As Winter Games loom, skier and skater were world's best in an odd 2017

As Winter Games loom, skier and skater were world's best in an odd 2017

The Olympic cycle, like the calendar, has odd years and even years.

The even years, like 2018, include an Olympics, in this case the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The odd years, like the one that just ended, are not devoid of big events in international sports.  And 2017 was full of them, but the overriding feeling was of a year that was just plain odd – and, at times, depressingly sad.

For the second annus horribilis in a row, athletes have saved Olympic sport from itself and its feckless leaders.  Celebrating their excellence is the best way to express hope for a better 2018.

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Of The Golden Stars Of Rio – And Those Who Made All Medals Shine Brighter

Who was the biggest star of the 2016 Olympics?

It depends on your point of view.

From a global perspective, the answer is undoubtedly Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, because track and field is one of the two most widely followed and played sports in the worlds (soccer is the other). And the world’s fastest man is the most prized Olympic distinction. And Bolt’s triple-triple, consecutive Olympic golds in the 100, 200 and sprint relay, may last as long as our galaxy.

From the host nation’s perspective, it would have to be Neymar, who scored the lone goal and the decisive penalty kick as Brazil won its first Olympic title in soccer. Neymar was Sidney Crosby 2010 redux: the athlete assuring soul-salving gold in his country’s national sport.

From a U.S. perspective, the choice isn’t as clear-cut, as Sports Illustrated showed with a cover featuring swimmers Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps and gymnast Simone Biles, whom it called, “The Greatests.” Plural.

While that SI issue focused on just the first week of Olympic action, the three cover athletes essentially played a successful game of “Can you top this?” Ledecky won four gold medals and a silver and set two world records; Phelps won five golds and a silver, improving his record Olympic totals to 23 golds and 28 total; Biles won four golds, a bronze and the acclaim of venerable coach Martha Karolyi as the greatest gymnast of all time.

Whether you think someone topped those three as the No. 1 Team USA athlete will depend on whether you think an athlete who did brilliantly in his or her only Olympic event should get equal credit with athletes whose sports provide the opportunity to win multiple medals.

I tend to come down on the side of multiples, especially when the achievements were as remarkable as those of Ledecky, Phelps and Biles. If forced to pick one, I would go for…nope, not doing that. Sorry. Don’t want to be trolled to distraction.


How Michael Phelps Changed My Mind: Now (And Forever?) He Has Become The Greatest Olympian Of All Time

RIO DE JANEIRO – The crowd at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium was different Tuesday night.

It reacted unlike the swimming crowds had the first three nights of the Olympic meet, when the loudest noise had been reserved for Brazilian athletes, none of whom had yet contended for medals. I suddenly felt as if I were at a Passover seder, hearing the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

The difference was a chance to see an athlete for the ages, to see him firsthand in his first individual final of these Olympics, a moment of universal significance, a moment the spectators relished.

When Michael Phelps was announced at the start of the 200-meter butterfly, the crowd roared and roared.

It was that way at the end, too, after Phelps had extracted payback for his loss in the event four years ago. He straddled a lane line, flexed his right arm, put the index finger of each hand in the air. The noise grew. Phelps gestured with his hands, asking the crowd for more, and they responded with fervor.

The victory and the acclaim, for his swimming achievements and his impact on the sport and the Olympics, all of it has combined to convince me of something I had argued against in the past.

Michael Phelps is no longer just the most decorated Olympian of all time and the best swimmer of all time.

He is the greatest Olympian of all time.



Repetitive brilliance defines Katie Ledecky



It is repetition that defines Katie Ledecky. You see it when she stands on the starting block, waiting for the signals that begin a race, pushing and pulling on her swim cap several times, using her hands and elbows and the crook of her arm to fiddle with her goggles. It is why, for reasons she cannot remember, she claps her hands three times just before the beep to dive into the pool, a ritual that has always worked and therefore stands as its own reason.

There is comfort in doing things the same way. At critical moments, it removes the confusion of change. And yet, at the moment the world first saw the record-breaking swimming that would become the emblematic definition of Ledecky, it also saw a 15-year-old with the presence of mind to realize there was a time to let the ritual go.

It was just before the 800-meter freestyle final at the 2012 London Olympics. Ledecky could barely hear the starter given the noise from a crowd determined to will the Brit, Rebecca Adlington, to a second straight Olympic gold medal in the race. Ledecky worried about being late to take her mark if she clapped, worried that everyone else would leave her behind at the start. She was the youngest of 532 athletes on the U.S. team, in many eyes a very unexpected qualifier, so why wouldn't she feel a little uncertain?

She thought about the karmic consequences of breaking the routine and the value of playing it safe. Then she gave in to a bit of teenage angst.

"I was like, 'I don't want to embarrass myself and not go when everyone else does,'" she said.

A little more than eight minutes later, the crowd would do the clapping. Beating the field (including the favored Adlington, who finished third) by more than four seconds, Ledecky was Olympic champion. She also broke the U.S. record set 23 years earlier by Janet Evans, the four-time Olympic champion and multiple world-record setter who remains a standard against whom all women's distance swimmers are judged.

It was the beginning of the pattern with which Katie Ledecky has defined herself in a sport where doing something over and over again is necessary to succeed, where she has had one stunning swim after another. World record after world record, world title after world title.

For my whole long form profile of Katie on ESPN.COM, click here

For Phelps & Lochte, another matchless episode of long-running hit

    Gonna take a sentimental journey
    Gonna set my heart at ease
    Gonna make a sentimental journey
    To renew old memories

           -- From the classic 1945 No. 1 hit song, “Sentimental Journey”

OMAHA, Neb. – They should have cleared everyone else out of the pool, leaving Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in a match race, because that is what Friday night’s final of the 200-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming turned out to be.


No one expected anything else from the two men who have battled each other for global supremacy in the event over 13 years, creating the greatest rivalry in the history of their sport.

And the two 31-year-olds now have a chance to do it one more time at the 2016 Olympics next month in Rio.

“It isn’t over,” Lochte said. “We’ve still got another month to put everything together and really give the world a show.”

There never has been a longer-running hit in the sport.