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.
Yet who would deny the single-gold-medal, history-making brilliance of decathlete Ashton Eaton (first to win consecutive decathlon titles since 1984), triathlete Gwen Jorgensen (first to win a triathlon title for Team USA), wrestler Helen Maroulis (first U.S. woman to win gold in her sport while beating a legendary three-time champion to do it) and Kristin Armstrong (the first cyclist to win a third straight title in the same event, the time trial, and, at 43, the oldest woman to win gold since a British archer 108 years ago).
And that list could also include Simone Manuel, first black U.S. woman to win an individual swimming gold medal; Matthew Centrowitz, first U.S. champion in the metric mile since the Cubs last won a World Series (1908); judoka Kayla Harrison, a sexual abuse victim as a young teen, four years ago the first U.S. Olympic judo champion in 2012, now a second straight gold giving her an even greater chance to speak out about sexual abuse of children; Michelle Carter, impassioned advocate for positive body image among girls and the first U.S. woman to win the shot put; high hurdler Brianna Rollins, who led the first-ever U.S. sweep of an Olympic women’s track event; Claressa Shields, winning a second straight boxing gold.
Or the U.S. women’s water polo and basketball teams and the gymnastics Final Five and the women’s eight crew.
Speaking of teams, the United States just had its greatest medal haul since the boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Comparisons are tricky because of the constant increase in events and medals available, so let’s put it in this context: Team USA led not only in total medals (121) but also in golds (46), silvers (37) and bronzes (38). That hadn’t happened since 1948.
And women won 61 of those U.S. medals (plus five in mixed gender events). If the U.S. women were a separate country, they would rank fourth in total medals and tied for second in golds.
The overwhelming success of U.S. athletes in track and field (32 medals), swimming (33) and artistic gymnastics (12) accounted for nearly two-thirds of the total. Yet who would dare discount medals like the air rifle gold won by Ginny Thrasher in the first completed event of these Olympics, giving Team USA an unexpected day one triumph?
Yes, a U.S. swimmer’s bad behavior attracted a lot of attention in a world that apparently can’t get enough of such stories. But it was other actions by U.S. athletes that got my attention and that will be my lasting images from these Games:
*Swimmer Manuel’s poignant thank-you to all those black swimmers who preceded her and who had inspired her, followed by her expression of hope to be an inspiration to those coming after her.
*Each member of the women’s water polo team hanging her gold medal around the neck of their coach, Adam Krikorian, whose brother died of a heart attack five days before the Opening Ceremony. Krikorian returned to California to be with his family, then was back in Brazil in time for his team’s first game.
*Triple jumper Will Claye doing another leap, into the stands, before dropping to his knees with an American flag on his shoulders and proposing marriage to 2008 Olympian Queen Harrison minutes after he won a second straight Olympic bronze medal in the event. She said, “Yes.”
*Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who helped win a bronze in team saber, eloquently discussing what it meant to be the first U.S. athlete to wear hijab while competing in the Olympics.
*Golfer Matt Kuchar saying the pride was bursting out of his chest as he won bronze in his sport’s return to the Olympics after a 112-year absence.
*Distance runner Abbey D’Agostino joining with New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin in a moment that forever will epitomize the often elusive Olympic spirit.
It was recognized as such Friday when the International Fair Play Committee gave them Fair Play awards for “acts of selflessness and exemplary sportsmanship.” Each looked beyond herself after their collision and fall in a prelim of the 5,000-meter, stopping to help the other finish the race. No one, the committee said, had exemplified excellence, friendship, respect, fair play and the human spirit at the Rio Olympics more than these two women.
D’Agostino left Rio with crutches, shredded knee, no medal and proof, no matter your perspective, that not only stars shine at an OIympics.
She made each of Team USA’s many medals shine even brighter.
Philip Hersh, who just covered his 18th Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.