By Guy Somerset
I have a confession to make...I love the Olympics. Always have, always will.
You tell me at least since 1970 the whole thing has been commercialized to the extent it is only an excuse for network television to momentarily break from continual advertisements, and I concede. You say the "human interest angles" have been overplayed such that coverage often devolves into treacly hokum P. T. Barnum would blush to ballyhoo, and I agree. You point out sportscaster Bob Costas may not even be an actual human but rather the physical embodiment of quivering emotional pap, and I acknowledge we should put scientists on the matter immediately.
Even so, I love the Olympics because in spite of their innumerable failings the majesty of what they (at least are intended to) represent combined with the broad scope of their inclusion means every so often genuine instances of gallantry and greatness break through. In the Summer Games at Rio there were 205 participating nations with a combined total of over 11,000 athletes in 306 events. By the very magnitude of such an array some authentic moments were bound to overcome the hype.
A friend who was son of the Finance Minister to Liberia participated in the games some years ago and one of the things he said to me about the experience while raising funds for his teammates was, "There is a reputation a lot of us in the Olympics are rich, which is true, but a lot of us aren't either.
This was brought to mind in the situation of American Gwen Jorgensen. That young lady was a successful swimmer and runner at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she earned a Master's Degree in Accounting. She did what most people do afterward, getting a job and getting married. However she also had a dream to be an Olympian.
To that end years ago she took a leave from her job, her husband ended his own career and they moved into a small apartment above a bicycle shop. Interviewed a few days prior Jorgensen was optimistic about winning but insisted representing her country was the main goal of endless hours training. Watching her husband cooking rice on a small stove in the background highlighted exactly the sort of unglamorous reality and generally unwitnessed sacrifice becoming a champion entails. Yet on August 20, Jorgensen won the first United States Triathlon Gold and for a moment everyone knew her name.
One name you might not have heard is Andreas Toba. Participating for Germany in Men's Gymnastics he severely injured his knee during qualifications for the floor event and sustained what was later revealed as a torn ACL. Toba went down in agony, tears in his eyes, and had to be assisted from the floor; his Olympics and possibly his athletic career seemingly over.
Nonetheless, only hours later Toba was back on the mat for the pommel horse. Knowing if he withdrew Team Germany would fail to make the finals he mounted the apparatus and completed his routine which included a purposeful landing on his damaged leg.
Teammate Fabian Hambüchen (as well as anyone who saw it live) described this as nothing less than amazing. Germany eventually placed seventh in the event from which they would have otherwise been disqualified but not for this sacrifice. For his part, Toba brushed off claims he was in any way a hero; but then, heroes always do.
Unfortunately, just as there is a flipside to every coin, there is a backside to every medal. Overall boorish behavior was at a minimum yet there were examples of the poorest of sports.
Continuing with the All-Arounds, one of the most unsavory aspects of the Rio games were the robberies, and there were a lot of them: The Russian Olympic Team Fan House was robbed literally during the Opening Ceremony, Chinese journalists likewise had their hotel rooms ransacked for expensive electronics, inside the Olympic Village itself the British Team had several bags containing gear go missing, another competitor for Team Britain was robbed at gunpoint (which caused its delegation to advise athletes not to go out at night), three Swedish tourists were mugged, Portugal's Education Minister was held up at knifepoint, a Chicago physician was relieved of cash by a man with a gun, a News Corp. photographer had $40,000 of equipment stolen (the thief later caught impersonating the cameraman inside a venue!) and there were hordes of teen pickpockets (and prostitutes) who made sure citizens of every nation got the equivalent of a Rio Robbery Participation Medal.
On an individual level we had the same old problems arising from Middle East feuds between cousins. This happens almost every four years in some form or another. In 2016 it was when an Egyptian crybaby Islam El Shehaby refused to shake the hand of his Israeli opponent following categorical defeat in a first-round Judo match. The surly weakling simpered off to (an inspiring) chorus of taunts from the audience (of all nationalities) who were disgusted by El Shehaby's demeanor. International Olympic Officials, and to their credit the Egyptian Team, soon sent the disgraced man home to lick his wounds.
Lamentably, when it came to some of the worst behavior of the Summer Games Americans took Gold. There was so much to be ashamed of and by such high profile participants that there is little wonder a trope of "the Ugly American" exists or that so much of the world has such low opinions of so many.
Lilly King was the first offender. Watching a preliminary swim in the 100m Breaststroke she saw Russian Yulia Efimova win her Semifinal and do what innumerable others have done, namely wag her finger in a Number One sign. Oddly, this common gesture immediately sent King into a paroxysm of rage. She mocked her fellow competitor. She gave interviews. She verily foamed at the mouth.
The media, looking for a rivalry to play up, used the adolescent to promote the event (as well as giving pundits one more reason to tell us all to fear and loathe Russia). By the time of their confrontation in the 100m Final the stage was set for some serious unsportsmanlike conduct, which King delivered.
In an admirable display of athletic prowess Lilly won Gold. Although instead of congratulating the second place finisher, she proved herself a lout. Initially came a fist pump in Efimova's direction. Admittedly, anyone can get carried away. Then she purposefully waded against the divider in front of Efimova to make sure the cameras could capture her doing it again for posterity. Extremely offensive, but King is still a 19-year-old child. Later she leaned into the lane and smashed the water with a clenched fist. Poor sportsmanship, personified; something not helped by her hometown supporters who proved equally embarrassing.
First, there is the fact Efimova was previously banned for doping; a ban she served and a mistake she admitted. Second, current issues surrounding Meldonium are at least as political as they are performance-enhancing. Many Western athletes don't take it while many Eastern athletes do. (Tennis player Sharapova was sanctioned this year for the substance, despite its having been legal decades.) Third, if Efimova was taking the drug (an assertion not yet proved) it seems the reason would be health problems to which she has alluded but not fully explained publicly (and may provide grounds for its use).
Following the spat, in individual competition between the two women Efimova earned another Silver Medal in the 200m Breaststroke; an event King did not even overcome the preliminary.
Hope Solo was goalie for the American Women's Soccer Team which had been reigning Gold Medal Champions. Following an exciting match with Sweden, including two periods of Extra Time, the game would be decided by kicks. Solo, already scorned by the many Brazilians in the stands due to her Zika comments, would be the center of attention. In the deciding shoot-out there was a (spectacularly) brief moment one could have some empathy for Hope. The Americans had missed their final kick, the Swedes were taking theirs, everyone in the stadium despised Solo. It was a situation in which a man might feel sorry for anyone; there is a special place in any heart for the lone figure against a united mob.
And then...and then...just as ever she finds a way to do, Solo managed to make a hostile crowd hate her even more. Instead of facing the challenge bravely, Hope decided to play mental games by pretending she had an issue with her gloves, then conferring with her coach, then changing the gloves. This wasn't "gamesmanship," this was rank cowardice and pathetically juvenile antics to delay the inevitable. I'm not ashamed to say I would have forgone the goal just to have seen Hope Solo take a soccer ball going full speed directly to her square-jawed face. (Which isn't a misogynistic thought by the way, since she married a career-criminal and apparently enjoys having him rough her up from time to time.)
Sadly, fans had to settle for the score which went in Sweden's favor. With an unexpected American defeat its organization had an opportunity to show some poise by congratulating their betters. Instead for weeks the team stood behind Solo (as they always, shamefully, despicably do) and her comments the Swedes didn't deserve victory because they played a defensive game. This is why the world despises a certain sort of American and why sometimes even those of us living in America have to agree.
By now everyone knows about Ryan Lochte and the robbery / extortion / vandalism / all of the above which occurred just preceding the end of the games. The series of events is in dispute. For the record, anytime someone begins an account with any variation of the phrase, "Now I was really drunk but here is what happened..." you should take everything after the ellipsis with a large shaker of salt.
The rough version is Lochte and chums arrived at a service station in their taxicab after a night of heavy drinking. They may or may not have committed minor vandalism by busting into a locked bathroom. When they attempted to leave someone in uniform ordered them to halt and then pulled a gun. All the swimmers raised their hands and got on the ground before money was taken from them. Lochte, through his alcohol haze the morning after, remembered this as a robbery. The service station owner characterized it as compensation for the broken bathroom lock. Beyond this, no one knows for sure.
Unfortunately, the press made the matter into a black and white issue even though it is more obscure than grainy video of the encounter. Lochte has since apologized for conflating issues. Brazil, wailing as only a sleazy whore can at an insult to her supposed virtue, has insisted its people are the true victims. (How Lochte is responsible for Rio's failure to provide aforementioned citizens with running toilets or functioning government has not as of this time been addressed by its Third World leadership.)
Clearly Lochte was wrong in speaking about something he could only vaguely recall. More obviously, the gaggle of hysterics at NBC News was worse by trying to make an inherently ambiguous happenstance into an unequivocal narrative. (A new low was when Matt Lauer described someone taking money from another at point of a gun as not coercion but a "negotiated solution." This might explain the otherwise baffling salary he is paid by the network.) Still we have to include Lochte in this list of unseemly Americans if for no other reason he made the team look like a bunch of liars rather than what they were: fraternity brothers on a bender who got into water deeper than is found in any swimming pool.
Finally, at times like these it is good to recall that not all (not even most) Americans behave this way. Although it can be admitted the celebrity class are of the caliber of Hope Solo, the common class of Americans are much more akin to the United States Women's Water Polo team.
Moments after winning Olympic Gold Medals, they gave them away. As the anthem died down and the crowds filtered out, every single one approached their leader and hung the trophies about his neck. Only two weeks ago the brother of Coach Adam Krikorian unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack. To attend to family matters Krikorian had departed Rio for several days. However, he found the strength to return and finish the job of seeing his team through to victory. "I was just thinking about my brother, thinking about how hard this journey has been," Krikorian was quoted as saying. "It hasn't been easy."
Seeking out genuine moments of Olympic greatness over the course of the games is never easy. Yet when you find them they are worth far more than gold.
Guy Somerset writes from somewhere in America