Best, Worst of Olympics First Week Includes Phelps, Gymnastics, Golf, Hope Solo and Over-Patriotism
by Julian Spivey
I’ve spent most of my free time over the last nine days watching the 2016 Summer Olympics from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and can honestly say it’s the most fun I’ve ever had watching the Olympics. While television statistics show fewer people are watching the Olympics these days I find myself enjoying and appreciating the athletic feats I see more and more, probably because many of these sports and events you only get to see once every four years. The games, which many in the press felt would be a disaster, have been mostly fine at the halfway point of the games except for some minor issues like the diving and water polo pools mysteriously turning green and Ryan Lochte and other fellow USA swimmers being held up by gunpoint late Saturday night. What’s happened on the playing courts, pools, courses and fields thus far has been riveting and I’d like to take the time to talk about some of the highlights and a few lowlights of the games thus far.
Swimming has seemingly surpassed gymnastics and track and field as the favorite Olympic sport among the masses in America and a lot of that has to do with the legendary feats of Michael Phelps, who certainly added to his historic resume this past week. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if Phelps had disappointed at Rio giving it’s his fifth games at age 31, older than most of his fellow competitors by as much as over a decade, and with all that’s happened to him since the 2012 games in London. But, Phelps seemed as good as ever medaling in all six of his events, including five gold medals to extend his Olympic record to 23 golds. He also surpassed the Olympic individual medal record with 16 total. Phelps simply solidified his position as the greatest Olympian in the history of the games.
While Phelps solidified his legendary status in Rio another USA legend was born with the efforts of 19-year old swimmer Katie Ledecky, who took home four golds – almost all of them in incredibly dominating fashion. There was a lot made about sexism in the media’s coverage throughout the first week of the games – some of it warranted and some of it much ado about nothing – but one of the great announcing moments came when NBC swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines mentioned that many people had claimed Ledecky swam like a man, but in fact she just swims like Katie Ledecky.
I have never been the slightest bit interested in gymnastics. But, that all turned around this week while watching the Team USA women compete. There was just something about the dominance and effortlessness of the team of Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian that couldn’t help but to put a smile on my face.
I will say that those already claiming Biles to be the greatest gymnast of all-time are being a little bit premature (this was written before the individual performances on Sunday night). She’s certainly the greatest active gymnast and I don’t believe that can be argued against, but this is her first Olympic appearance and I’d like to see what she’s capable of in 2020 in Tokyo first before giving her that prestigious honor. I’m glad a legend of the sport like Nadia Comaneci, the only competitor in Olympic history to have a perfect score in an event, came out to the press and said basically the same thing.
I’m a huge golf fan and can’t believe the sport, which last appeared in the Olympics in 1906 in St. Louis, went 110 years without being an Olympic sport. Golf is played virtually everywhere around the world and should’ve been a no-brainer all along for the Olympics. The games finally righted one of its biggest wrongs this year and couldn’t have been rewarded any better. On Sunday going to the final hole at the Olympic Golf Course Great Britain’s Justin Rose and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, both major golf winners, were tied. Rose would come out of the 18th hole as the victor to take gold, Stenson would settle for silver and American Matt Kuchar, tying the Olympic record with a 63 in the final round, jumped up to the bronze medal.
The on course golf was spectacular, but I’ve got two complaints anyway.
The first was the golfers who decided to skip this event and those include some of the biggest names in the world and the top four in the World Golf Rankings: Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson. These four golfers along with a few others decided not to go to Rio for fears of security issues or getting the Zika virus. Those golfers frankly look like fools now after the event went off without a hitch, players who did participate gleefully cheered the event and NBC golf announcers like Johnny Miller claimed to have not seen a single mosquito during the entire event. At one point during the final round on Sunday one of the announcers claimed, “we’re not even missing those who chose not to come.” And while that statement was partially true in that it didn’t impact the on-course action or the excitement of the event going down to the wire it wasn’t completely true because you’d like to see the best field possible in an event that means this much and those four big name golfers chickening out did hurt it at least somewhat.
The other complaint from the first Olympic golf event in 110 years is something that certainly wouldn’t have been a problem for golfers a century ago and that’s the use of phones and cameras in the gallery distracting the golfers. I’m not kidding when I say “please put away the cameras/phones” must’ve been uttered more than a thousand times over the course of the four-day event by golfers and caddies. It got to the point where it somewhat took away from the viewing pleasure by the sheer annoyance of the repeated phrase. While many within the game – athletes and announcers – are chiding fans new to the sport on their lack of etiquette I’ve got to say that the golfers and announcers need to lighten up, a lot. It wasn’t so much an issue because people didn’t realize the etiquette, but rather because they don’t really care and golf shouldn’t either. Any sport needs new generations of fans to survive and today’s younger generations are attached to their iPhones as if it were an actual body part attached to their hands and one day through evolution it probably will be. Sure, those within the game could keep whining about these minor distractions and events may even consider banning phones altogether, but if the sport wants to attract young fans it’s going to have to learn to adapt. Imagine if a baseball player or basketball player refused to continue with their actions on the playing field because fans were snapping photos? Golfers need to learn to better focus on the game with these distractions or their sport will suffer.
While swimming was the biggest success during week one for the USA the biggest disappointment was, without a doubt, the women’s soccer team that was favored to win the gold medal coming in and ended up being eliminated by Sweden in the first round of eliminations. The poor play wasn’t really so much the biggest disappointment though for Team USA as it was the constant poor behavior by goalie Hope Solo, who became the villain of the Olympics with her disrespectful social media posts about Zika preparation, which led to the crowds constantly deriding her with cheers of “Zika! Zika!” The all-around disrespectful Solo showed her true colors yet again after losing to Sweden when she referred to the winning team as “cowards.” This shocking lack of sportsmanship is unbecoming of a member of the USA squad and based on her actions in Rio and previous actions including a domestic assault arrest which went unpunished by Team USA it’s probably time for the team to show Solo the door.
One of the greatest things about any Olympic games is cheering on the athletes from your country. But, sometimes this patriotism can go too far into the realm of jingoism and it seems to happen more with American sports fans than those of other countries or maybe that’s just because living here makes us more aware. Two moments of over-patriotism stood out from the first week of the games. The first came when the USA women won gold in gymnastics and Gabby Douglas in a Flag Code faux paus didn’t place her hand over her heart, which is a completely honest mistake. Douglas was bullied for this ruthlessly by people on Twitter many declaring that she should move to another country if she hates the USA so much.
The other moment of over-patriotism that led to an abundance of stupidity was when Ashton Eaton, American gold medalist in the Decathlon at London in 2012 and competitor later in these games, wore a Canada hat in the stands while watching his Canadian wife Brianne Theisen-Eaton perform in the Heptathlon, where she would win bronze. Eaton was also ruthlessly attacked on social media for wearing a hat representing another country, when he was merely doing so to show support for his wife.
Sometimes rooting for one’s country can bring out the worst in a person. It’s important to remember that these are just games and nothing more. Argentinian basketball player Luis Scola knows this and had one of the best statements of the game when he told the crowd before the Argentina/Brazil (heated rivals) basketball game that it’s just a game, not war. It’s great to root for those representing your country to win honors, but it’s stepping over the line when you attack these athletes because you don’t believe they are representing you the way you want them to do.
GOOD GUYS vs. BAD GUYS:
One of the greatest moments of the first week of the Olympics was when American swimmer Lilly King called out Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova for her past use of performance enhancing drugs and said PED users should receive a lifetime ban from competing in the Olympics. King then backed up her statement by beating Efimova in the pool for the gold medal. The talk of the Russians frequent use of performance enhancing drugs has been one of the biggest talking points of the first week of the Olympics and it should be. Use of these drugs is cheating – there’s no way around that – and I agree with King in that any athlete caught using should be banned for life. Americans rallied around King’s statement and her rivalry with Efimova became something of a swimming Cold War in that it was the good Americans against the bad Russians. Here’s the only issue with that … As we move into week two of the Olympics some of the American favorites for the track and field events include sprinters like Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, athletes who have been punished in the past for using performance enhancing drugs. If you’re like King and believe these athletes should receive lifetime bans, as well, then good for you. I know that’s what I believe. But, if you’re going to bash the Russian dopers and then turn around and root for Americans who’ve done the same thing that makes you a hypocrite and probably is another sign of over-patriotism. Don’t be that person.