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Parting thoughts from 2016 Rio Olympics

Sports Illustrated staffers recount their most memorable (and forgettable) moments from the 2016 Rio Olympics
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RIO DE JANEIRO — Wrapping up all the memorable (and forgettable) moments from the 2016 Rio Olympics:

• I’m not going play the “Rio came through” or “Rio failed” game. These were my 13th Olympic Games as a journalist and I have found that Olympic success is not binary or obvious. Atlanta and Sochi are hammered by most media as hideous Olympics, but I enjoyed covering both of those Games (except for getting sick in Sochi, but that’s not Putin’s fault, insofar as can document). Lillehammer is sainted, but I was stuck covering Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and mostly had a miserable time, fluttery snowflakes on Main Street notwithstanding. The Olympics are a personal experience that changes by the day and sometimes by the hour. It was clear from the beginning that these Games were being run on the cheap, because the money was gone years ago. We all knew that. The Olympic Park was a construction zone, food options were very limited and many bus routes had been eliminated. Hence, logistics were challenging. But I got to where I needed to go, wrote my stories and got back to where I came from. The Games did not soar, but they functioned. — Tim Layden

• The Zika virus has been a real issue in Brazil over the past year, but the hyperventilating in the Western media before the Olympics was ridiculous. As long as you took basic precautions, mosquitoes weren’t a problem during August in Rio. A special award for alarmist rhetoric should go to the Harvard Public Health Review, which argued in July that the Olympics should be moved or canceled due to Zika and got significant play in respected media outlets. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disagreed. The CDC was right. — Grant Wahl​

• Was Rio the best choice as 2016 host? On paper it never was. Eight years ago an IOC assessment of the cities bidding for the Games ranked Rio fifth behind Tokyo, Madrid, Chicago and Doha. While Tokyo and Chicago would have delivered more polished, better-funded Games (Madrid would have been plagued by Spain’s ongoing economic and political turmoil; Doha, which didn’t even make the IOC’s final four for 2016, would have suffered from 100-plus temperatures and assorted other challenges), give the IOC credit for making a bold choice and giving South America its first Olympics. In the end, Rio pulled the Games off despite immense challenges beyond its control. Choosing it wasn’t a mistake. — Craig Neff

• As an Olympic rookie, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t concerned and anxious before arriving at Galeão International Airport. However, much of the bad news that I read about was quickly dispelled in the days that followed. In my 22 days here, the only political unrest that I saw (aside from scattered 'Fora Temer' signs and graffiti) was a loud but non-violent protest along Copacabana Beach just before the Opening Ceremony, where people just wanted their voices heard. The only mosquito encountered was at dinner on one of the first nights with fellow SI Olympic rookie Andrew Sharp, but we got through our meal un-bitten. As for the water, I stuck to drinking bottled water and only dipped my feet into the bay. That's definitely one of the places that can use some help but then again, no place is perfect and sometimes pools turn green. By the fifth or sixth day, I ditched my money belt, which others were quick to call a fanny pack. I was not concerned with my safety at every waking moment. — Chris Chavez

• I guess I saw a different Gabby Douglas from her critics. I saw somebody who smiled continuously, competed hard for her country, tried to answer every question as well as she could and did not seem all that bothered that Simone Biles and others surpassed her in the USA Gymnastics pecking order. What a shame that some people questioned Douglas’s patriotism, hair, attitude and character—and what a bigger shame that she noticed. It hurt her, understandably. She deserved better. — Michael Rosenberg

• Did anyone have more fun at the Olympics than China’s Fu Yuanhui? She first garnered attention when she expressed genuine surprise upon learning she won bronze in the 100-meter backstroke.

And it wasn’t just that race. Her joy and excitement were on display throughout the Games.

Doping, pollution and (fake) robberies cast a shadow over these Games, but athletes like Fu are what the Olympics should be all about. — Ben Eagle

• The Ryan Lochte affair reminded me of the great Preston Sturges comedy “Hail the Conquering Hero,” in which a World War II soldier named Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, discharged from the Marines because of chronic hay fever, makes his mother think he’s off in the Pacific fighting the Japanese. The lie escalates out of control until the soldier confesses everything and is forgiven by all. Ryan Lochte is no Woodrow Truesmith. It would be, um, overexaggerating to say that he’d confessed everything, and he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven by all. But like Woodrow, he got into trouble by spinning a story of personal heroism to impress his mother. — Chris Hunt

• Unforgettable scene: U.S. swimmers Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz walking stone-faced from a Rio police station through a mob of TV cameramen, photographers and reporters (of which I was one) while people yelled, “Liar!” and “Shame!” at them in reference to their involvement in the Ryan Lochte scandal. The mob pounded on the two swimmers’ car and continued to yell as the vehicle pulled away. I kept thinking to myself that nine days earlier I had watched Conger and Bentz, the crowd roaring them on, earn gold medals by swimming the second and third legs on a U.S. 4x200-meter-freestyle relay team that won its qualifying heat. This was how their Games would end, followed by a flight back to the U.S. several hours later. Olympic glory can be fleeting. — C.N.​

• U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo drew brickbats from the public and criticism from teammate Megan Rapinoe and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati for calling Swedish players “cowards” after the defensive-minded Swedes upset the U.S. in the quarterfinals. It was a poor choice of words by the U.S. goalkeeper, who didn’t apologize, but I also thought about it more over the past week. Would Man United manager José Mourinho have been vilified as much as Solo for saying the same thing? Not at all, which makes you think there’s some kind of double standard here, perhaps related to gender. Then again, has the U.S. women’s soccer team taken advantage of that double standard as well over the years, with part of their popularity coming from being known as a classy team and a breath of fresh air in the sports world? Well, yes, that’s true, too.

I also learned firsthand how over-the-top the Internet Outrage Machine can really be. Solo tagged me on her last Twitter post about the situation, and for the next four days my Twitter mentions were filled with angry and often obscene responses denouncing Solo in some of the most vile ways imaginable. It’s possible to think she made a mistake while also believing that the Internet response is completely out of proportion to what it should be. — G.W.

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• You may or may not know that at the Olympics decorative pins are their own currency. They come in every shape and design, depicting different flags, sports, corporations and all manner of silliness. Trading and collecting pins becomes an obsession of many fans and, as it turns, this reporter. Once the lanyard on your credential contains a critical mass of pins it becomes self-perpetuating; walking around the Olympic Village or any venue, the gaze of your fellow travelers begins on the credential. Eventually, eye contact is made and the dance begins. Words need not be spoken, you simply point at a pin you like. They, in turn, point at one of yours. A nod, a groan, a shrug … the negotiation continues until both parties are happy. Then the pins are traded and the process begins anew, usually ten steps away.

If you have clever bosses, like the ones at SI, your company produces its own pin, and you always walk around with a few extras in your pocket, to spread good cheer, or reward helpful customer service. During this Olympic fortnight I have made children squeal with delight, melted the grim facades of machine gun toting commandos and received a few enthusiastic hugs from comely young women, all for passing along a pin. At some point my credential became so heavy from all the ornamentation I think it began affecting my posture. Still, I soldiered on. — Alan Shipnuck

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• In addition to gold, silver or bronze, every medalist received a miniature 3-D sculpted version of the Rio Olympics logo mounted on a base. During the medal ceremony at Arena Carioca 1 after Saturday’s gold medal game, the base on U.S. women’s basketball player Sue Bird’s mini-sculpture somehow came off. It tumbled from the podium on to the court as Bird watched helplessly, unable to leave her spot to retrieve it without breaking protocol.

Sir Philip Craven to the rescue.

Craven, the British president of the International Paralympic Committee and a former wheelchair basketball player himself, had just participated in the ceremony. He gallantly wheeled himself over, picked up the rogue base, handed it to a grateful and smiling Bird, and wheeled back.

The Paralympic Games reliably deliver moments like that, where the disabled take the stage and the able-bodied are left to watch in appreciation and admiration. This was as good a trailer for the Paralympics to come as any filmmaker could produce, and it was completely unscripted. — Alexander Wolff

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• Every day on the bus ride from the hotel to the main press center, I passed what remained of Vila Autodromo, a once sprawling favela that was razed to become a parking lot and transit hub for buses like the one I rode to work every day. On an almost daily basis, there would be a new message of protest painted on the outer wall facing the highway. By evening the message would be obscured by a hasty paint job. The next morning a new message would appear atop the fresh paint. Rinse (or roll), repeat.

Mega-events like the Olympics bring with them varying degrees of unconscionable human cost, but once the records begin to fall and the anthems play, it’s easy to forget that host cities weren’t always competition venues. Watching this battle play out over the simplest act of protest on a single retaining wall, greeting the world’s media like a stale cup of coffee, the struggle was impossible to ignore. I couldn’t just turn up my headphones and cast my eyes down to the tops of my sneakers.

I love the Olympics. I love them a stupid, unreasonable amount. I love the fencers and the rowers; I love the basketball players and the judokas. I love being a fly on the wall as they show the world what a lifetime of dedication can produce. I love watching all of them watch and support each other. If the world can gather in relative peace on a biannual basis, and stage a logistically incomprehensible event like this, then surely there is a way to do so without ruining thousands of people’s lives. Maybe there isn’t, but it doesn’t feel like we’re trying all that hard. And if bulldozing people’s homes is deemed an acceptable byproduct of progress in the name of the Olympic cause, at least have the decency to use the same shade of white paint when obfuscating calls for doing this a different way. — Lee Feiner

• Floyd Mayweather Jr., himself an Olympic bronze medalist from 1996, showed up at the boxing arena in Rio Center 6 last Tuesday. He spent most of his time posing for selfies with fans (who were allowed into the great man’s presence by a pair of mountainous bodyguards wearing tank tops and permanent scowls), but clearly he was there in his role as a promoter, scouting prospects for his Money Team. He picked a good day to make a case for going pro, as the afternoon’s card showcased the worst of the amateur game, with some very questionable decisions, capped by the robbery of Irish bantamweight Michael Conlan.

Mayweather made a point of meeting up with the charismatic young American Shakur Stevenson, after Stevenson won his quarterfinal that day, and the next morning tweeted out “a warm welcome to @ShakurStevenson into The Money Team family,” referring to his professional promotional outfit.

Not so fast, Floyd. Three days later, after collecting his silver medal, Stevenson said that, yes, he was going pro, but that, no, he had not signed with the Money Team. — Rich O’Brien

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• There’s a moment in the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, that plays in my mind whenever I come to an Olympics. (I interrupt this moment to urge anyone who hasn’t seen this movie to do so now. If you like words, you will find no tighter, better example than Robert Bolt’s screenplay; if you’re all about visuals, you will never see better than Freddie Young’s cinematography; if you’re a political wonk you will never see a better evocation of the horrors of consensus-building.) Anthony Quinn, a tribal leader, sits amid the remains of an exploded train. “I must,” he mutters, “find something honorable.”

Sports is not real. It is a method of organizing human experience, a regularly scheduled cauldron created—like books or theater or film—to organize the sloppy, chaotic and ill-formed ups-and-downs of daily life into a comprehensible, controllable narrative with enforced rules, consistent rhythms, a firm beginning and end. We ask our young to dedicate their lives to preparing for it, then ask them to perform before massive crowds, under relentless scrutiny. And within that false construct, we hope to witness—more than anything—something true or great or, yes, honorable.

It’s wrong to think that it’s getting harder to do that with every Olympic cycle; it only seems that way. Bad news is news. In Rio, the Russian doping scandal, the stadiums full of empty seats, and Ryan Lochte could make even the most dewy-eyed naïf think the Olympics had, at last, gone to hell.

But at the completion of my 10th Olympics, three visions remain—and will, I’m sure, long after any inconvenience and all the scandals fade.

The first is a two-parter, opening at a training camp outside Nairobi, Kenya. The five South Sudanese runners—Yiech Pur Biel, Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, James Nyang Chiengjiek, Paulo Amotun Lokoro and Rose Nathike Lokonyen—from the Refugee Olympic Team are gathered last month in the city for media training. They are in a parking lot—all are from poor rural families, all victims of civil war—and learning from a consultant about handling a media scrum. They run through the scenario over and over (cross the finish line, get swarmed by questions and microphones), each taking the roles of reporter and runner. And all of them are so giddy, yet so earnest, that you can’t help but worry about the mind-bending collision of their old world with the cynical, post-modern one in Rio.

The coda, of course, comes when the team walks into Maracanã Stadium for the Opening Ceremony, under the Olympic flag, to a standing ovation and massive cheers. It solves none of the world’s refugee crisis, of course. But along with their five other teammates, the South Sudanese runners wave little flags, wear natty pants and blazers, and their faces are lit up with an unmistakable joy.

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The next moment happened under the Aquatics Stadium, after Katie Ledecky crushed the world record in the 800-meter freestyle to win her fourth gold medal of these games. Usually upbeat, always so contained, Ledecky abruptly bursts into tears while talking to reporters in the mixed zone. She apologizes, tries to stop, can’t. At 19, she knows she’s at the end of something—her childhood, her time at home, her relationship with the man (coach Bruce Gemmell) who pushed her to greatness. A more honest expression of sheer relief, of loss amid winning, is hard to imagine.

The last came two days later, in the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED office at the Main Press Center. Along with gymnast Simone Biles, Ledecky and swimmer Michael Phelps gather for a cover shoot. This, too, by its very nature, is an artificial happening. But, for a minute or so, something quietly astonishing unfolds: Seeing Ledecky struggling to set her five medals across her chest, Phelps—veteran of five Olympics, winner of 23 gold medals—turns and gently, carefully, weaves the ribbons and arranges the medals into a perfect and beautiful splay. It’s like an anointing. “You’ll learn,” he says. “Don’t worry about it.”  

Witnessing all that was more than a gift. It felt, each time, like an honor. — S.L. Price

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• It’s hard to imagine a packed stadium crowd emitting a bigger roar and expressing more collective joy than the Brazilian throng at Maracanã did on Saturday night, after Neymar nailed the final penalty kick against Germany. The men’s football gold medal match was not a bad metaphor for these Olympics: difficult, often tense and, for Rio, ultimately victorious. — C.H.

• Reporters get in the Olympic spirit, too. No matter how tired I was, regardless of how many words I pumped out under crushing deadline pressure, I rallied every night to take in various competitions across Rio, just for the sheer fun of it. Last Saturday I finally hit the wall, and with a heavy heart bagged my plans to go to fútbol’s gold medal game. Instead I ordered hotel room service and flopped on my bed. At some point in my stupor, well into extra time, I became aware of noises emanating below my 10th floor aerie. I opened my window and let the nervous energy and deep passion of the Brazilians waft in. When Neymar netted his winning kick Copa exploded: people shouting, cars honking, dogs barking, babies crying. The noise came from everywhere and went on deep into the night, joy and relief and catharsis pouring out of the citizenry. I fell asleep to those lovely sounds. — A.S.

• On the last night of every Olympic track and field competition, I try to take a lap around the Olympic track. Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing. Security workers wouldn’t allow us onto the track in London. But at 1:30 in the morning after Saturday’s  final session, I walked backward through the mixed zone with my U.S. media friends Karen Rosen (TeamUSA.org), Scott Reid (Orange County Register), Mark Zeigler (San Diego Union-Tribune) and Jim Caple (ESPN.com) and onto the blue surface of the track. (Full disclosure, I had gone down to the track two days earlier and had my picture taken by SI’s Simon Bruty, something that Bill Frakes has done in the past. I wandered around the infield and walked on the track and called home from the pole vault pit). The track was soaking wet as we giddily circled it once. We ran in lane one, where the U.S. women’s 4x100-meter relay sprinted to its gold medal. We ran in lane six, where Bolt took the 200. We ran in lane eight, where Wayde van Niekerk broke the world record in the 400 meters. 

But … The Lap, for me, is not about track and field or running or even about the Olympic Stadium. It is my personal closing ceremony. The Olympics are never easy to cover, and always physically and intellectually demanding. Typing as fast as I can hit keys in the middle of the night and then rushing to make the last bus down the mountain. Eating a sandwich at 4 am that I put together at the previous morning’s breakfast. (Yes, I know that’s a gamble.) Hoping that once or twice, the words fit together just right and somebody will appreciate the work.

The Lap is the end of that, a silly, intimate, goodbye to the Games from the well of an empty, old stadium. It’s unlikely I will be in Tokyo in 2020, but who knows about that, or, who knows about tomorrow? So one lap and then home. — T.L.

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• In making beach volleyball at Copacabana the heart of the Games, Rio organizers turned the main Olympic Park in Barra—home to swimming, gymnastics, tennis, basketball and several other sports—into an afterthought. The complex lacked the festive feel and big crowds common to Olympic parks and was inexplicably marred by fences that limited the open flow of spectators. — C.N.

• Periodically you would get hit with a bracing odor of raw sewage, instantly recognizable to anyone who has experienced a septic tank backup, but on a far larger scale. There was a particular section of the trip to and from the Olympic Stadium where the shot to the sinuses was so potent that it would induce a gag reflex. And then the realization hits: This is home to millions of people who live with this smell every day of their lives. It is a sobering reality. — T.L.

• There were some slick moves shown in the ring at Rio Center 6 over the course of the Olympic boxing tournament, but nothing quite like what British superheavyweight Joe Joyce showed last Thursday. After winning his semifinal bout, the 6' 5", 260-pounder from south London unleashed a spectacular, if slightly ungainly, version of Capoeira , the traditional Brazilian street dance, complete with back flips and a handstand. It wasn’t exactly floating like a butterfly, but it brought down the house. — R.O.

• Another favorite Olympic moment, from a U.S. men’s basketball practice during the second week of the Games: Mild-mannered Danish reporter Clark Kent blows his cover while interviewing forward DeMar DeRozan.  

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— A.W. 

• Welp, the dab is officially over. Cam Newton retired the celebration in the NFL off-season, but the move officially hit rock bottom in Rio when Swedish equestrian rider Peder Fredricson dropped one on the podium. Per reports, Fredricson performed the dab at the request of his sons, making him a Dabbin’ Dad.

— B.E.

• If you watched Kevin Durant in these Olympics and thought, “Holy damn, the Golden State Warriors are going to be great,” you weren’t alone. Jim Boeheim, an assistant for USA Basketball, thought the same thing as he watched Durant and Klay Thompson:

“I don’t know what happens when you put Steph Curry with those two guys,” Boeheim said. ”There’s going to be some 140-point games this year. I mean, it’s crazy. Those two guys get going, you just don’t think they’ll ever miss.” — M.R.

• If you watched any of the Olympics (or the 2014 World Cup) on Brazil’s TV Globo, you got treated to the vinheta, a jaunty artificial noise effect gizmo that goes off on the broadcast whenever a Brazilian does something well in a sporting event. The vinheta has been around for decades and sounds mildly ridiculous when you first hear it, but I have grown to love it as something distinctly Brazilian, the “nouveaux Jetsons” audio version of Oscar Niemeyer’s modern architecture in Brasília. — G.W.

• Last fall I wrote the first major story on Phelps’s rehab and comeback. I suggested that he might be “better than ever,’’ but didn’t fully believe it. Then on the night of Sunday Aug. 7, Phelps swam the second leg of the 4x100-meter relay and broke open the race with what his coach, Bob Bowman, suggested might have been the best single turn in the history of swim racing. Then I believed.

Conversely, I met with Usain Bolt in May and I thought, at 29, he might have enough in the tank to threaten his own world records. But he later got hurt and arrived at Rio less than fully fit and ran his slowest Olympics. He’s still Bolt, the most breathtaking athlete I have ever witnessed in person, but in Rio he looked like a man running his last Olympics. — T.L.

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• During a fencing bout, France’s Enzo Lefort dodged an advance, and as he turned, his cellphone slipped out of his pocket. Was he waiting for an important call? Did he forget? An embarrassed Lefort picked up the phone and tossed it to an official before losing the match, 15-13.

— B.E.

• Journalists travel around the Games on shuttle buses. Without the buses, there is no reporting. For track and field, each afternoon I would take a 30-minute ride on a rickety “city bus” into the hills northwest of Rio proper to the Olympic Stadium. The trip included a series of sweeping turns and then several miles on an expressway, and every driver treated the journey like it was the Daytona 500. This was particularly harrowing on the trip home, usually at 2:35 in the morning, when the buses would scream down the mountainside, seemingly taking turns on two wheels, until screeching to a halt at the media center parking area. Bolt kissed the finish line after his last individual race; I kissed the pavement after my last shuttle bus ride down the hill on Saturday night. — T.L.

• Every four years I re-immerse myself in international basketball on both the men’s and women’s side, and one of the great pleasures of doing so is to hear again from an Aussie named Tom Maher.

Maher has coached in every Olympics since 1996 with the women’s teams of four different countries—his native Australia, which he led to bronze and silver in ‘96 and 2000; New Zealand in ‘04; China in ‘08; Great Britain in ‘12; and China again in Rio. He’s bracingly direct. After his team got waxed by the U.S. in group play, he didn’t trim or hedge. “Would any player from any other team make that team? You’ve got a world All-Star team and you talk about scouting? You have to be brave.