What a year! These have been twelve extremely difficult months for the world of sport. A Doping scandal of unprecedented scale, far too cautious reactions by several sports organizations, corruption, matchfixing and other allegations and investigations against sports officials, organizers, athletes. The process to elect an Olympic Host City far from being ‘reformed’ but rather being pushed into crisis even deeper, etc…
And still, even in 2016, we saw so many outstanding performances by true champions. Inspiring athletes, legends leaving the field of play after a long and dignified career, new heroes emerging, and many incredible stories. That’s why the list of sports personalities you’ll find below is in no way exhaustive. It does however focus on the many wonderful memories, on the positive stories, perhaps in an attempt to counter the negativity that has dominated large parts of the news this past year. It should be regarded as an addendum to several previous articles, when I wrote about some ‘Memories of the XXXI Olympiad’ (Part I and Part II) or introduced you to some noteworthy athletes (like Yusra Mardini). And still, these people are only representative of an enormously large group of individuals and teams, athletes and officials, who made a lasting impact during this extraordinary, challenging, tumultuous, unforgettable Olympic year.
The Rio Olympics will probably not be known to history as ‘the best ever’. Far too manifold were the controversies even before the first athletes arrived, the many issues and difficulties that tarnished these Games. In the end however they did proceed relatively smoothly, without major incidents during the Games (except for the green diving pool and the ‘Kangaroo affair’ between the Australian team and Rio’s mayor, among others…), and produced a large number of outstanding performances. From superstars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, the ‘Final Five’ lead by the fabulous Simone Biles, cyclist couple Laura Trott (2x Gold) and Jason Kenny (3x Gold), who got married a month later, as well as equestrians Charlotte Dujardin, Michael Jung and Nick Skelton, to underdogs like Puerto Rico’s first Olympic Champion Monica Puig, swimmers Pernille Blume and Joseph Schooling, discus thrower Christoph Harting and Taekwondoka Cheick Salla Cissé, and athletes with their very personal remarkable Olympic story, like swimmers Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis, judoka Majlinda Kelmendi and many others.
But to me one evening stood out that was so unlike any other. It was the evening of the first Men’s Rugby final in 92 years. Fiji’s sevens team won their country’s first ever Olympic Gold in any sport in such a convincing fashion. But instead of bragging about it and erupting in wild celebrations, most players were totally silent after the final whistle sounded. Some went to their British opponents to shake hands with them. Many knelt down praying or were simply in tears. Before leaving the field to prepare for the medal ceremony they assembled in a circle and sang this hymn:
‘We have overcome,
we have overcome.
By the blood of the lamb and the word of the Lord,
we have overcome.’
And when they later received their medals from HRH the Princess Royal, they knelt before the princess as a sign of respect. Even Princess Anne herself was apparently surprised and flattered by that.
All of this is not to say that Fijians didn’t know how to party. There are reports that they later went on celebrating by staging an indoor motorcycle race in their apartment building in the Olympic Village…
(Thanks to the new Olympic Channel, you can watch the entire Gold Medal Match and parts of the ceremony here: Rio Replay (External Link))
There is another person I’d like to mention in connection with the Rio Games. A man of devotion and outstanding stamina in the face of quite adverse circumstances. No other than Carlos Arthur Nuzman, head of the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee. He had big footprints to fill, those of Sebastian Coe, and, well, slightly failed, but his unbroken enthusiasm and optimism for Rio’s Games were captivating. These qualities were epitomized in his memorable speeches at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, including the somehow remarkable quote: ‘My good friend Thomas Bach always believed in sex…ehm…in the success of these Games…’
His primary task was to lead a successful organization of the Games, on which there can be more than one opinion. But his other task was to sell them as a success, to keep smiling while the storms gathered. And in that regard, he did an outstanding job.
The (more) beautiful Games?
It wasn’t a miracle, but with all the issues leading to the Paralympic Games of Rio, with the Russian Doping scandal, ticketing problems, and the IPC itself admitting even before the Games that these may well be the most challenging Games in history, nobody dared to expect two glorious, well organized and overall successful weeks. We were so wrong… The organizers and especially the IPC learned from the mistakes made during the Olympic Games, and they achieved something absolutely incredible. These were outstandingly successful, beautiful, enjoyable Paralympics. There were close to zero security issues, all the athletes apparently were quite fine with their accommodation in the end. The pool didn’t turn green again, although competition had to be stopped at one point because of the strong current (inside the pool!)… No major Doping scandals (during the Games, that is…), but also an incredible surge of 208 world records which did raise some eyebrows.
But by far the most important improvement, and at the same time the most surprising development was the attendance at venues. They were comparably full. And when I say ‘comparably’, I don’t mean compared to previous Paralympics (the London Games had more spectators still). No, I mean compared to the Olympics. Several events had significantly more spectators than their Olympic counterparts a few weeks before. This includes definitely Equestrian and the sold-out Closing Ceremony, but also Athletics evening sessions.
Again, the sheer number of outstanding athletic performances was beyond measure. Legendary CART-champion, Formula One driver and now quadruple Paralympic champion Alex Zanardi, the many british heroes and heroines of London 2012, lead by the charismatic Ellie Simmonds and their flag bearer Lee Pearson, Iranians Siamand Rahman, who can rightfully call himself the world’s strongest man, lifting 310kg in the powerlifting event (aka ‘bench press’), and Morteza Mehrzadselakjani, at 2,46m the tallest athlete ever to compete in either Olympics or Paralympics, Germany’s long jumper Markus Rehm, whose 8,23m would have meant fifth place at the Olympic Games a few weeks before and whose world record of 8,40m would have won him the Gold there, Holland’s ‘Blade Babe’ Marlou van Rhijn and Tennis champion Jiske Griffioen. One of the most memorable events was perhaps the Men’s 1500m final T13 (visually impaired), where the first four(!) competitors ran faster than the entire field of the Olympic final…
To me personally, there were two ladies who left a lasting impression. Just two of the many shining examples of wonderful individuals who pushed the boundaries of what we, whether we have a disability or not, are willing to consider as being possible. One of them was Italian wheelchair fencer Beatrice ‘Bebe’ Vio. Having contracted meningitis at the age of 11, Vio had all four of her limbs amputated. Her legs below the knees as well as her forearms. The story goes that a few months later she went to a fencing club near her home and wanted to take up fencing. The coach said she couldn’t do it, to which Bebe Vio simply replied: ‘Why not?’. A short while later they constructed special prosthetics for her that enabled her to fence using her shoulder. It’s really hard to describe, but once you see her fencing and especially her reaction after winning individual Gold and team Bronze, it’s impossible not to feel speechless and absolutely fascinated by her.
The other young lady, I first noticed during the Opening Ceremony. I can’t really tell why I noticed her at that time, maybe it helped a little that Denmark’s team was not that large, or maybe, I have to admit, there was something about her smile… Anyway, I read a bit about Stinna Tange Kaastrup from the island of Fyn, I watched a few interviews with her and then I saw her riding and was immediately captivated. What Stinna doesn’t have are legs, she was born without them. What she has in abundance are courage, stamina, skill, horsemanship and honest love for her horses. All of that and the trust of her horse with the sweet name ‘Smarties’ earned her two rather unexpected Bronze medals.
These have been two magical weeks, and perhaps we have seen the more beautiful, the more honest, the better version of the Olympic Games.
to be continued… (Part II)