Rio Olympics: Heroes, with or without medals

Many athletes have grabbed attention not just for wins, but for the way they have performed


Dipa Karmakar. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI
Dipa Karmakar. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

Swimmer Joseph Schooling has been one of the biggest headline grabbers at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and justifiably so. Not only has he won Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold medal, he also defeated the modern era’s most successful Olympian and his idol, Michael Phelps, in the 100m butterfly.

There are several other athletes who haven’t quite made the same kind of headlines or finished on the podium, but who are awe-inspiring all the same. Their stories are ready-made scripts for engrossing sports movies: They fought the odds to make it to Rio 2016. Here are the six that deserve to slip out of the shadows of stars like Usain Bolt and Phelps.

Dipa Karmakar, India, gymnastics

She made headlines in India a couple of months ago when she made the cut for the Olympics. On the eve of India’s 70th Independence Day, Dipa Karmakar was rediscovered, for she was among the last few who could win a medal—India’s first at Rio.

She didn’t, but she came close. Karmakar was edged out of third place by a mere 0.15 points by Swiss Giulia Steingruber, another Olympic revelation who won her country’s first-ever medal in gymnastics.

Now, Karmakar is quietly cherishing her success and thinking ahead to the Asian Games in 2018 and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. “It would have been better if I had won a medal…but I am happy that I gave it my all. I will only look at a gold medal now, because I’ve realized that’s achievable with more hard work. In four years’ time, don’t you think I will be wiser?” said the 23-year-old, who was so busy training for her maiden Olympic appearance over the past few months that she hasn’t met her family since April.

Lalita Babar (in blue). Photo: David J. Phillip/AP
Lalita Babar (in blue). Photo: David J. Phillip/AP

Lalita Babar, India, athletics (3,000m steeplechase)

At her first Olympics, Lalita Babar is already among the top 10 steeplechasers in the world, finishing 10th (out of 18 participants) with a timing of 9:22.74. In the heats, she broke the national record with 9:19.76. Had she managed the same timing in the final, she would have finished seventh.

She bettered the national record, which she set in August 2015, by 8 seconds. “My aim is not to break national records,” she said after the event, “but I want to focus on improving my timings constantly. I want to be better than this in Tokyo.”

Madeline DiRado. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Madeline DiRado. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Madeline DiRado, US, swimming (200m backstroke)

A debutant in a team that includes Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Ryan Lochte can easily get lost. And so it was initially with Madeline “Maya” DiRado.

But in the 200m backstroke final on Friday, she beat Hungarian favourite Katinka Hosszú with a timing of 2:05.99—with her godfather, Rolf Geyling, and husband Rob Andrews shouting so hard from the stands on the first floor overlooking the finish line that she probably heard them and picked up pace in the final 50m to stage the upset.

“That was the most I’ve ever wanted to win something and beat the person next to me,” DiRado told reporters after the race. “...I was just thrashing my body as hard as I could. I just tried to throw my body back to the wall. I actually found my nail popped out—I broke my nail on the finish, I hit the wall so hard. That’s all you can do, I guess.”

This is the 23-year-old’s first and last Olympics, for she is starting a career with consulting firm McKinsey & Co. She will walk into her new job in Atlanta in September with four Olympic medals—two gold (200m backstroke, 4x200m freestyle relay), a silver (400m individual medley) and a bronze (200m individual medley).

Rafaela Silva (in blue). Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images
Rafaela Silva (in blue). Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Rafaela Silva, Brazil, judo

The negative sentiment about the Olympics in the host country has manifested itself in the form of protests and attacks on people and venues associated with the Games.

But one woman from the infamous favela (slum) Cidade de Deus or City of God (well-known after the movie of the same name) has Brazil uniting in praise. Coming from a family that found a pair of new flip-flops too expensive to buy, Rafaela Silva is now a symbol of hope for the country’s poor (Brazilians’ love for football notwithstanding, they believe their footballers play more for money than pride).

Her father sent Silva and her sister for judo classes so that the two, who used to get into scuffles regularly with boys in the favela, could take care of themselves. Since then, she has trained with Athens 2004 bronze medallist Flávio Conto and has persisted with it, despite her dislike for training.

“The people who saw my suffering daily know I did not like to train. But I think no one has worked more than me in this Olympic cycle,” said Silva.

That effort helped her win the World Judo Championships in 2013 and the Olympic gold in the 57kg category of women’s judo in her hometown. “My childhood was very complicated. We could not really play for long before there was a firefight. Once in a while, some gang member would just jump into our house,” she said at a press conference in the Olympic Park.

“Judo has changed my life. I had no dream, no goals. All I wanted was to have clean clothes.... I’ll leave the Olympic Village on the weekend. I would like to go back to Cidade de Deus...to give some attention to some kids and inspire them to get into sports or a university.”

Diego Hypólito (left) and Arthur Mariano. Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters
Diego Hypólito (left) and Arthur Mariano. Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters

Diego Hypólito and Arthur Mariano, Brazil, gymnastics

The memories Diego Hypólito has from Beijing 2008 and London 2012 are of him slipping during critical performances, followed by tears of disappointment. In Rio, tears covered his face again, and this time he wasn’t alone. Arthur Mariano was sobbing inconsolably with him.

Hypólito won the silver and Mariano the bronze—Brazil’s first in gymnastics—in front of a boisterous home crowd that went wild when the results were announced.

“I fell in two Olympic Games. They were difficult for me. I was able to overcome that and this is a great result for me. I believed in myself and my coach believed in me when nobody believed in me,” Hypólito, whose sister Daniele is also a gymnast, told reporters.

Mariano, who has over a million followers on Instagram, said, “It was unthinkable to have two Brazilians on the podium but, finally, our day came.”

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