RIO DE JANEIRO – Gold medals and a gas station.
These will be the lasting twin legacies of the 2016 Olympics for the United States, whose athletes produced both a huge medal count and a huge international brouhaha in the first Summer Games ever held in South America.
The good twin? The U.S. won the most medals it has since 1984, plastering the field with spectacular performances and inspiring stories. The U.S. won 121 medals overall, which trounced every other country by at least 50. American women won 61 of those medals and American men 60, as Title IX once again proved its worth.
The bad twin? Four U.S. swimmers – with 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte as their drunken ringleader – caused a totally avoidable late-night crisis that overshadowed much of the second week of the Olympics.
Vandalism, lies and videotape: This was the story that wouldn’t go away. It ultimately forced Lochte to go on an apology tour late in the week via Instagram, Brazilian TV and NBC, where Matt Lauer interviewed Lochte and lectured the swimmer like a disappointed father on the difference between a robbery and a negotiation.
The United States Olympic Committee tried to put the best face on it all Sunday afternoon in a “Farewell to Rio” news conference. USOC leaders said these Games would be defined by the 555 American athletes who did so well on the fields of play and not the four who urinated in public at the end of a night of partying and had a confrontation with armed security guards.
But the USOC also understands that Lochte and his teammates – Jimmy Feigen, Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz – really messed up when they concocted the “held up at gunpoint” story to cover up Lochte’s vandalism at a Brazilian gas station. To some people, LochteGate will be the lasting hashtag of these games. The USOC and USA Swimming will announce punishments for all four swimmers after further investigation.
“It was not perfect,” Scott Blackmun, the USOC’s CEO, said Sunday about these Olympics for Team USA. “We did have the one regretful incident with our swimmers. I think that we all understand that they let down our athletes, they let down Americans and they really let down our hosts in Rio, who did such a wonderful job. And we feel very badly about that. We understand that the things that were said about the people of Rio just weren’t true.”
Lochte takes ‘full responsibility’
On the one hand of these Olympics, there was Lochte – who can’t plausibly use a “boys will be boys” excuse since, at age 32, he is older than LeBron James. The swimmer told a series of lies (or to use his word, “over-exaggerations”) – starting with one to his mother – that unraveled over the course of a week.
By the end of the week, two of Lochte’s U.S. swimming teammates were yanked off a flight to give statements to the police about the night in question and a third was having to pay almost $11,000 in a forced “donation” to be allowed to leave the country. Lochte – who got out of Rio before everything really heated up – was dealing back in America with a reputation that had been irreparably damaged.
Lochte had always wanted to be very famous. Now he is.
“I’m taking full responsibility for it,” Lochte told Lauer in the NBC interview, “because I overexaggerated that story. And if I never had done that, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
On the other hand, there was Simone Biles – widely considered the best gymnast of her generation. Biles won four golds and a bronze for Team USA. Standing tall throughout these games at 4-foot-8, she was also selected to be the American flag-bearer in the closing ceremonies.
“Every single day that I’ve had here has been like a dream come true and it just keeps getting better, and I don’t know how I’ve been so lucky and so blessed,” Biles said Sunday.
U.S. women inspire
There were women like Biles cropping up all over the place for the U.S. – strong, successful role models in numerous sports. In a heat of the women’s 5,000, American Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealander Nikki Hamblin tripped each other up and fell. D’Agostino – who turned out to have a torn ACL – helped Hamblin to her feet and told her they needed to finish the race. Both ultimately did, and then hugged. D’Agostino had to leave the track in a wheelchair.
“That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Hamblin said of D’Agostino. “I’ve never met her before. Isn’t that just so amazing?”
And there was triathlete Gwen Jorgensen. Wrestler Helen Maroulis. Swimmers Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel. Track star Allyson Felix. All five of them won gold medals, and all acted the way you should act in another country under another set of rules. In Rio, which is nicknamed the “Marvelous City,” there was plenty to marvel over.
“My experience has been amazing,” Felix said. “I want to thank the people of Rio for all they have done welcoming us.”
Dreams and nightmares
For all the controversies coming into these Summer Games, they went off better than most expected from a logistical standpoint.
“Yes, people are going to remember the incident with the swimmers,” Blackmun, the USOC CEO, said. “But that doesn’t define these games by any means. These games for us are going to be defined by the great performances by our athletes. Despite all of the controversy leading in – whether it was water quality or Zika or security – these games have been really well-produced and enjoyed.”
For many of the U.S. athletes, this was true. The Olympics were their South American dream, as golden as the beach at Copacabana.
For four American swimmers, they were an alcohol-fueled, self-induced nightmare.
For most of the rest of us, they will be remembered for both those reasons. These were the Olympics in which our American athletes provided us twin legacies.
One of amazement.
One of disgust.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.