It does not seem possible that I have just watched the last sporting event of the 2016 Olympics. All that’s left is the Closing Ceremony, which always feels like the day after Christmas.
I have admitted many times to being a Games geek. I love the pageantry (while acknowledging extravagant spending in countries that can ill afford it); the compelling human stories on display at every turn (though the ceaseless ‘packaging’ of a sometimes tone-deaf network did grow wearisome); the class displayed over and over by winners and fourth-place finishers and athletes who were truly just happy to be there. It’s true the Olympics have problems – corruption, doping, Ryan Lochte – but I reject the argument that the event is a past-its-prime celebration of out-dated nationalism.
That’s not to say the Olympics don’t suffer from a problematic dichotomy that is hard to deny, especially when it comes to the women who excelled on sports’ biggest stage. Simone Manuel smashed stereotypes, becoming the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event when she tied for first in the 100-meter freestyle, though there was precious little aforementioned packaging of her story – the sort of stuff you’d expect NBC to eat up. It got worse, though. The San Jose Mercury News celebrated her singular achievement with this headline: “Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American.”
Another swimmer, Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, decimated the world record in the demanding 400-meter individual medley. As she celebrated, NBC cameras focused on her husband and coach, Shane Tusup, while announcer Dan Hicks called Tusup “the man responsible” for Hosszu’s performance – going on to say, cringe-inducingly, that Hicks had turned Hosszu “into a tiger in the pool.”
The U.S. women’s gymnastics team dazzled while it dominated, but even in the midst of lauding these amazing athletes, social media found the time, incentive and ability to tear one down.
Allyson Felix became the most decorated U.S. woman in track and field history by earning her seventh medal, then was asked about childhood nicknames that made fun of her legs. (As a woman who’s been told to smile more since elementary school, I recognized the flash of gritted teeth behind Felix’s. She may well have not been bothered by that question, but I doubt she found it as funny as Dan Patrick.)
Helen Maroulis pulled off a feat on par with Rulon Gardner’s 2000 miracle, winning the USA’s first Olympic gold medal in women’s wrestling by stunning Japan’s Saori Yoshida, a three-time Olympic champion. You may have missed the glancing reference to it, though, in NBC prime-time coverage saturated with riveting footage of Swimmers Gone (Slightly) Wild.
Maroulis was unfazed, saying in a news conference: “If they covered Ryan Lochte over my match, well, I think that’s a poor decision on their part, but I’m not running the show. My job is to be a wrestler, and I stepped on the mat and did what I needed to do.”
Other women doing what they needed to do at these Olympics whose names may not be as familiar as Katie Ledecky or Simone Biles or the U.S. women’s basketball team, which won its sixth straight gold medal: Gwen Jorgensen, triathlon gold; Michelle Carter, shot put gold; Claressa Shields, boxing gold; and the U.S. women’s rowing eight, which won its third consecutive gold medal and 11th straight world title – an international streak of excellence bested only by the Soviet hockey team’s 14 consecutive crowns from 1963-1976.
And, in another notable moment, Helen Richardson-Walsh and Katie Richardson-Walsh, field hockey players for Great Britain, became the first gay married couple to compete at the same Olympics, and they won gold medals to boot. Yet Caster Semenya, the South African gold medalist in the 800 meters, still faces scientifically uncalled-for questions about her gender.
As a journalist for more than 20 years, I know that never, in recorded history, has everyone been perfectly satisfied with media coverage. I am familiar with the challenges and limitations in covering everyday sporting events. I can only imagine that those are magnified millions of times for an event like the Olympics. NBC also has roughly a million more resources, though, and the 2016 Olympic viewers, in some instances, deserved better.
That said, I still watched, every night and most days.
These Olympics have kept me company, on my new couch with my new cat in my new life. They’ve been an on-time date (albeit with some of their best moments already known and/or annoyingly stretched out) for the last two weeks, familiar voices and friendly faces, a bevy of talent and grace and ambition putting on a nightly show. They’ve lived in the app on my phone and the earbuds at my desk and in my conversations and thoughts, creating memories to store in the sizable sports-themed chambers of my brain.
I watched a 74-year-old great grandma and track coach, Anna Botha, celebrate her pupil’s gold medal – and world record – in a sport in which Wayde van Niekerk’s mother also excelled during a time when apartheid crushed her dreams. I watched two strangers collide on the track and then urge each other across the finish line, despite obvious pain. (A note: American 5,000 meter runner Abbey D’Agostino, after helping New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin to her feet, finished the race – even though she’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus and strained the medial collateral ligament in her right knee. I have heard football players scream in pain and seen them carried off the field after sustaining one of those injuries. She ran almost a mile with all three.)
I watched athletes I’ve covered contribute to a strong U.S. showing on the track, including Francena McCorory and LaShawn Merritt. I watched a friend of mine, Amber Campbell, finish sixth in the world in the women’s hammer throw –the best-ever Olympic result by an American. I saw the power of bronze, as the U.S. men’s and women’s volleyball teams, beach volleyball players Kerri Jennings-Walsh and April Ross, and diver David Boudia fully celebrated accomplishments few can dream of. So did Egyptian weightlifter Sara Ahmed, whose bronze medal was the first won by a woman from an Arab country.
On the subject of diving, I had a brief moment of personal cyberspace glory. A tweet about Malaysian diver Nur Dhabitah Sabri’s indefatigable smile went, my new Malaysian followers tell me, viral. It has been, as of now, retweeted 1,611 times and liked 678. For someone with 302 followers – now 389 – this is a big deal.
And now it’s over. Tomorrow will just be another Monday – well, almost. It will also be my stepdaughter’s first day of 12th grade. I have taken the first-day-of-school picture since seventh grade (with a memorable sixth-grade picture day shot also in the photographic mix). The last four have been in front of The Picture Tree, capturing the nervous energy on her face and the pride on her father’s as the South Florida sun unfurled behind them.
As she sets off into her senior year, she – and I – would be well-served to take to heart Maroulis’ advice, demonstrated so capably by so many women during the last two weeks: Focus on your job, and do what you need to do.