Oh, how the International Olympic Committee must yearn for the good old days of 1999, when revelations of bribes for bid city votes led to the worst scandal in the hoary (or should that be whorey?) history of the IOC.
Because as bad as that was, 2016 was even worse.
That is a painful irony given that years with an Olympics usually leave enough good recollections to wipe the seamier ones from the public memory bank.
Not so in 2016, even if the underlying point of this column, as it has been in each of the 30 years for which I have given international sports awards, still is to celebrate the best athletes in sports for whom an Olympic gold medal is the ultimate prize.
But only a blind Pollyanna would do that without looking at the messes that nearly all Olympic leaders relentlessly turned a blind eye to in 2016, beginning with the Rio Games themselves.
A city in far greater need of bread than circuses now is left with broken promises about quality-of- life upgrades related to the Olympics, bills it can’t pay, corruption allegations involving the outgoing mayor (a big Olympic advocate) and a legacy of sports facilities already beginning to molder.
Said the IOC in the sub-headline of a Dec. 6 story on its website: THE OLYMPIC GAMES RIO 2016 WERE A TRUE SUCCESS STORY.
Talk about the big lie.
Speaking of lies, let’s include the budget figures Tokyo bid officials used in their successful campaign for the 2020 Summer Games, which had ballooned to the point (three times the original) that even the IOC was embarrassed enough to ask Tokyo’s organizing committee to rein them in from obscene to merely indecent spending. That still was not enough reassurance for the local governments in Japan who worry about being stuck with unexpected costs.
And then there were the December reports of substantial revenue and interest shortfalls - and organizational turnover - surrounding the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
And I haven’t even mentioned the Russian doping scandal, outlined in two devastatingly detailed reports, to which IOC President Thomas “The Feckless” Bach, charter member of F.O.V. (Friends of Vlad), reacted by showing his commitment to “zero tolerance” on PED use was nothing but hot air.
The Olympic ether would be as dreadful as the Beijing smog (see this frightening video) that prevaricating Chinese officials promised they would clean up after getting the 2008 Summer Games, were it not for the athletes whose commitment, success and, in the best cases, empathy, make us briefly forget what a foul atmosphere those in charge of them have created.
And none deserve more credit for purification than 5,000-meter runners Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand and Abbey D’Agostino of the United States, who reminded us what really constitutes triumph and, in their actions, showed the essence of the easily forgotten Olympic ethos really does exist.
They tangled and fell in a heat of the Rio 5,000. First D’Agostino helped Hamblin up. Later, when the U.S. runner’s knee gave way, and she crumpled to the track, Hamblin helped D’Agostino up.
Far behind the leaders, they both made it to the finish, thanks to one another.
Each deserves a gold medal for her humanity – and a selfnessness that put a golden glow on humanity at large. And all the stars of the Rio Games, the athletes getting the “medals” in my awards, should thank them as well for creating an aura – the elusive Olympic aura - that made everyone’s achievements more meaningful.
And here are the best of them for 2016:
WORLD MEN'S ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Gold – Usain Bolt, Jamaica, track and field. Bolt may not be as fast as he was in 2008, when his first Olympic sprint triple included world records in all three (100, 200, 400 relay), but his making it a triple-triple in Rio is the most remarkable feat in the history of track and field. After all, when he did won all three in 2012, Bolt already was the only person to have won the 100 and 200 in more than one OIympics.
Silver – Michael Phelps, U.S., swimming. At 31, after four years that included personal turmoil, Phelps came to Rio for his fifth Summer Games as the most decorated Olympian ever. He left as unquestionably the greatest Olympian ever, having added five gold and six total medals to totals that, at 23 gold and 28 total, are unlikely ever to be matched.
Bronze – Kohei Uchimura, Japan, gymnastics. At 27, the married father of two became the first gymnast to win consecutive Olympic individual all-around titles since countryman Sawao Kato in 1968-72, and Uchimura also helped Japan win the team title that he felt was his most significant achievement. Greatest male gymnast ever? Hard to argue that. In 2012, Uchimura was the first to have swept all the global all-around golds (world championships and Olympics) in a quadrennium - and now he has done that twice.
WORLD WOMEN'S ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Gold – tie: Simone Biles, U.S., gymnastics, and Katie Ledecky, U.S., swimming. Few athletes in their sports ever have outclassed great competition the way these two women did in Rio. Biles, winner of three straight individual all-around world titles before Rio, won the Olympic individual all-around gold by a margin nearly twice as big any any other in the 10 years of the sport’s current scoring system. She earlier had led her "Fierce Five" team to gold by a similarly whopping margin. Biles also won gold on vault and floor exercise. Ledecky established herself as the greatest women’s distance swimmer ever by taking both the 400 and 800 freestyles in world record times, finishing one-third of a lap ahead of the runner-up in the 800. She also won the 200 free, wiped out a near 2-second deficit in anchoring the 4 x 2 free relay to gold and anchored the 4 x 1 free relay to silver.
Bronze – Elaine Thompson, Jamaica, track & field. In becoming the first woman since Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988 (and first Jamaican ever) to win the 100 and 200 meters, Thompson had the fastest wind-legal winning time ever in the Olympic 100 and the third fastest in the 200.
U.S. MALE ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Gold – Phelps (see above)
Silver – Ashton Eaton, track & field. With more ups and downs in Rio than in any of his major decathlons from 2012 on, Eaton ground himself to a near pulp in the final event, the 1,500 meters, to tie the Olympic decathlon scoring record and become the first to win consecutive Olympic decathlon titles since Great Britain’s Daley Thompson in 1980-84. Eaton, who holds the world record and won the last two outdoor and last three indoor (heptathlon) world titles, announced his retirement Wednesday.
Bronze – Alexander Massialas, fencing. After improbably rallying from a 14-7 deficit (15 points to win) in the quarters, Massialas went on to take the silver medal in foil, the best finish for a U.S. men’s fencer since 1932. He also helped the U.S. win a team bronze, thereby becoming the first U.S. man to win two fencing medals at the same OIympics since 1904.
U.S. WOMEN'S ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Gold (tie) – Biles and Ledecky (see above)
Bronze – Simone Manuel, swimming. A tie for first in the 100 with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak made Manuel the first African-American woman to win individual Olympic gold in swimming. “This medal is not just for me, it’s for a whole bunch of people who have come before me and been an inspiration to me,” she said. Later, anchoring the medley relay, Manuel earned the further distinction of helping win the 1,000th gold in U.S. Olympic history.
MEN'S PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR
Gold – Neymar, Brazil, soccer. This is an exception to my rule about these awards going to those for whom an Olympic gold medal is the biggest prize, because the men’s soccer gold medal was the biggest prize for the host country. Enigmatic and oft-criticized at home, Neymar converted the shootout penalty kick that won the final over Germany after his brilliant strike produced Brazil’s only goal in the 1-1 game. Brazil had finally won Olympic gold in the sport the country has come to symbolize.
Silver – Wayne van Niekerk, South Africa, track and field. Becoming the first to win the Olympic 400 title from lane eight, where you are running “blind,” would have been stunning enough. But Niekerk’s race was even more amazing because his winning time, 43.03 seconds, lopped .15 off Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record. In 2016, with his 9.98 for 100 meters in March, van Niekerk became the first runner to break 10 seconds in the 100, 22 seconds in the 200 and 44 seconds in the 400.
Bronze – Javier Fernandez, Spain, figure skating. The reigning champ proved his 2015 world title was no fluke by winning again with the greatest free skate in the history of the world championships, whether you judge it by the point total or the total package of jump difficulty (three flawless quads, two flawless triple axels.) entertainment quality, competitive courage and stylistic sass Fernández showed. He got 26 perfect component scores (of 45) and a whopping 44 maximum grades of execution (of 117).
WOMEN’S PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR
Gold – Gwen Jorgensen, United States, triathlon. Under the pressure of having utterly dominated her sport for three seasons, in a discipline where a random mechanical event can be your undoing (a flat tire made Jorgensen an also-ran at the 2012 Olympics), she then fended off mind-game attempts by reigning champion Nicola Spirig of Switzerland and lived up to a nickname as the Triathlon Terminator by once again crushing the field on the final (run) leg. She would win by 40 seconds, becoming the first Olympic triathlon champion from the U.S. “Four years comes down to one day,” Jorgensen said. “To be able to perform on the day is something pretty amazing.”
Silver – Yulia Efimova, Russia, swimming. Efimova was reduced to tears by boos from the crowd because of her nationality and doping history and by the finger-pointing (and worse) from holier-than-thou rivals, including the notoriously churlish Lilly King of the United States and her coach, Indiana’s Ray Looze, the latter ridiculously calling the King-Efimova matchup in the 100 breaststroke, “good versus evil.” That reaction was predictably short-sighted: Efimova had served a suspension for a substance in a supplement purchased in the U.S., where she trained - the same back story as U.S. swimmer Jessica Hardy, vilified by no one when she returned from suspension to win medals in 2012. (FYI: Three U.S. runners with past suspensions competed in Rio.) Efimova, who did not know she would have a chance to compete until the 11th hour thanks to the IOC's equivocal buck-passing on Russian eligibility, overcame all that demonizing to win silver medals in both breaststrokes. King won the 100, a gold tarnished when she showed both insularity and insensitivity some would mistakenly praise as courageous outspokenness. Efimova was the brave one.
Bronze – Ibtihaj Muhammad, U.S., fencing. In a year when U.S. Muslims were put on the defensive more than ever, Muhammad had to balance the demands of being an athlete preparing for her first Olympics with those of being a symbol – the first U.S. athlete ever to compete in hijab at the Games. Muhammad, also African-American, understood that her very presence in Rio could forever be viewed as a triumph over the antipathy, some virulent, directed toward Muslims at home. She rallied from an early knockout in the individual competition to win a bronze medal in the team event.