Andy Kirkaldy: A selective and subjective sample of Rio memories

First, let me say the persistent corruption and hypocrisy of International Olympic Committee members increasingly has dampened my enthusiasm for the Olympics.
It’s time to throw out the IOC bums, establish one or two sites each for the summer and winter games, and call it a day.
But the athletes themselves range from great to transcendent. Once they start competing — as long as it isn’t in synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics or modern pentathlon — the Olympics remain compelling.
Leaving IOC issues for another day, some of what I saw from Rio made lasting impressions.
I didn’t make a point of watching every day and night and missed a lot — I saw little of the amazing Katie Ledecky, not as much field hockey as I wanted, no boxing (judging scandals, who would have guessed?), not much water polo (who knew Montenegro were ringers?), and no weightlifting, diving, fencing or judo (but was happy to read about Kayla Harrison).
Here’s what I saw that stayed with me:
•  The single most electrifying moment I saw came in the home stretch of the men’s 400-meter race. South African Wayde Van Niekerk not only smoked the two previous Olympic champions, but posted a time — 43.03 — that shattered American Michael Johnson’s world record, set two decades before in Atlanta, an eternity in track years.
Usain Bolt and other Jamaican team members were just coming out of the tunnel into the stadium for the men’s 100 and saw that time and stopped dead in their tracks, awestruck.
Still, Van Niekerk didn’t match Johnson’s 1996 feat of winning both the 200 and 400 in world record time. Bolt broke Johnson’s 200 record in 2008, but Johnson remains a towering figure in track and field history.
•  Kerri Walsh-Jennings is an amazing athlete and all-around volleyball player, not just a finisher at the net. I was convinced she and new partner April Ross would win gold, but bronze isn’t too shabby, nor are Walsh-Jennings’ three earlier gold medals and overall Olympic set record of 56-4. And her sportsmanship and infectious enthusiasm (is there anyone she won’t high-five?) are beyond admirable.
•  Not all moments were wonderful. Poor tactics made the difference in the U.S. women’s soccer team’s loss to Sweden, plus smart play by the Swedes. The Americans showed no patience in the build-up, constantly lobbing low-percentage balls into a box packed with defenders rather than possessing and creating better opportunities.
Sweden also earned its quarterfinal victory by defending well, and the suggestion by U.S. goalie Hope Solo that their play was cowardly was not only disrespectful, but also tactically clueless. And maybe come out and try to make a save next time instead of staying rooted on your line on a breakaway, speaking of courage.
•  On the good-news side, U.S. women athletes overall were dominant, winning more medals than their male counterparts straight up, 61-55, and far more gold, 27-19. That gold haul equaled that of Britain, the second-place nation overall in claiming gold medals in Rio. Title IX, the law that insists schools that receive federal funding provide equal facilities for male and female athletes, deserves credit.
•  Ah, Michael Phelps. Now where does he fit in the discussion of the greatest Olympic athlete ever? I’ve argued in the past for sprinter and jumper Carl Lewis, who won long jump gold in four consecutive Olympics, competed in 10 events total and won gold in nine and silver in the 10th, and was named by Sports Illustrated as the greatest Olympian of the 20th century.
In Phelps’ favor are his 23 gold medals among his remarkable total of 28 total medals and sustained excellence now over four Olympic Games.
Still working against him is the fact there are fewer swimmers than runners — he’s a big fish in a smaller pond than Lewis. Also, if Lewis were allowed to run backwards or sideways as well as just forward, he might well have racked up more medals, too — there’s only one way to run competitively compared to four ways to swim.
Also, Phelps has never actually been the world’s fastest swimmer: He has never won gold in the 50- or 100-meter freestyle, the events that measure pure speed in the fastest stroke.
On the other hand, Phelps has unbelievable stamina to prevail in all those middle-distance races not only in one Olympics, but also in so many events in between, and the technical ability to master the different strokes.
Maybe it’s a tie between them and the honor instead should go to Bolt, winner of three golds in three events in three straight Olympics, the undefeated Olympian who set two world records in the process. Plus he’s the best dancer.
Also deserving to be in the discussion is Ashton Eaton, winner of two straight Olympic decathlons, which are arguably the best measure of all around athletic ability. And he had the best commercial, with wife and Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton.
Let’s just say it’s a joy to have watched all of them.
•  Finally, two celebrations of victory in Rio touched me the most.
The first, well, if someone had submitted the script for Brazil’s men’s soccer gold medal, movie producers might have rejected it as being too unrealistic. The team failed to score in its first two outings, but still made it to the gold medal game vs. Germany. Brazil struck first on a first-half Neymar free kick, but Germany outplayed Brazil for most of the game and equalized in the second half.
Then Brazil came alive, displaying the creativity and style its national team had long been known for, but seemed to forget in recent years — notably in a 7-1 loss to Germany in the Rio World Cup two years ago. Germany was suddenly on its heels, stalling and hoping to win in penalty kicks.
Brazil was playing to win the country’s first-ever Olympic gold, and deservedly did so when goalie and surprise team addition Weverton saved the final German penalty kick. Then Neymar forever etched himself into Brazil’s history by converting his team’s fifth penalty kick.
First came joy, a fist pump, and then the realization of what he had just accomplished. Neymar sank to his knees, overwhelmed, while 60,000 Brazilians celebrated as only they can.
The other moment came from winning triathlete Gwen Jorgensen. The race itself was incredible, coming down to a cat-and-mouse duel in the event-ending 10-kilometer run between her and defending Olympic champion Nicola Spirig. Several times the pair slowed almost to a halt, even talking, daring one another to push the pace. Finally, Jorgensen took off in the final kilometer-plus and won by an incredible 40 seconds.
Once Jorgensen crossed the line she was overcome by emotion. All the years of work she had put in to be able to swim 1.5K, bike 40K and then run 10k had paid off. She sobbed and wrapped her arms around her coach in a long embrace.
Those moments are what the Games are about.

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