lochte & Co. This post promises to be a Lochte-free zone.

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Things started with a bang, as the first few days alone turned up almost everything you could ask for.

There was talk of dangerously inadequate housing in the Olympic Village, and whispers about whether NBC deliberately covered up that story in order to put a happy face on the games it pays so much to support.

There was a rules controversy (thought not a judging controversy) which centered around Gabby Douglas getting screwed out of an earned opportunity to defend her gold medal from 2012.

And there was a PED scandal focused on the Soviets Russians, who arrived under a cloud of suspicion due to recent revelations about systemic, state-sponsored doping in their sports programs. This triggered pointed, vocal, and very open contempt criticism from many non-Russian athletes, including American swimmer Lily King, who pointed her finger directly at competitor Yulia Efimova.

On the PED front, it almost felt like the Eighties again. The only thing missing was a squad of bearded East German women the size of Orlando Pace heaving shot puts 50 feet and lifting 500 pounds on the clean-and-jerk. I felt almost nostalgic for the bad ol' days.

But getting back to the actual sports, since I did promise to talk "mostly" about them...

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What could be cooler than a 19-year-old American chick wielding a rifle and outshooting the world to win the first gold of the games? Especially when she has such a perfect name: Virginia Thrasher!

What could be more energizing than our female gymnasts securing a second straight team gold, and following it up with Simone Biles and Aly Raisman finishing 1-2 in both the individual all-around and individual floor routine? Well, how about Biles winning four golds and a bronze at the somewhat-old-for-gymnastics age of 19?

What could be more pleasantly surprising than our swim team accumulating a record-tying 33 medals, and multiple world records to boot?

What could be more mind-boggling that Michael Phelps cementing his place as the greatest Olympian of all time, by winning five golds and a silver at the age of 31 -- and performing just as impressively as he did eight years ago in Beijing?

What could be more noteworthy than our men's and women's track teams prevailing in three of the four sprint relays? How about Allyson Felix being on two of those and anchoring one, and thus becoming the first woman in history to win six track golds in an Olympic career?

What could be more "world's greatest athlete"-ish that Ashton Eaton winning his second consecutive Olympic decathlon, becoming only the third person ever to do so?

Or more sweeping than Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali, and Kristi Castlin owning the podium by going 1-2-3 in the 100 meter hurdles?

Or more emotional than the women's water polo team winning their second consecutive gold -- and every player proceeding to drape her medal around the neck of Coach Adam Krikorian, whose brother Blake died of a heart attack days before the opening ceremony?

What could be more smile-worthy than Team USA winning both the men's and women's shot put? Or Matthew Centrowitz, Jr. becoming the first American to win the 1,500 meters in 108 years? Or Galen Rupp winning bronze in the marathon after having previously run just one -- yes, one -- marathon in his entire life?

And what could be more age-defying than cyclist Kristin Armstrong, at the age of 43, winning her third straight Olympic gold in road time trial?

Or more unprecedented that shootist Kim Rhodes becoming the first Olympian to 1) medal in six consecutive Olympics, and 2) medal in Olympics on five different continents?

In typing all those major American accomplishments, I am leaving out many more because there are simply too many to mention. That's a problem, but a good one.

But the Olympics are, of course, not only about our country, so I will move on...

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I do not care for soccer, but I have to admit that the most enduring images from these games flowed from the host nation's championship-clinching victory over Germany.

Soccer is almost a religion in Brazil, and two years ago the Brazilians got eliminated from the World Cup when Germany blew them out 7-1 on their home turf; so when the two countries squared off for the gold on Saturday night at legendary Maracana Stadium, it was, to say the least, a big mofo of a deal.

The roar of the crowd -- 70,000-plus, overflowing, clad almost uniformly in yellow and green -- was the kind of thing that makes sports so cathartic. When the same crowd loudly sang the national anthem during the medal ceremony, it was even better.

But as important as soccer is in the host country, it does not occupy the entirety of that nation's sporting soul. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a million (or maybe only five) times: Soccer is Brazil's religion, but volleyball is its #1 sport. I'm not sure what that means because it makes no sense, but I first heard it during the 1984 LA Olympics and haven't forgotten it... and since volleyball means a lot down there, it swelled the nation's pride to see Brazil get medals in three of the four volleyball events: gold in men's indoor and men's beach, plus silver in women's beach.

Although Brazil did not finish extremely high in the overall standings (its 19 medals resulted in a 12th place tie with Holland), the fact that it struck gold in the sports which matter most to its citizens is sure to make these games an event that will be remembered fondly.

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Meanwhile, someone has to give a shout out to Great Britain.

The land of afternoon tea and "God Save the Queen" was once an athletic afterthought, a lightweight that people from other countries snickered about whenever the Olympics rolled around.

Sure, the Brits produced some athletic heroes in the 1924 Olympics (who would have been forgotten if not for the movie Chariots of Fire) but for generations after that, their impact on non-soccer international sports was negligible.

But in the 2004 Athens games, they shimmied up the pole and tied for ninth in the standings, dead even with South Korea both in golds (9) and overall medals (30).

Four years later in Beijing, they landed among the big boys by finishing fourth in both golds (19) and overall (47) -- ahead of longtime juggernauts Germany and Australia, and nipping at the heels of roided up highly regarded Russia.

Next came 2012, when the games were held in London itself and Great Britain ensconced itself among the sporting elite by soundly beating Russia to finish third in the gold medal count (29 to their 22) and crushing Germany to finish fourth in the overall count (65 to 44).

And now in 2016, despite fielding fewer athletes than in 2012, the Brits have done even better by finishing third both in golds and overall. For the first time ever, they beat both the Russians and Germans in both metrics (27-19 in golds and 67-56 overall versus the former; 27-17 in golds and 67-42 overall against the latter)... and perhaps most impressively, they finished with more golds and more silvers than Mao's Machine China.

The Anglosphere now sits atop the sporting world -- not just a nose ahead of the rest of the world thanks to the US and Australia, as has often been the case, but considerably ahead thanks to the founding Anglo(-Saxon) country having become a sports superpower.

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But don't ever overlook the Balkans. It remains as true today as ever that the countries from the Balkan Peninsula know how to punch above their suspected weight class

Back in the 1980's, when worries began to surface that the rest of the world was rapidly catching up to the US in basketball, it wasn't Russian players who triggered the fear, it was Yugoslavians. And when Europeans started playing in the NBA, it was players born and reared in Yugoslavia who made the most waves.

Of course, before long there was no more Yugoslavia, as that artificially mashed-together country split up into its constituent parts and, well, Balkanized. Though it became six different nations, its impact on international hoops remained major because one of the "new" nations, Croatia, was quickly recognized as the world's #2 basketball power and retained that title throughout the 1990's.

Croatian hoops was a non-factor in these Rio Olympics, but Serbia, another of the "new" nations from the former Yugoslavia, proved that Balkan basketball remains powerful. In the preliminary round, Team Serbia outplayed Team USA's roster of NBA stars and came within one missed shot of forcing overtime. Ultimately the Serbs won silver.

Meanwhile, the men's water polo final turned into an all-Balkan affair with Serbia defeating Croatia for gold, while another Balkan country, Montenegro, just barely lost to Italy in the bronze medal match. (If you watched the battle for gold, you certainly noticed that the Serbs and Croats can't stand each other, which goes to show that the word Balkanization wasn't coined in a vacuum!)

Plus there is the tiny country of Slovenia. Fresh off a stellar showing in the Sochi Winter Olympics, it grabbed four medals in Rio despite having a population smaller than Kansas City's metro area.

Like I said: Don't ever overlook the Balkans!

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The Rio Olympics had examples of poor sportsmanship. Egyptian judo fighter Islam El Shehaby refusing to shake hands with Israel's Or Sasson was a definite example of anti-Semitism and likely example of Islamist supremacism. And American soccer goalie Hope Solo proved her domestic-abusing self to be a disgrace by calling the Swedes "cowards" after they defeated Team USA.

Hope, do you think Jim Valvano's 1983 NC State Wolfpack -- also known as the 1983 NCAA basketball champions -- were "cowards" for outsmarting the Houston Cougars in one of the greatest title games ever played, or do you think they were winners for outsmarting them? Or are you too ignorant to know about that seminal event in sports history?

Go home, shut up, face the criminal charges pending against you, and stop pretending you represent my country. You are an embarrassment and I hope you are never again asked to wear the "USA" anywhere near your "not as good as Brandi Chastain's" bosom.

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Ok, sorry. I might have gotten a little carried away. But I meant it.

Anyway, that brings me back to the positive counterpoint: The Rio Olympics had many more examples of good sportsmanship than bad sportsmanship.

American Abbey D'Agostino and New Zealander Nikki Hamblin helping each other finish the 5,000 meters, after a mid-race pileup injured them both, will live forever.

So too will (or should) the image of Sandi Morris embracing Ekaterini Stefanidi in a congratulatory hug after finishing second to her in the pole vault.

So too will (or should) the poolside interview of David Boudia and Steele Johnson immediately after they won a synchronized diving silver. Live on camera, they unashamedly professed their Christian faith and declared that it keeps them grounded; keeps them from placing too much emphasis on a medal; keeps them from becoming bitter about winning silver rather than gold; and gives them the mental strength that is necessary to win medals in the first pace... Many people (ahem, Ms. Solo) could learn a lot from their example of humility.

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When all was said and done, my favorite "athlete reaction" to making the podium was the twofer provided by American Simone Manuel and Canadian Penny Oleksiak. That pair of swimmers tied for the gold in Olympic record time in the 100 meter freestyle, but it was a while before either of them realized it.

Manuel surfaced, looked around, touched her cap, and casually glanced over at the scoreboard as if she was merely curious about her time. After a second or two, when she realized she really was seeing what she was seeing, her mouth flew open and her hands came up and she broke into tears.

And as she did that, Oleksiak remained oblivious to what she had just accomplished. Way over in Lane 8, she waited a full 25 seconds before even bothering to turn around and face the scoreboard. When she finally did, her open-mouthed smile was every bit as amazed as Manuel's.

Manuel went on to finish the games with four medals, which puts her in a tie with Cullen Jones for the title of most decorated black swimmer in Olympic history... Oleksiak also went on to finish with four, making her the first Canadian to win four medals in a single Summer Olympics... This photo of them meeting in the water after finishing their "co-golds" race is a good one:


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Of course, there are many things about the Olympics that deserve comment but have nothing to do with the actual sports... so I'll just save those comments for the next post.