For the stars of the Olympics—the athletes who are the most feted, celebrated and scrutinized in their home countries—the demands of the Games don’t begin and end on the fields of play or arenas of competition. With the demands and access of social media, sponsorship responsibilities and a news cycle that runs 24/7, athletes must always be on, must always be leery and must keep to their training imperatives in the face of firestorms around them. This is harder for the athletes who enjoy the most success and most fame. Here are some snapshots of how athletes have faced the challenge of the Olympics away from their sports.
Gabby Douglas was the darling of the London Games, but even then, people made a great fuss over her hair. This time around, the blogosphere lit up with comments criticizing the fact that Douglas had refused to hold her hand over her heart when the national anthem played as the U.S. women received their team gold medals.
Did anyone question the patriotism of Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs when they left their hands at their sides after going one-two in the shot put final on Thursday? No. And they shouldn’t have. Both men devoted their lives to representing their country at the Olympics. So did Douglas, who has been nothing but complimentary toward her teammates in Rio. She could have rested on her laurels and spoils after London, but she came back to help the U.S. team knowing that you can’t possibly do any better than all-around gold (she didn’t even compete in the individual all-around competition in Rio).
Douglas also took heat for the reality show that followed her around during her training leading up to the Games—an opportunity that not many athletes would dare pass up. The fact that Douglas earned it through her achievements seemed lost on people who found it easy to criticize her. Sometimes, even without public appearances during the Games, the ordeal of absorbing anonymous blows from the blogosphere can be tiring and disheartening. It can be especially weary when it turns against a 20-year-old such as Douglas.
Burden of expectations
Simone Biles had perhaps the greatest Olympic Games in history for a female gymnast, winning four gold medals and a bronze. Hours after winning gold in the vault competition, she visited the Sports Illustrated Rio offices to pose for a cover shoot with swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky. Biles didn’t get back to the Olympic village until 9 p.m. that night.
The next day, she took bronze after a near fall on the balance beam. The rest of her routine was strong enough to lift Biles onto the podium, but when she reached the mixed zone, the first question Biles faced was: “So, Simone, what went wrong out there?” The second was: “How disappointing is it to know the drive for five [gold medals] is over?”
Biles gave a fair reply: “I didn’t lose a gold medal; I won a bronze medal.” Yet for those who had already seen her win three golds, the bronze seemed more like defeat than victory.
Public embarrassment (Non-Ryan Lochte division)
Japanese gymnastics legend Kohei Uchimura often speaks in very respectful tones about matters of decorum and behavior, and how those imperatives and his experience as a boy in his parents’ gym helped mold him into a responsible young man.
But the week before he won his second straight Olympic all-around title, Uchimura was busy apologizing for the excessive $5,000 cell phone bill he managed to rack up while playing Pokemon Go during his stay in Brazil (Uchimura’s carrier later lowered the bill to roughly 3,000 yen or $30 per day). Uchimura apologized for his error in judgment, saying “I was very lucky,” to get the bill reduced. His teammate Kenzo Shirai noted that Uchimura “looked dead at the team meal that day.”
The spector of drugs
Swimmer Yulia Efimova and the other Russian athletes spent a lot of time defending their presence in Rio or avoiding the topic of doping altogether. Efimova, who has twice tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, was booed repeatedly by the crowds at the pool and managed to avoid interview after interview in the Olympic mixed zones.
After winning a silver medal in the 100-meter breaststroke, Efimova said, “I don’t even know how I made it to the final. The last few weeks have been very hard, and I can’t remember the last time I had four hours of sleep. I wasn’t in my best form.”
The national voice
Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s first Olympic gold medal when he captured the 100-meter butterfly last week, 0.75 seconds ahead of tri-silver medalists Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh. Afterward, Schooling received a $1 million bonus from his Olympic committee and a national parade when he returned home.
Then came the criticism. Singapore is a safe, prosperous country that relies heavily on tourism, so some pundits in Singapore wondered why Schooling didn’t stay behind in Rio, holding press conferences and making appearances to publicize the country and increase its profile as a tourist destination.
Media and sponsor obligations
Ironically, while Douglas was criticized for not giving proper respect to the U.S. anthem, Jamaican sprint legend Usain Bolt actually interrupted a trackside interview after one of his races in London to pause for the “Star Spangled Banner.” After each round of racing, Bolt faced a gauntlet of reporters set up by the exit of track who just wanted a few minutes of his time. When you are Usain Bolt, those minutes can add up quite fast, as he described to SI’s Tim Layden: “You run your race. Then you do all the [rights holding] TV. You have to do every one of them. Then the other TV and radio. Then you come around the corner and it’s like, ‘Oh no, print!’ And you have to do all the print. So by the time you finish all that, the race was like two hours ago and then you have doping and a big press conference.”
For a well-compensated megastar, those demands are part of the training cycle. “I get tired, man,” Bolt says. “I train six days a week and then I want to take a rest on Sunday. But all spring I can’t do that. I have to do sponsor shoots. That takes all day. I’d rather be chilling on the couch.”
Citizen of the sports
For wrestler Jordan Burroughs, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion, the responsibilities of being a champion became a heavier load than he ever imagined. At 28, Burroughs positioned himself to become one of the greatest wrestlers in history and was already eyeing the Tokyo Games four years down the road as a venue to cement his legacy. He took it upon himself to be a citizen of the sport, promoting its virtues and the healthy lifestyle necessary to do it at the highest levels. It wasn’t an act. Those who know Burroughs would say that as much as anyone in the sport, he walked the walk. After he lost two matches on Friday, leaving him without a medal in Rio, Burroughs issued one of the most heartfelt and tearful mea culpas in memory.
“I’m sorry guys. Tough day. I had a lot of expectations coming here. I wanted to win. I was capable of winning. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. I’m a man of faith and something good will come out of this. It’s difficult. I lost a lot of things today, but my integrity and my character remain and I’m hoping that I can go back and re-evaluate my career, my abilities, what I did wrong today.
“The preparation going into this took a lot out of me. So many expectations, things I wanted to do, to hear, the records I wanted to set, precedents I wanted to be a part of didn’t happen. I just feel a lot of disappointment, embarrassment, disgrace, but I let myself down most. … Now, I just face it. I face the fans, the criticism, the backlash, the trolls. I’ve always made my goals public. It’s hard thinking about being an Olympian and having your failures in public.
“I feel like I let my family down. I missed a lot of milestones in my life to pursue this sport. I didn’t see my son walk for the first time. I’ve left my wife at home with two kids in Nebraska to go to training camps and tournaments in foreign countries. And she did that joyfully. She knew on days like these I always perform. So now I feel like I let her down. I let my family down. This was supposed to be my year. It was supposed to be my performance that cemented me as a legend in the sport, and it almost retracted my position in the sport. It hurts me. It hurts a lot, man.”
Best Photos from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles while dominating his competition in a 100-meter semifinal race.
Michael Phelps at the start of the 200-meter butterfly.
As his teammates watch, Neymar scores the winning goal on penalty against Germany for the first soccer gold medal in the country's history.
Katie Ledecky of the U.S. swims in the opposite direction, far ahead of her competition, during the 800-meter freestyle final.
A birds-eye view of the beach volleyball venue at Copacabana Beach.
Team USA's Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian, Laurie Hernandez, Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas bite their gold medals during the presentation ceremony after the Women's Team All-Around Final.
Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas dives to win the gold medal in the women's 400-meter final, with Allyson Felix of the U.S. getting silver.
Ashton Eaton competing in the shot put portion of the decathlon.
Carlos Zenon Balderas Jr. of the U.S. lands a punch on Kazakhstan's Berik Abdrakhmanov.
Yana Kudryavtseva of Russia during the Rythmic Gymnastics competition.
Ethiopian steeplechaser Etenesh Diro finished seventh in her steeplechase semifinal despite running the last 800 meters of the race with only one shoe.
The view from the women's 3000m Steeplechase final.
Chinese diver Qin Kai proposes to silver medalist He Zi of China on the podium during the medal ceremony for the women's Diving 3m Springboard Final.
Action from the table tennis competition.
Ireland's Fiona Doyle competes in a heat of the 200-meter breaststroke.
You Hao of China on Rings during Artistic Gymnastics competition.
Usain Bolt takes photos with fans after winning perhaps his last individual Olympic race.
An underwater shot at the 10m platform diving pool.
Hiromi Miyake hugs her weights after winning a bronze medal in the 48kg division.
Haley Ruth Augello of the U.S. (blue) competes against Japan's Eri Tosaka during the women's 48-kg freestyle wrestling competition.
A panoramic image of the beach volleyball arena at Copacabana Beach.
Lauren Hernandez of the United States competes in the Balance Beam Final, in which she won silver.
Michael Phelps celebrates with his mom, Debbie, and fiancee Nicole after winning the 200m Butterfly final.
Doaa Elghobashy of Egypt celebrates during a Beach Volleyball match against Marta Menegatti and Viktoria Orsi Toth of Italy.
Davit Chakvetadze of Russia lifts and scores three points on Zhan Beleniuk of Ukraine during their 85kg Greco Roman wrestling title match.
Russia vs. Ukraine in the women's sabre team final.
United States' Karsta Lowe, left, Rachael Adams, and Courtney Thompson stand for introductions ahead of a women's preliminary volleyball match against China.
The U.S. vs. China in water polo.
Venezuela's Albert Ramon Ramirez picks up Algeria's Abdelhafid Benchabla as they fight during a light heavyweight bout.
Juan Matin Del Potro after defeating Rafael Nadal in a semifinal tennis match.
April Ross of the U.S. eyes a ball during a beach volleyball round of 16 match against Italy.
Allison Pineau of France shoots past Macarena Aguilar Diaz of Spain during a quarterfinal handball match.
Usain Bolt and Andre de Grasse of Canada having a little fun as they cross the finish line first and second, respectively, in their 200-meter qualifying heat.
Bronze medalist Kristi Castlin (left), gold medalist Brianna Rollins (center) and silver medalist Nia Ali of the United States celebrate after sweeping the 100-meter hurdles.
China's Chen Long celebrates after winning his badminton singles final match against Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei.
Competitors in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
A photo shows a face painted onto the helmet of China's Zhong Tianshi as she waits with other cyclists to compete in the Keirin second round track cycling event.
Sam Willoughby of Australia in a Cycling BMX seeding run
Thirty-five-year-old Anthony Ervin made history by winning the 50m Freestyle on Friday, becoming the oldest individual swimming gold medalist in the Olympics.
Patrick Constable of Australia at the Keirin competition at the Velodrome.
Jerry Tuwai of Fiji in action during a quarterfinal match against New Zealand.
The United States' Courtney Hurley reacts while competing against South Korea's Injeong Choi during the women's epee team fencing competition.
Monica Puig of Puerto Rico reacts in disbelief after winning the gold medal in the tennis singles.
The underwater view shows team Ukraine competing in the Teams Technical Routine Final during the synchronised swimming event.
Brazil's Robson Conceicao celebrates winning against Uzbekistan's Hurshid Tojibaev in a quarterfinal bout.
Simone Manuel (left) of the United States touches the wall to win gold in the 100m Freestyle Final, becoming the first African-American woman to win an individual goal for the U.S.
Players of Russia try to block the shot of Linnea Torstensson of Sweden during a handball match.
Greco Roman wrestling between Artur Aleksanya of Armenia vs Cenk Ilden of Turkey.
Óscar Figueroa after winning gold in the 62kg weightlifting event.
Germany's Erik Pfeifer rearranges the face of Clayton Laurent Jr. of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Mexico's Misael Uziel Rodriguez has his face temporarily rearranged by Bektemir Melikuziev of Uzbekistan.
Canada's Kelly Russell takes down Great Britain's Katy McLean on a day in which the Canadian sevens rugby team won over the first ever bronze medal in women's rugby.
A pair of fencers in Rio.
Elaine Thompson of Jamaica winning the 100-meter final to claim the title of the fastest woman on earth.
Katie Ledecky wins her second individual-event gold medal, taking the 200-meter freestyle.
Carmelo Anthony appears to tower over Gragory Vargas of Venezuela during a 113-69 win by the U.S.
David Boudia and Steele Johnson of the United States on their way to a silver medal in the Diving Synchronised 10m Platform.
Michael Phelps prepares to compete in the 100m Butterfly, a race in which he would tie for a silver medal.
The scene from the opening ceremony.
Ibtihaj Muhammad of the United States celebrates victory over Olena Kravatska of Ukraine during the Individual Sabre. She is the first woman to compete for Team USA wearing a hijab.
Usain Bolt does his popular lightning bolt pose.
Usain Bolt's gold-colored shoes moments after he won the 100-meter dash for the third consecutive Olympic Games.
Usain Bolt crossing the finish line in the 100.