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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Rio Olympics: The best and worst performances

Rio Olympics was no doubt quite a mess backstage and yet quite a spectacle at the front of the house

Rio De Janeiro: As if this city did not have enough problems to overcome, rain and high winds swept through here shortly before the Olympics closing ceremony, sending branches and balcony fixtures plummeting onto sidewalks and automobile hoods.

In what by now is standard fashion at these Olympics, the Brazilians soldiered on and found a way, even on backup generator power at the Maracanã stadium.

It was a high-wire games: full of challenges and contrasts, abrupt shifts in mood and momentum. It was no doubt quite a mess backstage and yet quite a spectacle at the front of the house.

But now it is time for the traditional wrap parties and an extra layer of relief, and definitely time to hand out our traditional Olympic prizes (before something else falls from the sky).

Best performance on land

Bolt. Bolt. It’s always about Usain Bolt, and, yes, he went three for three again in the gold medal department, holding off the fading threats (Justin Gatlin) and the rising stars (Andre De Grasse) without looking as if he were quite giving it his full attention. That, of course, is part of his charm.

What will track—or the second week of the Olympics—do without him?

But this year’s farewell run lacked both the element of surprise and the element of self-improvement. Bolt’s times in major championships have been increasing for years now.

For the novelty factor and the wow factor, there was no surpassing American Simone Biles. Even if she was a three-time all-around world champion, she was an Olympic rookie, and her explosive and exuberant brand of gymnastics leapt off any screen in any culture. For all those who tuned in or actually made it to their seats in Rio, her performances redefined human limits: just as Bolt’s sprinting did in 2008 and 2009.

Worst performance on land

There was no shortage of candidates—including the loose-lipped American goalkeeper Hope Solo—but only one genuine contender. Ryan Lochte should definitely have stayed in the pool.

Best performance in water

Phelps. Phelps. It’s always about Michael Phelps, and, yes, he won five more gold medals, this time at age 31. But three of those came in relays, and in one of those, Phelps was given a big lead heading into his anchor leg.

As remarkable as Phelps remains, the United States’ swimming success was born of a genuine team effort, and not just because of Katie Ledecky’s freestyle dominance.

The Americans also got individual gold medals from five other swimmers, including members of the new wave (Ryan Murphy) and the old guard (Anthony Ervin). After giving few hints of such across-the-board success at last year’s world championships, the Americans stormed back to win 33 swimming medals in Rio: more than three times what any other nation could muster.

Worst performance in water

It took another collective performance to secure this prize, and it deserves to be shared by all those still unidentified individuals who contributed to turning the water in the Olympic diving pool from transparent blue to opaque green. Hydrogen peroxide? Inactive chlorine? Whatever the latest excuse, this was not the body of water that the world was worried about Rio keeping clean.

Best performance on water

Blair Tuke and Peter Burling, soon to resume preparing for the America’s Cup with New Zealand, were utterly dominant in the 49er class. Danuta Kozak of Hungary won three more gold medals in women’s kayak, bringing her career total to five. The women’s eight from the United States rowed to yet another gold of their own. But there was no better sea story in Rio than Santiago Lange of Argentina.

The oldest sailor in the Olympic fleet at age 54, Lange learned he had lung cancer last year and had part of one lung surgically removed. But the Argentine still made it to the starting line for South America’s first Olympics. He and his sailing partner, Cecilia Carranza Saroli, were not the favourites in the new mixed multihull Nacra 17 event. Yet they managed to win the gold medal by just 1 point, and when it was over, Lange’s sons, who competed in the 49er class in Rio, swam out to celebrate with him.

Worst performance on water

Conditions, to be polite, were not always ideal on the Olympic rowing course in Rio’s scenic Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon, where winds whipped up choppy conditions and forced some delays. But the lagoon was comparatively calm when Kazakhstan’s Vladislav Yakovlev managed just 10 strokes before capsizing in his single scull. Based on water quality studies of the lagoon before the Olympics, this was definitely not the place to get wet. So what did Yakovlev do? The next day, he capsized again.

Best performance in midair

Bahamian sprinter Shaunae Miller’s desperate, face-first lunge across the line to beat Allyson Felix of the US in the women’s 400 meters is clearly on the shortlist. But to be fair, Miller barely left the ground. We’re going with the athlete who soared the highest in the Olympic Stadium: Brazil’s Thiago Braz da Silva. Coming into the games, his personal best in the pole vault had been 5.93 meters (19 feet 6 inches). But when he and the host nation needed it most, he cleared 6.03 meters to set an Olympic record and upset world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France. It was a gold medal few saw coming, and it was Brazil’s only medal in track and field at its games.

Worst performance in midair

Russia’s Nadezhda Bazhina is no tourist athlete. She is a former European champion in the 3-meter springboard. But she made a splash for another reason in Rio: mistiming her takeoff during the preliminaries and leaving the board at a suboptimal angle. The result was a back flop that was seen, heard and streamed round the world. Final score for a dive that was not really a dive: zero points.

Best performance on-air

It is tempting to lean toward the television program É Campeão, and its assemblage of past Olympic greats, including Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis and Nadia Comaneci, all of whom appeared nightly on the Brazilian channel SporTV. They worked with translation, although no translation was required when they finally signed off at around 2 am Monday with a farewell conga line in which we discovered that former American gymnast Bart Conner is a whole lot shorter than former Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor.

But for true cool on live television, we’re going with Bolt, who after winning yet another footrace was asked for the umpteenth time in his career about his favourite Bob Marley song. The Jamaican responded by singing “One Love" for Brazilian TV.

Worst performance on-air

It is tempting to say it could have happened to anyone. There is a lot of churn and froth in an Olympic pool, and when the men’s 200 individual medley race began, Elliotte Friedman called it the way he saw it. Unfortunately, Friedman, a Canadian broadcaster working for CBC, saw it wrong, mistaking Ryan Lochte in Lane 5 for Michael Phelps in Lane 4.

“Finally, he’s going to do it," Friedman declared with understandable emphasis. “Ryan Lochte is going to beat Michael Phelps in this event in the games."

Instead it was Phelps who was well out in front. Lochte finished fifth. And though by the end of the Olympics nobody was confusing Phelps for Lochte in or out of the water, Friedman, to his credit, got the post-gaffe call just right. “I’m sorry everyone," he wrote on Twitter. “I blew it. No excuses."

Best performance, medal in hand

The story, in normal circumstances, would have been all about the American team becoming the first to win a second gold medal in women’s water polo. But the story became considerably more poignant when its coach, Adam Krikorian, received a phone call two days before the games informing him that his 48-year-old brother, Blake, had died in a surfing accident.

Krikorian remained in Rio. His players prevailed, and after they received their medals, each player—one by one—approached the coach and placed her medal around his neck.

Worst performance, medal in hand

The dark side of da Silva’s gold in the pole vault was that the Brazilian crowd, sparse though it was, booed French star Renaud Lavillenie during the competition as he—quite rightly—tried to clear the same heights and win. The reaction was rough yet forgivable in the heat of the Olympic moment and in light of Brazil’s lack of a track and field culture. But the crowd crossed the line the next night in the Olympic Stadium as it booed Lavillenie again as he received his silver medal.

True, Lavillenie had not helped his cause by comparing his lot during the competition to that of Jesse Owens in 1936 in Berlin—a comparison he quickly retracted. But this was not Brazil vs. Argentina or Flamengo vs. Fluminense. This felt like the host nation ganging up on a single foreign visitor, one who did not deserve to have tears streaming down his face on the podium.

Best performance per capita

The Caribbean still rules. Tiny Grenada, with slightly more than 100,000 inhabitants, topped the standings on (yes, every Olympic digital niche is filling up fast). But Grenada won only one medal, a silver by sprinter Kirani James, the defending Olympic champion in the 400. This year, James was thoroughly overshadowed (outside Grenada) by South African Wayde van Niekerk’s gold medal and world record in Lane 8.

For planetary impact per capita, it remains best to go with Jamaica, which might have won only one medal for every 247,000 inhabitants but still has the world’s fastest man (Bolt) and fastest woman (newcomer Elaine Thompson).

Worst performance per capita

Only two medals and no golds for India, well on its way to supplanting China as the world’s most populous nation. Time to retire the trophy? Certainly not, but perhaps time to get cricket into the Olympics (everything else seems to be included).

©2016/The New York Times

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