Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Rio Olympics Review: It Was The Best Of Times; It Was The Worst Of Times

Looking back on Rio

Hard as it may be to believe, the Rio Olympics are now done and dusted. Four years of preparation, four years of early mornings, four years of squeezing in an extra session on your ‘off’ day to help pave the way to the podium. It either worked, or it didn’t. One thing is certain — we’re all better for it.

But Rio, in many ways, was a dichotomy—in other words, it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. Here’s what I mean.

With all due respect to Charles Dickens, let’s start with the worst of times. (It’s always better that way, isn’t it?)

Whether you saw it from my perspective or from that of Megan Kalmoe, there was no getting around the onslaught of bad press surrounding the Olympics in the final days before the Games began. Perhaps the most controversial topic, er, ‘swirling’ around the venues was that of the water quality — it had been long documented prior to the Opening Ceremonies that the water in Rio’s Olympic rowing and sailing venues was highly contaminated. Even at last year’s World Rowing Junior Championships, teams were bleaching oar handles and people were coming down with illnesses that seemed eerily like something they might have gotten from an overabundance of bacteria, even if it couldn’t be proved that they had been infected by the waters of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Ironically, despite years of media reports of raw sewage being dumped into Rio’s waterways, the only ‘water trouble’ that the rowers at the Rio Games encountered had less to do with the water itself, and more to do with the wind whipping it up into swells that made conditions, in a word, challenging on Day One of the racing, and even resulted in multiple race cancellations over the course of the Olympic regatta. Hey, that’s what you get when you stage ‘Summer’ Games in midwinter.

Another issue that reached beyond rowing this quadrennium, but which did have a great effect on the rowing events, was the doping ban levied against nearly all Russian rowers and track athletes at the Olympics. Not only did those athletes see their careers (and lives) irrevocably changed, it also meant that crews from other nations, who had thought their Olympic dreams dashed, were suddenly back in business, and had to prepare as best they could to race at the highest level with only a few days’ notice before the main event. And, the results were fairly predictable — it’s tough to shut it down, and then try to rev up the engines to their maximum output once again in the same year, let alone the same month.

However, despite all the negative press, the late changes, the weather patterns, and the cloud of doping that hung over the Games at the outset, the end results of the Olympic regatta were not only memorable in their own right, they were downright historical.

First, you had competitors who are, without question, some of the best rowing athletes ever to grace the water going head to head in their fifth, sixth, and even seventh Olympics. We may never see the likes of Ekaterina Karsten again. While she landed in the B Final in the women’s single this time around, she may be the best rowing athlete in the history of our sport — watching Karsten race is something that you should be telling your future children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren about, just as watching Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron hitting a home run would be a treasured memory.

Another name that comes to mind: Olaf Tufte. Does it get any better than a guy who trains partly by chainsawing trees on his farm in Norway, and then wins medals with startling regularity? And then, of course, there was ‘Katherine the Great.’

Then there were the streaks — the unbeatable crews that stayed that way. The Kiwi Pair. The GB women’s pair (maybe equally impressive, in some ways, given that Heather Stanning took time away from rowing after winning gold in London to serve in the British military, doing a tour of duty in Afghanistan). The U.S. women’s eight — imperious as ever in Rio. (On the U.S. men’s side, however, the results were historical for the wrong reasons, unfortunately, with the men’s eight coming closest to the podium in fourth place, and and squad returning without a medal for the first time since 1912—of that, more to come this week.) Jürgen Grobler showing why he may be the best coach in the history of rowing (more on that later as well).

All that before we even get to the closest Olympic rowing race, ever.



‘That race’ is one that also deserves a closer look, with some arguing that Damir Martin should have been awarded a gold medal along with Mahé Drysdale, given the way results are handled in other sports (for the most part, times identical to hundredths of a second are considered ties.) We’ll discuss the pros and cons of that debate later this week here on RR.

Check out the upcoming issue of ROWING Magazine for much more on the Olympic regatta in Rio, and why, for so many reasons, it was an important event in the history of our sport.

Now, it’s for the history books. And, just as Dickens predicted, “some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Guilty, as charged.

-Bryan

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