RIO de JANEIRO – The idea, formed in the middle of the night, was to go see 10 different Olympic events in one day. The thought, so clear at that late hour, was that seeing so many different sports in such a short period of time would reveal the heart of these interesting, challenging, troubling and inspiring Olympics.
The thought wasn’t quite as clear when the alarm went off at 6 a.m. the next morning. But it was too late to back out.
First stop: Badminton
Let’s get a couple of American notions out of the way first: Badminton in America is a picnic sport. It’s a backyard barbecue sport. It’s a “did you look for the tools behind the badminton set in the garage?” sport. This is just our reality, no offense intended. There are serious badminton players in the U.S., of course. Most of us are not.
And so when as an American you first see badminton players as awesome as China’s Lin Dan (two-time defending Olympic champion) and Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen (whose mother’s reactions were consistently shown on the video board) a weird thought crosses the mind.
The thought goes something like this: Should anybody be THIS good at this sport? It reminds me of the time years ago that I showed my mother just how good I was at Ms. Pac Man. Her reaction was not the pride I was expecting but the considerably more hardened: “Just how many quarters did you have to waste to get that good at this?”
But after getting over the backyard nature of American badminton, I settle in and marvel at the preposterous skill of these men playing for a bronze medal. You probably know that a skilled badminton player can slam a shuttlecock 200 mph. What’s more remarkable, though, is how easily a great player can return that slam. It’s almost funny. Axelsen would leap up and hit ferocious overhead smashes, I mean ridiculously hard, these seem to be his specialty. And Lin, with no expression at all on his face, would just reach out his racquet and, like, bip, here you go, easy return, no big deal.
I did not plan my day around any particular event — the whole idea is just to get to 10 events — but as it turns out I am incredibly lucky to be here for this match. Lin (also known as Super Dan) is 32 now. He’s done everything in the sport. He has won all nine of badminton’s major events, the only man to do so. He is the in the eyes of most people the best ever at this sport. So that’s one side of the net.
On the other is the kid, Axelsen, just 22, supremely talented, on the rise, at his first Olympics. “I’ve been watching Lin since I was a little kid,” he would say.
In the first set, Axelsen melted as you might expect. The score was tied at 15 when he suddenly made a rather staggering series of mistakes. You could understand it. Here he was, facing the Ali of his sport, the Federer of his sport, the Serena of his sport, and he looked overcome. Knowing nothing about him or the sport, I expected the second set to go the same way.
Instead Axelsen played brilliantly in the second, frustrating Lin so thoroughly with his court coverage and smashes that Lin just threw away the last two or three points rather than try for a comeback. It would come down to a third set.
(I write this so confidently as if I know the rules and the players… I do not. Everything I include in here is courtesy of the nice people and badminton experts sitting next to me).
The third set was ferocious, each player having moments of dominance. And then, with the score tied at 17, stunningly, it was Lin who broke. He hit a simple shot (for him) long. Then Axelsen unleashed a huge slam, had to be 200 mph, and Lin couldn’t return it. And Lin could not bounce back.
Axelsen had done it. He won. He broke into tears. His mother broke into tears. Lin was clearly not happy at all. “I think my opponent got lucky because there were several shots at the net that I didn’t perform very well,” he told reporters. Not very sportsmanlike, no. But it is so hard growing old.
Second stop: Rhythmic gymnastics
What is sport? What is art? What is the point? I wandered into the qualifying round for team rhythmic gymnastics just in time to see Bulgaria and Belarus (and the United States) perform the five ribbons.
I don’t really know if “perform the five ribbons” is the proper way to say what they were doing, but it should be — there are five gymnasts and five ribbons. And what follows is an absolutely mind-boggling piece of timing and precision and athleticism. The gymnasts wave around those ribbons to make the cool squiggly line effect, you’ve seen that before. But they also throw the ribbons to each other and they clandestinely hand off the ribbons so you never quite know who has what, and they grab the ends of the ribbons to create special designs. It’s all kind of mind blowing.
The best part is the throwing of the ribbons — the gymnasts just fling the ribbons over their heads without looking, it’s like a series of Steve Nash passes. Then you have five ribbons flying around, looking like fireworks, and they all land perfectly in the hand of a fellow gymnast who proceeds to do that squiggly line thing without even a second’s hesitation.
People love to argue about what is a sport and what isn’t — I’ve never quite gotten that. To me, there should be no barrier of entry. I mean, they’re SPORTS not prospective law students. Whatever wants to be considered a sport should be a sport. And the five ribbons thing is an incredible sport to watch. Unfortunately, the U.S. five ribbons team dropped the ribbon at least once. I think that’s a deduction.
Third stop: Taekwondo
Sometimes Providence shines down on you. My third stop was supposed to be wrestling so I could see American J’den Cox compete. But, yeah, I walked into the wrong arena. Yeah, I’m dumb. The worst part is that it took an embarrassingly long time before I realized I was in the wrong place. I don’t know taekwondo.
Anyway, once I was there I figured I might as well tick taekwondo off my list, so I watched two guys try to kick each other for a couple of minutes. Then I realized something AWESOME.
One of the guys was Pita Taufatofua. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it will in a minute: That’s the super musclebound shirtless guy who was coated in coconut oil as he carried the flag for Tonga at the Opening Ceremony. The guy is an international superstar — he supposedly sparked tourism for Tonga singlehandedly. He also, I understand, is an amazing human being who helps homeless people in Australia. Seriously.
What the guy is not, I’m afraid, is a great taekwondoer (taekwondoist)? He went up against Iranian Sajjad Mardani and, again, I don’t really know the rules, but I do know that Pita kept getting kicked in the head. That doesn’t seem good. I looked up at the scoreboard and saw that he was losing 3-0. I glanced down for a second, looked back up and he was losing 8-0.
Mardani ended up winning 16-1 in just two periods — they didn’t even fight the third period because of some kind of mercy rule. Pita did have a glorious moment when he landed his one kick and scored his one point. He raised his hand in triumph. People chanted “Tonga! Tonga!” As Pita told SI’s Michael Rosenberg afterward, “How the hell does the crowd know what Tonga is? Well, obviously we did something right.”
Fourth stop: Wrestling
I did make it in time to watch J’den Cox wrestle Iran’s Alireza Karimi. Cox is a fascinating person. He’s a singer, a bit of a philosopher, a peacemaker and a wrestler. When the University of Missouri was going through some really tough times last year — racial divisions, protests, the resignation of the president, the school asked Cox to write a song of unity. He went around campus, talked to people, and wrote the song “One More.” Then he performed it at a fundraising campaign.
This guy’s something special, and I watched him generally dominate Karimi and beat him 3-1. He lost his next match, though, after I had left. Cox came back to win the bronze, which is fantastic, but he definitely fits the great athlete, better person cliché. Listen to what he told The Kansas City Star’s Vahe Gregorian when asked why he always hugs his opponents with such feeling:
“This is a tough a grueling sport. We all travel hundreds of thousands of miles to come to one venue to get our faces ripped off by another human being. And for six minutes, just going through, excuse me for saying this, hell and beyond … it’s a beautiful and wonderful thing that’s out of pure chaos. So I want to show these guys respect.”
How about making that the Olympic oath?
Fifth stop: Diving
At my first Olympics 20 years ago, I was hopelessly in love with an Olympic diver named Becky Ruehl. This wasn’t a love-love thing — I mean, come on. You don’t fall in love with the person. But you do fall in love with their stories. That’s one of the wonderful parts of the Olympics, one of the things that pushes us past the various problems with the Games. The stories. They are everywhere and they are amazing.
Becky was the coolest kid — she was still in college then, and she used to read Jane Austen books between dives to calm herself. She had deep thoughts about things. She finished fourth at the 1996 Olympics — she was leading after the first day — but what I remember most was the very first story I did on her. It was all about how crazy you have to be to become a 10m platform diver. “I’m not scared anymore,” she told me. “But I was really scared the first time … and lots of times after that. Anyone who tells you they weren’t scared the first few times is probably lying.”
I think about this as I watch Germany’s Sascha Klein, who stands at the end of the platform with his back to the water. I realize that he isn’t scared now, they’ve all passed that point, but this doesn’t make what he and all the rest of them are doing any less insane.
Sixth stop: Basketball
So I get to basketball to watch like three minutes of the bronze medal match between France and Serbia, and a Brazilian volunteer stops me before I can get in.
“Everyone must have a green wristband to enter,” he says.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know that, but I don’t want to watch the game,” I explain. “I only want to go in for 30 seconds.” He nods.
“Everyone must have a green wristband to enter,” he says.
“Can you at least let me just inside the door so I can see the court?”
“Everyone must have a green wristband to enter,” he concludes, and I understand and begin to walk away.
“Do you like basketball?” he asks me. I tell him it’s a pretty good sport.
“Do you like basketball?” I ask him back. He nods happily and says “Yes. LeBron! Cleveland!”
Close enough. I’m counting it.
Seventh stop: Water Polo
I’m falling behind. I did not map out a full schedule for my day but I can sense that if I’m really going to get to 10 events, I’m definitely beginning to lose my chances. I cannot stay at this match. Too bad too. Brazil and Spain are playing. I would like to dive into this sport because it’s a fascinating one, a sport with so much unseen violence. And the crowd is going absolutely bonkers, so that’s cool. Whenever a Brazilian team or athlete has been involved in anything, the crowds have been overpowering.
But really, I’ve got to go. I’ve got to get to golf.
Eighth stop: Golf
I think hard about skipping golf. I do some quick math in my head and realize that there is almost no chance whatsoever that I will get out there in time. As I run out to catch the bus, Inbee Park has already sewed things up — she has a five-shot lead — and she only has three holes to play.
Then, when I get out there, the bus has not arrived. I’m not going to make it. So I think hard about skipping golf.
And then I realize, for semi-obvious personal reasons, I better not skip golf.
There is no question that golf came off wonderfully here in Rio. Sure we can talk at length about all the things that looked dire before the Olympic began, but really the big question coming in was: Would Olympic golf MEAN anything to the players? They all have so many championships they already play for. Was there any room in their hearts for the Olympic Games?
The answer: A big yes.
We all saw how overwhelmed Justin Rose was after he outdueled Henrik Stenson to win the men’s gold. Inbee Park, who had already won seven LPGA major championships, is equally touched after winning her gold medal.
“Representing your country, winning the gold, it’s so special,” she said.
This was the point that too many people missed: The Olympics don’t have to be as important as the majors of the big international competitions. They don’t have to be as special. The Olympics are unique, an entirely different experience, and to be an Olympian, to be around Olympians, to compete for a medal, to win the gold — a golfer doesn’t have to rank it against the big championships. It stands alone.
Of course, I do not make it in time to even see Inbee Park putt out on 18. But I take the bus out there just the same, and step outside the course just to pay homage to the first Olympic golf tournament in more than 100 years. May there be many more.
Ninth stop: Boxing
I make it just in time to see the fabulous Shakur Stevenson get his silver medal after losing to Cuba’s Robeisy Ramirez. As Stevenson gets ready to step on the medal stand — and, not incidentally, launch what seems destined to be a huge professional career — I run into the Bard of New Jersey, NJ.com columnist Steve Politi.
The last couple of days, Steve has had to report on a lot of Jersey heartbreak. He was there with wrestler Jordan Burroughs, who won gold in in thrilling fashion 2012 but this time around lost in a crushing quarterfinal against the No. 2 wrestler in the world, Russian Aniuar Geduev. Steve’s wonderful column was essentially dictation from a devastated man.
“I said I was capable of being the greatest wrestler ever,” Burroughs told Politi. “God said, ‘prove it.’ And I couldn’t.”
Today is similarly heartbreaking for Stevenson. For the second straight day, Politi reports on a Jersey athlete who was utterly sobbing after the fight.
“I feel like I let a lot of people down,” Stevenson says. “I’m crushed.”
This is something about the Olympics — the athletes are never just competing for themselves. They are competing for all the family members, all the friends, all the coaches, all the people who sacrificed for them through the years. These are the first people athletes think of when they win. And these are the first people they think of when they lose.
It’s hard to see in the blurry moments after defeat, but the truth is that those family and friends and fans never do feel let down. They feel sad, of course. But, much more, they feel proud. These are the Olympics, after all.
Bus to tenth stop
The weirdest thing happens on the bus to the tenth stop. I’m sitting there, half asleep, utterly convinced that this really wasn’t a very good idea, when suddenly I hear birds chirping. Lots and lots of birds chirping.
And this isn’t the CBS at the Masters sort of pleasant chirping. No, these birds sound like they are all fighting for the same piece of bread. I feel like I have to be dreaming, but the birds keep on chirping and chirping, louder and louder and louder.
Then I turn around: There are two guys, I don’t know from where, I don’t know what they do, and one of them is playing these bird sounds on his phone. And the other guy is laughing his head off. I have absolutely no idea what is going on, and I have no idea what is the correct way to say in any language: “Hey, TURN OFF THOSE BIRDS.”
The birds chirp for a half hour, maybe longer. The Olympics are weird.
Tenth stop: Modern Pentathlon
In the Grape Nuts vein, it’s important to say that the Modern Pentathlon is neither modern nor a pentathlon. There are only four events, and none of them would be considered modern in the least. They are:
- A 200-meter freestyle swimming race.
- A fencing round-robin of sorts.
- Horse show jumping.
- The combined running/shooting competition.
The first three events set up the order for the fourth event which, I suppose Modern Pentathlon name defenders will say is ACTUALLY two events since there is running AND shooting. Anyway, it was apparently invented by Baron Pierre de Coubertin himself, the founder of the Olympics, so I guess that’s why they keep calling it modern even if it does not include texting, Pokémon Go or uncovering the secrets of Snapchat (no idea how my kids do those special effects).
Anyway, as I arrive, it begins raining. And then raining harder. The horse jumping competition is going on, and it’s quite lovely in the rain. The crowd is spectacularly quiet during the run. The field is very green with nice obstacles set up around, including a regal-looking brick wall to jump over.
As I stand in the rain and ponder what I’ve learned, I must admit, nothing comes immediately to mind.
And then a modern pentathlete from the Czech Republic named Jan Kuf begins his ride. Kuf is a young athlete, just 25, and these are his first Olympics. He’s had some success in the past at the European Championships. He’s on a horse named, oh, I don’t know what his horse is named but I wish I did. They jump the first few obstacles with no trouble at all. The crowd is deathly silent.
And then, as Kuf and his horse approach the brick obstacle, I ponder how to end this column. Then, suddenly, the horse just stops dead, there’s a large THUD, and Jan Kuf is thrown off and lands on the other side of the brick wall. It is as if the horse has said, “Here, YOU jump that wall.”
The horse then runs off, and honestly, I don’t know if this happens a lot, maybe it does, but I cannot remember seeing something I expected less. The horse just RAN INTO THE WALL. The guy just went flying OVER THE WALL. This is madness. Kuf goes chasing after his horse, the crowd is sort of murmuring, hard to tell if they are trying to hold back laughter or hold back tears, but it’s like a wild few seconds.
And then Kuf and friends chase down the horse, and Kuf gets back on. This is a moment. Everybody cheers. Yes, here it is, right in front of me: Everything I came to see. Kuf brings his horse around for another pass at the brick wall. They’re going to try it again! The silence has been shattered; it has become sort of a hopeful murmur, prayers too, everyone just rooting for Kuf and his horse. They approach the wall and the horse leaps … and they clear the wall together.
And everybody goes crazy, it’s like the end of the movie “Babe,” it’s wonderful, all of us, together cheering for a man who had just had his nightmare moment, the worst possible moment imaginable for an Olympic athlete. But what did he do? He got back up and kept going. And together they cleared that wall. That’s it. That’s the ending. This is the heart of the Olympics.
It should be noted that the horse promptly slammed into the next obstacle, throwing Kuf over it again. The horse then ran off, seemingly with glee, and the rest of us were left in the rain pondering the mysteries of life and the Olympics.